This 1920s-era postcard shows Bates College buildings and a seal of the college with an 1863 date for its founding. Private collection

LEWISTON – The first glimmering of what became Bates College began with a disaster: the burning of the main building at Parsonfield Seminary in New Hampshire at midnight on the first day of fall in 1854.

The next day, a Free Will Baptist pastor in Augusta, Oren Burbank Cheney, got word of the calamity.

That night, his wife later wrote, Cheney had “a vision” of a new and more elaborate school, centrally located in Maine, that he had both the background and fortitude to shepherd into existence. Cheney ultimately became the founder of Bates College.

“September 22, 1854, was always to him the birth-night, not only of Maine State Seminary but of Bates College also, for the latter is but a natural outgrowth of the former,” Emeline Burlingame Cheney wrote in her 1907 biography of her late husband.

Her book, published by the college, has a version of the Bates College seal stamped on its cover. The date given for Bates’ founding on that seal? 1863. It was the year the first college freshman class began its studies in Lewiston.

That date can also be found on postcards and tobacco advertising from the same era.


Yet the college itself held giant parties when it turned 50, and on its 75th birthday and then again when it hit the 100-year mark as if the college was founded in 1864. Those celebrations were held in 1914, 1939 and 1964.

For much of the 20th century, in fact, the official seal used by the college listed its founding year as 1864, honoring the issuance in 1864 of a legislative charter for Bates College.

That’s the year shown on the cover of a history of the college published in 1933 and the masthead of the student newspaper for many years. The date is even on a matchbook from the 1950s.

In 1964, the Bates yearbook, The Mirror, devoted its issue to a recounting of the college’s first century and the events that marked it on campus. The book’s title page said, “1964, The Centennial Year.”

Take a look at the college’s seal now, though, and yet another year is designated for the origin of Bates College: 1855.

By today’s reckoning, the college held its centennial 109 years after that.


So if there’s one thing that’s crystal clear, it’s that determining a college’s birthday can be trickier than it seems.

Bates’ founding year cannot be 1854, 1855, 1863 and 1864.

It doesn’t help that Lewiston’s newspapers have done no better. Back in 1883, someone even wrote in to ask the Lewiston Evening Journal when Bates was founded. Its answer? 1863. It didn’t explain why.

It isn’t a simple answer, though.

One early reference specifically citing Bates’ founding year was an 1872 issue of the Methodist Magazine and Quarterly, which pointed to 1864 as the magic moment.

Yet Bates decided about 1980 that it would drop 1864 from use and instead use 1855 as the year it came into existence, a decision pushed by its fifth president, T. Hedley Reynolds, a historian, and has stuck by it ever since.


The college celebrated its sesquicentennial in 2005, just 41 years after its centennial.

It appears very few people noticed the timing had gone awry.

One who did was a reporter for the Bates student newspaper, who asked Reynolds about it. His answer? “The date wasn’t changed.”

Odd, too is that the thinly explained and almost secretive decision by Bates’ fifth president should carry the day when its first and second presidents, who lived through the creation of the college, explicitly rejected the thinking that led to Reynolds’ choice.


Oren Cheney, founder of Bates College, as shown in his wife’s 1907 biography of him. The Life and Works of Oren B. Cheney

Once Cheney got it in his head that there ought to be a new institution of higher learning in Maine, mostly to help churn out ministers and educators, he pressed the issue with a vigor he displayed his entire life.


Cheney, a pastor, convinced friends in the Maine Legislature to endorse the plan and approve a charter on March 16, 1855, for the Maine State Seminary. Its brand-new board held its first meeting less than a month later.

Some squabbling about where to build it consumed some attention, but Lewiston ultimately prevailed as the best available site, with the Lewiston Evening Journal’s editor among those pushing hard for the location. It helped that town leaders uniformly and firmly embraced the idea.

On June 26, 1856, construction began on Hathorn Hall, with Parker Hall swiftly following, and in 1857, the new school opened its doors with 115 students and six teachers.

From the start, the Maine State Seminary offered something fresh to New England: the chance for young women to get an education right alongside their male counterparts. It wasn’t a college or a preparatory school. It was something akin to a fitting school.

