A Tuneful But Inaccurate History Lesson…

The history of alcohol and Native Americans in the Colonial era is bad enough without embellishment, but that didn’t stop a student at Dartmouth College from penning a delightful song that implied that the founder of that institution had traded a barrel of rum for land to build the college. I’ll tell you what really happened in a moment, but first, give a listen to this jolly piece.

In case you missed those lyrics, they are:

Oh, Eleazar Wheelock was a very pious man;
He went into the wilderness to teach the In-di-an,
With a Gradus ad Parnassum, a Bible and a drum,
And five hundred gallons of New England rum.
Fill the bowl up! Fill the bowl up!
Drink to Eleazar,
And his primitive Alcazar,
Where he mixed drinks for the heathen in the goodness of his soul.

The big chief that met him was the sachem of the Wah-hoo-wahs;
If he was not a big chief, there was never one you saw who was;
He had tobacco by the cord, ten squaws, and more to come,
But he never yet had tasted of New England rum.
Fill the bowl up! Fill the bowl up!

Eleazar and the big chief harangued and gesticulated;
They founded Dartmouth College, and the big chief matriculated.
Eleazar was the faculty, and the whole curriculum
Was five hundred gallons of New England rum.
Fill the Bowl up! Fill the bowl up!

The first two lines of this song are actually accurate: Wheelock was in fact a minister who taught among the Mohegan and other tribes, and one of the schools he founded became Dartmouth College. Dartmouth was noteworthy for educating Native Americans as well as the sons of the colonists, and this was one of the few places where they studied on anything like an equal basis. There is no evidence, however, that Wheelock traded rum for land, lessons, or anything else – he seems to have been sincerely concerned about the effects of the collision of the two cultures. From there the song is fantasy – Wheelock worked among the Mohegans and other tribes, and the land for Dartmouth was granted by the Governor of New Hampshire. (For those puzzled by the references in the first verse, A Gradus ad Parnassum is an instruction book on classical learning, an alcazar another name for a castle.)

The person who wrote that song, Richard Hovey, probably penned it between 1880 and 1885 when he was a student, and went on to compose the school’s theme song, Men Of Dartmouth. Both works were in the old-fashioned Glee Club style and make considerable demands on the people who sing it. Men of Dartmouth is still sung at official school functions, while Eleazar Wheelock is no longer an official song. The curator of Special Collections at Dartmouth mentioned that the song had “been singled out in years
past as prime examples of racial insensitivity on campus.” So were the murals that were used as illustrations in that YouTube video – they were painted between 1937 and 1939 in the Dartmouth dining hall, and were rather racy for the time. Then again, they’re even more politically incorrect in our own – it’s hard to imagine anyone proposing to paint murals of scantily clad maidens drinking rum in a modern college. Dartmouth has an unenviable situation of owning a beautiful but offensive piece of art and has decided to make the best of it – the paintings have not been destroyed, but are screened and rarely uncovered for public exhibition. As has often been observed, the social norms of one era can be embarrassing to another, and who knows what commonplace ideas we have now will amaze our descendants.

Thanks to Mark Magers for bringing this song to my attention, and Morgan Swan of Dartmouth for his assistance with the history of both the song and mural.