The First Freshmen

“The course of education to be pursued will be of the most liberal kind.”
  1. Chapter 1 Introduction

    Their names are nowhere on the University of Michigan campus. Unlike the professors who taught them, there is no stone monument, no dormitory wing, no conference room that pays homage to their tenure or contributions. They are ghosts who linger in history books and, even then, their existence flickers.

    But please come to know them:

    Lyman Norris.

    George Parmelee.

    Judson Collins.

    William Wesson.

    Merchant Goodrich.

    George Pray.

    They did what no other young person had ventured to do in Ann Arbor. They enrolled.

    • A notice from the Aug. 18, 1841, edition of the Detroit Free Press issued a call for students to come to Ann Arbor.
      A notice from the Aug. 18, 1841, edition of the Detroit Free Press issued a call for students to come to Ann Arbor.
      Image: Detroit Free Press
  2. Chapter 2 A Most Liberal Education

    Six young, white males, all from southeastern Michigan and all with family roots reaching to the Northeast, can lay claim as the entering class at the University of Michigan. Their arrival, some 24 years after the institution was founded, ended an extraordinary gestation.

    If the University of Michigan was founded in 1817, why no students until 1841? The answers are complicated, but the short version is that the U-M of 1817 – the one established in the frontier town of Detroit – taught children. It was not possible to offer collegiate-level classes in an untamed territory that was barely literate. The ambitious experiment of the University of Michigan needed to take baby steps as a preparatory school before it could stand as a true university.

    That would come in 1837, with a new state constitution, a new location in Ann Arbor, and new leadership for the university. Another four years were needed to hire professors, acquire books for a library and specimens for a museum, and construct wood-frame and brick buildings for the new academic enterprise. The University even took in its first gift, a large German encyclopedia donated by a businessman who traded in Great Lakes furs.

    By the summer of 1841, the state university was taking shape, and outsiders were taking notice.

    “Ann Arbor is a delightful place of about two or three thousand inhabitants and is in every respect a much neater and more thriving place than any of its size in our own state,” wrote Lansing B. Swan, of Rochester, New York, who kept a diary as he toured the state. “There are five churches and a state university now building on a scale of magnificence far beyond Union College at Schenectady, besides many other very fine public and private buildings.

    “I do not wonder that people are made crazy by coming to Michigan if what I have seen is a specimen of the country.”

    (Where he raved about buildings throughout his travels, Swan repeatedly ranted about the opposite sex. “The Michigan women, for I cannot write them down ladies, are in looks the ugliest I have ever seen.”)

    The Ann Arbor campus had four houses dotting a 40-acre parcel, each designated for a member of the faculty. A large, four-story building sat along a dusty State Street, where it would function as classroom, dormitory, chapel, museum and library with some 4,000 books, many of them purchased in Europe. The finishing touches, alongside the building, were a wood yard where students could gather kindling for their rooms, and a privy.

    What the U-M of the 21st century calls a living-learning environment for students was, in 1841, the necessity of limited financial resources. But the intellectual objective was ambitious.

    “The course of education to be pursued will be of the most liberal kind; it being the design of the Board to maintain a standard of education which will entitle the University to rank with our first eastern colleges,” proclaimed Regents Zina Pitcher and George Duffield in the Detroit Free Press.

    Classes, the regents added, would begin in September.

  3. Chapter 3 “Prudence and Zeal”

    Two professors stood waiting. Hired at an annual salary of $500 and provided a new house, they made their way to class through the wheat fields and peach orchards that surrounded their homes. The University Building, as it was known, was clad in stucco fashioned to look like white granite.

    Joseph Whiting was a Yale-educated Presbyterian minister tasked with teaching Latin and Greek. He had been with the University since 1838, when he was picked to lead one of its branch schools – essentially a high school – in Niles. The 41-year-old would expect his new charges in Ann Arbor to read Homer, Thucydides and Herodotus in Greek, along with the works of Caesar, Cicero, Vergil and others in Latin.

