About John Harvard, A.M.
John Harvard (26 November 1607 – 14 September 1638) was an English minister in America whose deathbed bequest to the "schoale or Colledge" recently authorized by the Massachusetts Bay Colony was so gratefully received that it was subsequently ordered "that the Colledge agreed upon formerly to bee built at Cambridg shalbee called Harvard Colledge."
Besides the bare facts given here, very little else is known about John Harvard the man. We do know for sure that he gave up a life of relative ease in England in order to set out for an uncertain life as an immigrant in the New World. In 1842, the former head of the Massachusetts Historical Society, James Savage, went to England with the express purpose of trying to find out more about him. He did not succeed, other than finding John's signatures when taking his degrees at Emmanuel College in Cambridge. Savage remarked that
"he would gladly give five hundred dollars to get five lines about [John Harvard] in any capacity, public or private." (Waters, 1885, op. cit., p. 3).
But more information was not forthcoming.
Only a little more than a year elapsed between the summer of 1637, when the Harvards arrived in Massachusetts, and September 14, 1638, when John died of consumption. During this period he became a valued resident of Charlestown, where he was called to be the church’s "teacher," one of its two clergymen. In Harvard, Charlestown had a passionate preacher who in the brief time left to him spoke "with teares [of] affection strong."
By the time the Harvards settled in Charlestown John must already have been in failing health. It is easy to imagine his clerical colleagues, perhaps including old Emmanuel friends, visiting him with updates on the progress of the new college in Cambridge. They were aware that he had an imposing library—some 400 volumes. They might even have known about the wealth he had inherited from his family.
Consumption kills slowly. By the time Harvard died, he knew what he wanted to do with his estate. Of course he had to take care of his wife, who received half his money. The remainder, £800 (twice the sum granted by the colony’s General Court in 1636 for the establishment of a college) and his entire library, he gave to the new school in Cambridge. The bequest ensured that his name would never be forgotten.
- Harvard family. The John Harvard family collection, 1577, 1622, and 1828-2007. HUG 1447, Harvard University Archives..
- "The Ancestry of John Harvard" Genealogical Gleanings in England, Volume 2. By Henry Fitz-Gilbert Waters, New England Historic Genealogical Society. Page vi, Preface. "in July, 1635, Katherine (Harvard) (Elletson) Yearwood made her will and died, leaving her property, which had been derived from her three husbands, the butcher, the cooper, and the grocer, to her two sons, John and Thomas Harvard ..."