In November 1806, the legislature of the Indiana Territory chartered the first university on Indiana soil, to be located in the territorial capitol of Vincennes. The charter act provided a township of land, the sales of which would support the new university, and specified a board of trustees, with twenty-three members, to meet in December and “commence their operations.”
The board was led by the governor of the territory, William Henry Harrison, and members were among the leading citizens of the town. The charter set out an ambitious future: four professors would teach “Latin, Greek, French, and English languages, Mathematics, Natural Philosophy, Logic, ancient and modern History, Rhetoric and the law of Nature and Nations.” There were also provisions for a future “school for females” and a grammar school for younger scholars.
From the first meeting of the board, however, reality fell short of expectations—an advertisement went out for the head of a grammar school to be a “department” of the university. With only one (apparently unqualified) applicant, it was the summer of 1807 until a call went out for students. At a cost of $16 per year, only five potential scholars came forward.
It was 1811 when the board tried again—a school conducted by a local Presbyterian minister was taken under the board’s control and in May the first classes under the auspices of Vincennes University were held. The school continued under various teachers until it closed in 1818. In 1823, the board appointed an Episcopalian minister to serve as president of the school, which re-opened in December 1823 and in 1824 was renamed as the Knox County Seminary. Like other colleges in the young republic, Vincennes University grew slowly, in fits and starts, and finally by 1838 was legally reconstituted under its proper title.
By legal charter, Indiana could boast of a university ten years before it achieved statehood; in reality, in 1806 Vincennes was on the frontier of white settlement. Transportation was limited; land sales from the dedicated township were insufficient to fund a school and few settlers could afford the cost of tuition. By the 1820s, political struggles between board members had resulted in additional state funding for a university being claimed by Monroe County for its proposed new seminary (which would become Indiana University). But Vincennes University would continue to grow, and struggle for adequate funding, throughout much of the nineteenth century.
Today, the modern university sits on a 160-acre campus and enrolls over 17,000 students per year. From 1806, the school’s board had kept alive the ideal that higher education would be available not only along the settled eastern coast but on the western frontier of the growing United States.
Sources: Howard Burnett, “Early History of Vincennes University,” Indiana Magazine of History 29 (June 1933); Matthew E. Walsh, “An Old Wound Finally Healed: Vincennes University’s Struggle for Survival,” Indiana Magazine of History 84 (September 1988); Robert Constantine, ed., “Minutes of the Board of Trustees for Vincennes University, Indiana Magazine of History 59 (December 1963).
A Moment of Indiana History is a production of WFIU Public Radio in partnership with the Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations. Research support comes from Indiana Magazine of History published by the Indiana University Department of History.