Keeping students enrolled in the slightly unusual institution was tricky because of iffy finances for both the seminary and its students — many of whom were needed back home on the farm, as a January 1859 letter from teacher Rachel Symonds to student Angenette Davis of Lisbon makes clear.

Symonds urged her to return for the spring semester so “your life will amount to something.”


Students who were able to stick it out wanted to make sure they could emerge with more than a diploma from a fledgling seminary.

By 1861 and 1862 they were asking rather persistently if the seminary could become a college, broadening its educational offerings. And Cheney, who probably always had the same idea, took up the cause.

In 1862, the Legislature amended the seminary’s charter to allow it to “establish a collegiate department in connection within said Seminary.”

In the fall of 1863, it began offering college instruction to 22 students. Eight of them would eventually graduate in 1867 at Bates’ first commencement.

In 1864, when tuition at Bates hit $11 per term, the Legislature agreed to change the school’s name as well, renaming it Bates College to honor Benjamin Bates, a Boston merchant whose generosity impressed Cheney. The seminary continued alongside for about six more years before becoming part of the college’s theology department.

One more notable institutional thing at the college occurred in 1870: The Cobb Divinity School, the collegiate arm of Parsonfield Seminary, moved to Bates, ultimately merging with the college in 1908 as its theology department. Cobb was founded in 1840.



A 1910 Murad Tobacco card that shows a Bates College seal using the founding date of 1863. Private collection

Reynolds, the fifth president of Bates, didn’t like the longstanding use of 1864 for Bates’ origin.

He wrote in 1988 that “like all colleges I know of, Bates takes its proper founding date from the founding of the corporation, regardless of later changes in name or modifications of purpose.”

“For example, Mount Holyoke was founded as a women’s seminary in 1836. It did not become a college until late in the 1800s. It uses 1836 as its founding date. Princeton began life as the College of New Jersey. It uses the date of that institution as its founding date,” Reynolds wrote.

At his urging, Bates quietly and thoroughly changed the date it claims for its origin

starting about 1980, halfway through Reynolds’ 22-year stint as college president.


Bates now says firmly that it began in 1855, when legislators issued a charter for the Maine State Seminary, though it didn’t have a single student for two more years and didn’t have a “college” class until 1863.

A matchbook cover that Bates College distributed about 1950 that includes a seal with the 1864 founding date for the Lewiston college. Private collection

Using Reynolds’ reasoning, why not cite 1840 as the college’s origin because of it’s link to Cobb Divinity School? Alfred Williams Anthony’s “Bates College and Its Background,” printed in 1936, hinted that it would make sense.

Looking around in 1878, eight years after Cobb moved to Bates, Cheney acknowledged in Lewiston that Cobb Divinity School “was founded in 1840. It is virtually the school now located here. We now have two schools.”

They later merged into one, though, with Bates swallowing the divinity school, and it appears no strong push for establishing an origin date of 1840 based on Cobb was ever made.

Bates today is in some way the great-grandchild of two seminaries: the Maine State Seminary, chartered in 1855, and the Cobb Divinity School, chartered in 1840.

To be fair, the grounds on which Bates College sits were once part of the Maine State Seminary, which for a few years held classes at Hathorn Hall while Bates College held its classes in Parker Hall, where college men lived on one side and college women lived on the other. Cobb was always something distinct, until it was folded into the college in 1908.



One man more than any other was in the best position to say when Bates College began: founder Oren Cheney.

Cheney doesn’t appear to have explicitly picked a year, but he appears to have leaned toward 1863, the year the first freshman class began studies under the school’s new “college” designation.

This is the seal used today by Bates College, adopted in the early 1990s, showing the 1855 founding date. Bates College

In an annual report in 1879, Cheney dismissed the notion of looking back to the seminary roots of the school.

“The rule fixing the age of those Colleges which, like ours, are the outgrowth of preparatory schools, seems to be to date their beginning from the beginning of these schools,” Cheney wrote.