    He was joined by George Palmer Williams, and it was Williams who would lead the new university. A graduate of the University of Vermont, his home state, Williams was two years younger than Whiting but far more experienced in the classroom. Like Whiting, he led one of the branch schools – this one in Pontiac – but he also had a decade’s worth of experience teaching at colleges in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

    In Ann Arbor, he would teach mathematics, a subject any incoming student would be required to know. Following Williams’ recommendation, regents also mandated that new students pass exams in geography, algebra, and geometry, as well as Cicero’s Orations, The Greek Reader by Friedrich Jacobs, and the Bible’s New Testament.

    Just as critical as passing examinations – both to the regents and to Williams – was that these first new students produce “satisfactory evidence of good moral character.”

    Outside of the admissions requirements, regents gave Williams and Whiting the freedom to set the academic course of the young institution. This was new territory, and the governing board was intentionally nebulous in dictating any hard-and-fast rules.

    “Much in the early stage of the Institution,” wrote the regents, “will depend on the wisdom and fidelity, the prudence and zeal, the vigilance and energy, the industry and discernment, of the Faculty.”

    If Whiting did not know what to expect from his new charges, Williams did. Said a former student years later: “Nothing, not even the pranks and freaks of wild boys and young men, could put him out of temper, or make him hurry.” For reasons lost to history, students came to calling him “Punky.”

  4. Chapter 4 Wild Boys and Young Men

    There is no existing record from 1841 that names the University’s first students.

    When the regents met formally for the first time since classes began, they made no mention of what would seem to be a monumental achievement. As it was, they had trouble generating a quorum. Four attempts to meet in October over the course of three days and evenings, both in Ann Arbor and Detroit, failed to deliver the necessary attendance. Finally meeting at the end of the month, the regents still made no mention – for the record – of the inaugural students or classes.

    But later accounts provide details of the incoming class, including the fact that 18-year-old Lyman Decatur Norris was the first to arrive. He traveled from nearby Ypsilanti, where his parents – who called him Decatur – were recognized community leaders.

    Judson Collins arrived from Unadilla, to the northwest of Ann Arbor. George Parmelee and Merchant Goodrich were locals. Goodrich’s parents had operated a hotel in town since he was 8, and the Goodrich House sat just a few blocks west of campus on Fourth Avenue. Like Norris, Goodrich, Parmelee and Collins were 18.

    The oldest student was William Wesson, a 21-year-old Detroiter who was the lone sophomore in the group. The son of a minister, he was raised in central Massachusetts before moving to Michigan as a teenager.

    The richest insights about the first class come from the youngest member of the class, 16-year-old George Washington Pray, and the diaries he kept. Whether because he was immature, cynical or highly perceptive, his observations were barbed.

    On Goodrich: “He has lived nearly all of his life in the village and in a tavern – is vulgar – low – and immoral.  He seems to have but little sense of humor. … He will be a pettifogger and demagogue.”

    On Collins: “He is a deep rather than an elegant scholar. He is very plain and methodical and no ways proud. He is very decided – and likes to have his own way He is sometimes even obstinate – He is a member of the Methodist church and strict in the performance of every duty.” (Collins would go on to become a Methodist minister and missionary.)

    And on his roommate, Parmelee: “He is very lazy and therefore a very poor scholar – though he would like to leave the impression that he is something great. …He is a poor writer and no speaker at all. He has but very little sense of honor.”

    The students spent a great deal of time together. They were up at 5:30 a.m. (an hour later in the winter) and off to chapel, then to breakfast at nearby boarding houses. After a morning of classes, they once again ate at a boarding house, returned for an afternoon of courses, followed by dinner and study time. No one was to leave the campus after 9 o’clock in the evening.

    They lived two to a suite, with two bedrooms and a shared study. They were expected to sweep the wooden floors, cut their own firewood, heat their own rooms.

    It would not take long for Norris to write home with complaints to be echoed by future generations of students: Please send warmer clothes, because the weather is cold, and the coursework is simply too much.

    Pray felt the same. “The student’s life, especially in the winter, is a life in a circle. He eats and studies and recites, recites and studies and eats.”

