College records

Harvard 1921 and Columbia 1873

In the books I have written (or co-authored) in the last twenty years or so – on the Thorndike, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, and Winthrop families – I have usually noted the academic histories of family members as well as the more usual genealogical data. I’m occasionally asked why, and until recently I didn’t really have an answer.

While I generally answered that college and university records could help flesh out a sparse biographical narrative for someone treated in one of these books, I would now add that, often, they help keep the genealogist honest. After all, someone born in 1940 wouldn’t be likely to graduate from college in 1954, while a late graduation date begs further study. At the very least, a focus on filling in this area helps distinguish Charles Smith from Chad Smith – not to mention Charles Chad Smith!

I recently found a document that has been sitting on my computer for some years. Driven by some compulsion, I evidently sat down one day to document the colleges family members had attended. (Perhaps it was in view of my niece and nephews’ upcoming college applications, in 2023 and 2029 or so.) Still, it was an interesting endeavor, for, again, college and university records – and class reunion books – can be rich sources of information on our relatives.

Based on this unscientific study, Princeton would be a good place to look for data on my great-great-great-great-grandfather, Jacob Le Roy (Jr.), Class of 1783. The son of a prosperous New York merchant – whose French and Dutch ancestry would be the focus of the 2003 Le Roy genealogy I wrote with my cousin Newbold Le Roy 3rd – Jacob went on to marry Martha Banyer, the daughter (and eventual heiress) of Goldsbrow/Goldsborough Banyar/Banyer, a long-lived colonial administrator who did well out of Albany County real estate.

It is surely a coincidence that a Princeton man married the granddaughter of another Princeton man – there don’t seem to be any other visible Princeton connections – but there it is!

The other Princeton connection, interestingly enough, is my great-great-grandfather John Steward (1835) and his brother Daniel Jackson Steward (1837). John married Jacob’s granddaughter, Catharine Elizabeth White, the daughter of Campbell Patrick White and Harriet Banyer Le Roy. It is surely a coincidence that a Princeton man married the granddaughter of another Princeton man – there don’t seem to be any other visible Princeton connections – but there it is!

John and Catharine’s sons went not to Princeton but to Columbia University, a streetcar ride away from the family house on the corner of Twenty-first Street in New York. John Steward (Jr.), the elder, graduated from Columbia in 1868; his brother Campbell combined college and law school, it would appear, graduating with an LL.B. in 1873. And there was another in-law connection, since John and Campbell’s sister Harriet married Augustus Van Horne Stuyvesant, Columbia 1859.

Something of a family tradition was maintained in the next generation, since Campbell White Steward graduated from Columbia in 1909 and Hallett Johnson (who married Katherine Elizabeth Steward in 1920) received a degree from Columbia’s law school in 1911.[1]

My grandfather and his younger brother – both more than a decade younger than Uncle Campbell – broke out of the (not very sturdy) family mold and went to Harvard. Uncle John did not marry, but my grandfather did: my grandmother’s large family had multiple connections to Harvard, in her father (Charles Fanning Ayer, 1887), uncles (1886, 1899, 1911),[2] and aunt (a student at the Harvard Annex, later Radcliffe College); shortly after my grandparents married, my grandmother’s sister married another Harvard man (1926).

It is important to remember the distaff side, of course, since my grandfather ventured from New York to Cambridge in the footsteps of his mother’s sisters’ husbands…

It is important to remember the distaff side, of course, since my grandfather ventured from New York to Cambridge in the footsteps of his mother’s sisters’ husbands: William Pratt Lyman (1883) and Amos Tuck French (1885). After my grandmother died, my grandfather married the widow of a man in the class of 1927, and when my father went to Harvard in the 1950s he was bookended by his three stepbrothers.

For me, this Harvard connection has been a genealogical boon, since the Harvard class books are generous even by the standards of college reunion annuals. Some years ago I wrote about a great-great-great-great-uncle in the Harvard class of 1830, whose loving portrait by a niece gave such a complete portrait of a life that, even in the 1880s, seemed remote.

What Cousin Caroline’s biographical notice also did was indicate to me that the Foster family had indeed known a great deal about its forebears, back in the 1820s, and that a sort of natural amnesia had operated in my grandfather’s day – necessitating a modern review of the family history that only just offers a fuller account than the one compiled by a Victorian lady more than a century ago!


[1] He graduated from Williams College in 1908.

[2] Another uncle graduated from Yale (1911) and Harvard Law School (1914).

About Scott C. Steward

Scott C. Steward was the founding editor at Vita Brevis; he served as NEHGS Editor-in-Chief 2013-2022. He is the author, co-author, or editor of genealogies of the Ayer, Le Roy, Lowell, Saltonstall, Thorndike, and Winthrop families. His articles have appeared in The New England Historical and Genealogical Register, NEXUS, New England Ancestors, American Ancestors, and The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, and he has written book reviews for the Register, The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and the National Genealogical Society Quarterly.

11 thoughts on “College records

  1. Hi Scott,

    Listing college education for ancestors certainly make them more complete people. It implies intellect, ambition and socio-economic status.

    I discovered my g g grandfather George Burton received his Harvard medical degree in 1859 after completing a one year program. He was a surgeon in the civil war or proverbial “bone cutter” to use the crude term of the time.

    If my research is correct medical students then were not required to have an undergraduate degree. Can any one confirm this? Certainly a far cry from the standard today.

    Another g grandfather, from RI, in 1880, read for the law as was quite common then but severe rheumatic fever, affecting his eye sight, railroaded his ambition.

    My oldest ancestor with a college degree to date was Rhode Island founder, Roger Williams who graduated from Cambridge. I believe it was required for Puritan ministers to be ‘learned’ men meaning one with college education. While other denominations in the 1660’s held no such requirement such as the Quakers and Baptists etc.

  2. Scott, is there a further college connection between Amos Tuck French, Harvard 1885, and Edward Tuck, whose donation in 1900 resulted in the founding of the Amos Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth??

  3. At least you look at the colleges, etc., for all. My mother-in-law’s family genealogy did not mention any colleges until she got to herself, her husband and her daughter. When we updated the genealogy, her daughter and I could not convince her to do all or none. She is deceased now and the fourth edition has had their schools dropped.

  4. In addition to rounding out more information on my grandfather and how he paid for college and law school, I have used his college records to uncover the name of his mother’s second husband, something that had eluded the sparse information in the family.

  5. Iowa State University’s alumni offices were very helpful, sending me copies of relevant letters in their files for the Guthrie brothers. The University of Minnesota was equally so for the Guthrie cousins, who graduated from both the arts & sciences program and the medical college. Little Allegheny College surprised me by finding a Record of an ancestor who attended in 1841. Other schools have been harder to crack, Some of these young people were in Greek organizations, which had their records. In another line, two collateral ancestors were college trustees, and these schools had good records of these men, in one case his diary. And, in England, Oxford and Cambridge alumni accounts have been productive places to start.

    Thank you for reminding me of this!

  6. We shouldn’t forget the rich source of information and photographs from college athletics. My grandfather Richard Weske was a right tackle at University of Michigan football squad under legendary Coach Fielding Yost, in 1915 (guard and tackle), 1916 and 1917. Records of each game, the wins, the losses and the top plays are well recorded, usually with biographies of the players at the archives of the colleges’ sports files, So are photos from the games, the squads and news articles. Go blue!

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