Founders Biographies

"Not one of the Amherst subscribers to this fund was accounted a rich man, even in those days of limited fortunes; they gave not of their abundance, but of their poverty; not because they could spare the money, but because the interests of education demanded it."  

--Carpenter & Morehouse, History of the Town of Amherst, Massachusetts

Samuel Fowler Dickinson (1775-1838)

Samuel Fowler Dickinson, father of Edward and grandfather of Emily, was born in Amherst and despite being the youngest in his class at Dartmouth College, delivered the Salutatory Oration in Latin at his graduation.  Widely known as one of the most preeminent lawyers in all New England, he was the beginning of three generations of the Dickinson family that helped lead the town of Amherst.

Described as the soul of the movement that led to the founding of Amherst Academy, he was relentless in providing for the foundation on which the College was built.  His belief was so strong that he pledged his personal property to ensure some of the first loans the College took to fund its earliest operations.

As Tyler pointed out in his A History of Amherst College, "The enlargement of the plan from a mere separate Collegiate Institution was expressly owing to Mr. Dickinson's suggestion and influence...If Colonel Graves was the locomotive, Esq. Dickinson was the engineer of the train.  If Colonel Graves was the hand, Esq. Dickinson was the head in the founding and rearing of Amherst College.  It is doubtful if the College would ever have been built without them both."

Colonel Rufus Graves (1758-1845)

Rufus Graves was born in Sunderland and graduated from Dartmouth College in 1791.  He was made a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army in 1799 under President John Adams in anticipation of a war with the French that did not come to pass, and he never had to serve.  He lectured on chemistry at Dartmouth from 1812 until 1815 and did the same at Amherst during the College's first year.  A man of extraordinary energy and a dreamer whose enthusiasms were renowned, he was the architect of the first bridge to cross the Connecticut River, connecting Hanover, New Hampshire and Norwich, Vermont.

Colonel Graves believed passionately in the importance of the College, and he traveled the countryside raising money for Amherst's Charity Fund.  His efforts were so extensive that his horse was as familiar a sight as he was across the Pioneer Valley and beyond.  In fact, even after the horse was sold, the animal was so used to turning into every house during the Colonel's solicitation visits that he persisted in the habit with his new owner.  A tireless fundraiser, Colonel Graves was unable to sustain his own business as a pharmacist or to maintain his attempts at farming.  His wife, also a dedicated supporter of the College, kept things afloat as best she could, and eventually the family moved to Ohio.  Colonel Graves died there in 1845.

In a 1921 article published in the Amherst Graduates' Quarterly, W.S. Tyler wrote about Colonel Graves, "No one man founded Amherst College, but among many who were instrumental Colonel Rufus Graves deserves to be remembered with especial gratitude.  His enthusiasm for the Collegiate and Charitable Institution at Amherst refused to be balked by any obstacle, and when others declared the project impossible, he accomplished the raising of the Charity Fund of $50,000 which called the College into being."

Nathaniel Smith (1759-1833)

Nathaniel Smith was the founder and president of the Sunderland Bank and served as a trustee from 1821 until 1825.  He was a member of the Prudential Committee and was by far the largest pecuniary benefactor of the College during its first ten years.

When Adam Johnson bequeathed the $4,000 that would fund the building of Johnson Chapel, his will was contested by members of the family.  It was Nathaniel Smith who helped to show that the gift was what Johnson had truly wanted, and he made Johnson Chapel a reality for the College.

At the time of his death, Mr. Smith was worth $30,000.  He had already given the College $8,000 during his lifetime.  In his will, he gave an additional $4,000.  In his eulogy, Amherst President Heman Humphrey said of Smith, "He was not in word only, but in deed and in truth, the friend of education upon the most elevated Christian principles.  Considering that he belonged to a former age, and was not himself a liberally educated man, the interest which he felt in our higher seminaries of learning was very remarkable.  He rejoiced exceedingly, in the rise and progress of all the great benevolent institutions of the day..."

Sampson Vryling Stoddard Wilder (1780-1865)

Sampson Vryling Stoddard Wilder

S.V.S. Wilder was born in Massachusetts and began working at the age of 14.  His father, a man of renowned energy and honesty, died when Wilder was a boy, and the son was apprenticed to a family friend who helped him find his way.  While working in Boston as a young man, Wilder was the first person in the United States to be vaccinated (he was the only one willing to undergo the procedure).  A man with a reputation for incredible industry and strong religious beliefs, he spent his middle years in Paris as a silk merchant.  He returned to America a success and built a large home in his hometown of Bolton.  Wilder then dedicated himself to charitable causes, including the building of churches and colleges, Amherst among them.

Mr. Wilder served as a trustee from 1824 until 1841, when he resigned because he could no longer support the College financially at the level he wanted.  He was a man who believed in devoting himself to a cause to his fullest.  In his service as a trustee, he managed the Charity Fund.  When an auditor from the state arrived in Amherst in 1824 to assess the viability of the College, Wilder wrote check after check to guarantee that open pledges to the Charity Fund would be fulfilled.  The auditor, furious and frustrated, said he had not come to raise money for Amherst.  Wilder's willingness to ensure that the College was solvent saved the day and Amherst's existence.

In a letter to one of his sisters written in 1801, he said, "Remember that as nothing in this life is to be secured without labor, so the weight and invaluable treasures of erudition are only to be acquired by exertions vigorously made and unremittingly continued."  Toward the end of his life, Mr. Wilder wrote 67 maxims addressed to his grandsons about how to live an honorable life.  His principles helped to shape the College's earliest years.

Hezekiah Wright Strong (1768-1848)

H. Wright Strong was one of the founders of Amherst Academy and served as a member of the Board of Overseers of the Charity Fund from 1821 until his death in 1848.  He often jokingly referred to himself as the grandfather, if not the father, of Amherst College.  Strong was the son of Judge Simeon Strong, a prominent man in Amherst and beyond.  Although he was not a college graduate, H. Wright Strong was deeply interested in education.  He studied law in his father's office and practiced as an attorney both in Deerfield and Amherst.

A successful merchant who kept a store in the center of Amherst, Strong was later the town's postmaster and justice of the peace.  He signed Elijah Dickinson's deed to the land given to the College in 1818.  He built the town's first ice house and bathing house and was described as "an energetic man, tireless in laboring for any cause that enlisted his interest, progressive, by many deemed visionary."  Strong was part of a small group of men who petitioned the state to form Amherst Academy, built in 1814, and his daughter, Sarah, became a teacher at the Academy at the age of 16.  Mary Lyon was educated at the coeducational school before she felt inspired to begin Mount Holyoke College in 1837.

It was Strong who chose College Hill as the site for Amherst, and on a moonlit night, he, along with Colonel Graves, marked the spot where the first building would be built.  Strong was one of the original signers of the $15,000 guarantee bond that began the project, and he was instrumental in securing the land on which the College was built from the late Colonel Elijah Dickinson.