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Establishing Bowdoin, Maine’s First College   

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Bowdoin College, chartered in 1794, is the oldest institution of higher education in Maine.  It is located in the small town of Brunswick in Cumberland County near Casco Bay and the Androscoggin River, about 25 miles northeast of Portland. Although slow to commence operations, its first five years proved foundational for future success.

The Massachusetts Legislature did not succeed in its initial attempts to create a college in Lincoln County in 1787 and Cumberland County in 1788 in the District of Maine. (It then had Maine under its jurisdiction.)  Subsequently, eight other towns – Brunswick, Freeport, Gorham, New Gloucester, North Yarmouth, Portland, Turner and Winthrop — also contended for the right.


James Bowdoin

Prominent families in the towns wanted to avoid sending their sons to a college outside of the district, with each town offering its own rationale for a site.  These included opportunities for social and moral development, available land and financial support. Brunswick then became a compromise choice with its relative nearness to Lincoln and Kennebec Counties.

Bowdoin College Established

Accordingly, the state Legislature enacted a bill on June 24, 1794 declaring “that there be erected and established in the Town of Brunswick, in the District of Maine, a college for the purpose of educating youth, to be called and known by the name of Bowdoin College.”  Gov. Samuel Adams approved the charter the same day.  Named after James Bowdoin II (1726-1790), a former Massachusetts governor, it was endowed by his son, James Bowdoin III (1752-1811) and the state Legislature.  Bowdoin III provided land in the Town of Bowdoin and money. The state granted five townships , each having six square miles, that could be used for the “use,benefit, and purpose of supporting the said college.” Specifically, the college had the power to “settle, divide and manage the townships ” or to “sell, convey and dispose” of them .

The charter created two corporate bodies: The President and Trustees of Bowdoin College and the Overseers of Bowdoin College.  Only Harvard University and the College of Rhode Island (Brown University as of 1804) had similar entities at the time.  The President and Trustees – anywhere from seven to 13 members – had powers that included adopting a common seal, acquiring and disposing of real and personal property and suing and being sued. They also had the power to elect and specify the duties of college officials (including the president) and faculty members. Finally, they determined the criteria for student admittance and conferring degrees. (Until Jan. 1, 1810, only Bachelor of Arts and Masters of Arts degrees could be awarded).

The Board of Overseers – anywhere from twenty-five to forty-five members – could approve or not the actions of the Trustees.  The charter designated the original members of the Trustees and Overseers.

Getting Started

After meeting at John Dunning’s Inn in Brunswick on July 19, 1796, the Trustees and Overseers inspected and later approved the acquisition of 30 acres of land, mostly owned by William Stanwood. They also decided to buy 200 acres owned by the town.  In 1798 the Trustees and Overseers voted to construct the first campus building, Massachusetts Hall. It was not completed until 1802, after the sale of two townships (which became Dixmont and Foxcroft) provided the needed funds.

Joseph McKeen

At last, on Sept. 2, 1802 Bowdoin inaugurated Joseph McKeen (1757-1807), a Congregational minister, as its first president.  In his address he notably proclaimed that “literary institutions are founded and endowed for the common good, and not for the private advantage of those who resort to them for education.”  In furtherance of this, the main mission of the college would be to” fill the liberal professions” (i.e., ministry, law, and public service) for the citizens of Maine.

The next day, eight male students – five from Maine and three from Massachusetts, ranging in age from 13 to 33 – began their four-year education, after successfully passing an entrance examination.  Since the “College House” (Massachusetts Hall) was the only campus building, the McKeen family occupied half of it until the next year. The president then moved into his own residence. The students occupied two rooms upstairs that were also used for classes.  The first dormitory, Maine Hall, would not be available until 1808.  The “College House” also had a chapel on the ground floor.   An unheated wooden chapel was constructed in 1805, which also housed an extensive library collection.

Student daily life revolved around a rigid schedule of prayers three times a day, morning and afternoon recitations from prescribed texts, mandatory study hours and set mealtimes.

Massachusetts Hall


President McKeen and only one faculty member, John Abbot, provided instruction in the first year.  McKeen specialized in mathematics and philosophy, while Abbot focused on Latin and Greek.  Although no document exists for the initial course of instruction, a classical curriculum patterned after Harvard likely was implemented.  Accordingly, course offerings would include languages (Latin and Greek), mathematics (algebra, geometry, trigonometry), philosophy (political, natural and logic), geography, history and theology.  Recitation of assigned texts also helped exercises in rhetoric (speaking persuasively) and elocution (speaking clearly).

Students, wanting some extracurricular activity, created the Philo Mathian Society in 1805 (the Peucinian Society in 1807), the first literary society at Bowdoin. Members discussed and debated topics of interest, enhanced by the acquisition of popular books.  A second literary organization, the Athenaean Society, started in 1808.  Organized physical activities would not be available until the 1820s.

Despite the rigid lifestyle, students found ways to misbehave.  Punishments for misconduct included a fine for minor offenses, a reprimand from the president for more serious offenses and suspension.

Bowdoin today. The school mascot is the polar bear.

Bowdoin College held its first commencement on Sept. 4,1806 in the nearby Second Meetinghouse of First Parish Church.  Those in attendance included the faculty (President McKeen, Professor Abbot, Professor Parker Cleaveland and Nathan Parker, a tutor). Seven graduates and several well-wishers also attended.  Sadly, one of the entering freshman had died in a sea accident.

Unfortunately, on July 15, 1807, President McKeen died of “dropsy” (fluid retention).  Although his tenure was short, the stage was set for the emergence of the elite liberal arts college.

Edward T. Howe, Ph.D., is Professor of Economics, Emeritus, at Siena College near Albany, N.Y.

Images: Bowdoin seal By [1], Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48623233. Massachusetts Hall By Seasider53 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=120932196. Bowdoin in winter By User:Gwynfisher – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14577161. Hubbard Hall by Polarbear 11 – Own work, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9758451

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