  5. Chapter 5 The Class of ‘45

    By the time of the University’s first commencement on Aug. 6, 1845, the first days of the entering class must have seemed like ancient history. Enrollment had grown nearly tenfold, to 52 students, with a full complement of freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors. There were five professors and instructors. The Main Building – now called Mason Hall, in tribute to Gov. Stevens T. Mason – was cramped and an expansion was in the works.

    The senior class busied itself with 500 pages of chemistry, calculations of astronomical eclipses, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, essays on psychology and philosophy, and more. The regents readied themselves for the University’s first commencement, and mandated that it be a dignified affair.

    “There shall be no military parade, bands of professional musicians, illuminations, or fireworks, balls, parties, or feasting by the students on the occasion of the Commencement.”

    There was another reason for an air of sobriety. Less than three weeks before graduation, Professor Whiting – one of the first two teachers to greet the boys – died. His unexpected death stunned the community. “We fear it will not be easy to fill the place he has left in the University,” the regents announced. Whiting, they said, had endeared himself by “having participated largely in the cares, anxieties, and labors incident to the first years of the University.”

    On the eve of graduation, the Detroit Free Press issued a call to all “graduates from Eastern colleges” to make their way to Ann Arbor to welcome Michigan’s first alumni. “This occasion should be made a yearly festival among the cultivated men of the State.” Trains would depart Detroit the next morning to celebrate “a small class, but of most creditable scholarship.”

    That Class of 1845 numbered 11, including four who first stepped forward in 1841: Merchant Huxford Goodrich, George Edgar Parmelee, Judson Dwight Collins and George Washington Pray. William Wesson was forced by illness to leave school in 1842. And Lyman Norris, who was the first to enroll, left Ann Arbor after two years and finished his degree at Yale University.

    Graduating seniors, faculty and other students marched from campus to the Presbyterian Church. Speeches were read (too long, complained a reporter) and poems recited. Each graduate was awarded a bachelor of arts degree, inscribed with his name on parchment affixed with a seal.

    The Rev. George Duffield, head of the First Protestant Society of Detroit, traveled from the city to be the commencement speaker. He called the graduates “the first fruits of our University so successfully established in this young State, but recently the home and hunting ground of the wild untutored savage.”

    Knowledge, he told them, is not limited to “a privileged class of men,” but rather is open to all. A college education does not make one a true scholar, he warned. “The design of academic instruction is not to turn out the perfect scholar, but to furnish the young man with sufficient material and elements to render himself such.”

    He went on: “We mean it not as flattery, but frankly express our delight, when we say to you, young gentlemen of the recent Senior class—we hail in you a pledge of better things.”

    Afterward, there was discussion of forming an alumni society.

    “So passed the first Commencement in Michigan,” wrote a Free Press editor. “May it be only the harbinger of more distinguished days.”

  6. Chapter 6 Epilogue

    As the graduates left Ann Arbor for careers throughout the state and beyond, and as the Whiting family mourned their loss, Professor George Williams – the ever-popular Punky – remained on campus. Having greeted the first students in 1841, he stayed on the faculty until his death 40 years later, at the age of 79. He was beloved to the point that students donated money to support him in his declining years.

    “The old alumni made their first pilgrimage to his door, and he was in their eyes the embodiment of all that was pleasantest in their recollections of their days of youth and promise,” said Law Professor James V. Campbell in eulogizing Williams.

    “Though some were themselves long past the meridian, and were known as leaders and men of mark, they were all his boys, as he and they live their lives over again, and they gathered afresh the dew of their youth.”


    Researchers for this story were students Lindsay Barnett, Claire Bartosic, Angel Izaquirre and Ali Kahil. All were participants in the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program and were tasked by the U-M Bicentennial Office with determining the first U-M students and faculty in Ann Arbor.

    Additional resources include: Regents Proceedings; Detroit Free Press; Michigan State Journal; “Professor George P. Williams, Faculty Portraits,” The Michigan Alumnus, October 1905; A Memorial Discourse on the Life and Services of Rev. George Palmer Williams, by James V. Campbell; The True Scholar: An Oration, by Rev. George Duffield.