“While we have not chosen to do this, being satisfied with asking to be acknowledged in the republic of Colleges, an existence of only sixteen years – not 22 – the number we might reasonably claim – still, not despising the day of small things, we are proud of the six years that make up the Seminary life of the Institution.”


From Cheney’s writing on “The Age of the College,” it appears he considered the school “might reasonably claim” an 1857 origin, when the seminary began educating students, but settled for one six years later: 1863, when the college’s initial class began its studies.

So what to think of his successor, who skipped past both of those years and explicitly chose 1864 for the college’s founding?


Horse-drawn carriages in front of Hathorn Hall in 1895. Bates College Muskie Archives Photo Collections

Consider two key figures at the June 1914 celebration of what Bates called its semicentennial: Bates President George Chase, who took the helm from Cheney in 1894, and a longtime professor Jonathan Stanton.

Chase had been connected to Bates since 1862. Stanton was hired the following year and began teaching Latin in 1864. They lived through the college’s first half-century and knew intimately nearly everyone connected with the origin of the college.

Chase never even considered 1855. For him, it was whether to cite 1863, when the first freshmen class got underway, or 1864.


In 1912, Chase used his annual report to explain that a committee had investigated the issue of what year should be considered the college’s year. It determined, he wrote, that the 50th birthday should be celebrated in 1914 because the corporate charter and corporate name, Bates College, were handed down by the Legislature in 1864.

“It has been found that in practice, the comparative ages of colleges are determined by the dates of their charters and so of their legal right to have a distinctive seal,” Chase wrote.

On what they saw as the 50th birthday of the college, Chase told the gathered crowd what he recalled of the place when he arrived.

“The grounds were treeless and ungraded,” Chase said, “and terminated a little beyond Hathorn Hall in a rough, hummock-sown cow pasture.”

Cover of the 1914 Mount David Souvenir Program outlining events celebrating the 50th anniversary of Bates College. Private collection

He recalled stump fences, a cistern near College Street where male students pumped water for use over in Parker Hall, where they all lived. The women students, behind their “heavy brick partition” were able to obtain their water from a basement pump, Chase added.

“The change from seminary to college after a long, hard struggle was effected in 1863,” Chase said. “It was a Western college in a New England environment and as such proved a serious misfit, necessitating anxious and painstaking readjustments,” some of them to accommodate Black students and women, a first for East Coast colleges.


Chase recalled hearing peers in “neighboring institutions” say he attended “a college for women and n*****s.”

“The outer world frowned upon them as freaks and anomalies,” Chase said, but “the founders of Bates were out and out believers in human equality.”

In his long address, Chase expressed no doubt about the timing of the semicentennial.

Stanton, one of the most popular men on campus since his arrival in 1864, also said nothing that anyone recorded to doubt that 1914 marked the 50th anniversary.

He gladly accepted the honor of a new elm planted on the Quad in his honor and posed in front of the new chapel, employed that year for the first time for commencement ceremonies. When Stanton appeared with his class for a bird walk, the audience burst into uproarious applause.

Over at Lewiston City Hall, students acted out scenes from the college’s history, including the plea of their predecessors to turn the seminary into a college as well as a skit about Mary Mitchell, Bates’ first woman graduate.


A watch fob from 1925 with a Bates College seal among its decoration. The seal uses 1864 as the origin of the college. Private collection

Carroll Beedy, a 1903 graduate, spoke as well.

“The two score and ten of years last passed in their relation to the college may fittingly be said to have constituted the period of her youth,” Beedy said, according to an account in the Lewiston Daily Sun. “She now enters upon the early days of middle life, a time for the most exacting yet productive labor.”

“But however great the measure of her future power, may she ‘clasp to her soul with hoops of steel’ the infallible principle that the ultimate object of all education, of all intellectual exertion, is the discovery and promulgation of truth.”

Like many things, though, truth is often in the eyes of the beholder, as the search for Bates’ beginnings makes all too clear. The facts are what they are, but what people make of them, well, that’s the unknown.

In any case, whatever the year of Bates’ founding, Cheney mentioned that “this college had a noble birth; and if in these youthful years it is entitled to any respect from an indulgent public, it owes no small part of it to the character of its childhood.”

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