The Henry Dunster Gravesite

Arseny James Melnick

This is Henry Dunster's gravesite in the Old Burying Yard (or Old Burying Ground, "God's Acre"), just a stone's throw from the main entrance to Harvard University. After his voluntary exile to Scituate, Plymouth Colony, in 1655, it was Dunster's express wish in his will that, after his death, he be buried close to the College that he loved. He ensured that provision was made for his body to be transported from Scituate to Cambridge, there to be interred "by my loveing wife and other relaccons [relations]." Dunster was buried there in 1659.


Gravesite of Henry Dunster (1609-1659), first President of Harvard College, Old Burying Yard, Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Photo - 2011).

More than a century and three-quarters passed, including the ravages of the region during the American Revolution. Many of the original lead tablets that were probably once on a number of tombs in the Old Burying Yard were likely melted down for lead bullets for American soldiers.

President Josiah Quincy, William Thaddeus Harris, The 1846 Search for the Gravesite

In 1840, then Harvard President Josiah Quincy wrote the following about Dunster in his two-volume History of Harvard University: "in the adjoining churchyard now lie the remains of as true a friend, and as faithful a servant, as this College ever possessed."

William Thaddeus (W.T.) Harris, then soon to be a Junior Sophister at Harvard, read about Dunster in Quincy's book and felt moved to find his gravesite. Harris himself later wrote the following in the preface to his own book titled, Epitaphs from the Old Burying Ground in Cambridge: "More than three years ago, having read in President Quincy's History of Harvard University, that the Reverend Henry Dunster, the first president of this institution, was buried in Cambridge, near the seat of his labors, I was led to look for his grave-stone in our burying-ground. Though unable to find any inscription to his memory, I soon became interested in conning the old Latin epitaphs..." (Harris, 1845). Harris was the son of Thaddeus William Harris, Librarian of the College, who himself was the son of a former Librarian of the College, Thaddeus Mason Harris. Grandson W.T. Harris excelled in Latin and philosophy at Harvard, graduated in 1846 and went on to become Assistant Librarian of Harvard College himself, among other accomplishments. He thus was part of a line of distinguished researchers and scholars. He died quite young at age 28. (Cited in Harris Family Papers, Cambridge Historical Society Online Collections).

Young Harris' inspiration helped spur interest in finding the actual Dunster gravesite. In 1846 a "special search was made for the spot," according to Dunster's first biographer, Jeremiah Chaplin. Chaplin's sister, Mrs. H.C. Conant, went to Cambridge to get involved in the search and later relayed the following to her brother: "The first effort was fruitless, and the attempt was abandoned." But, she continued, "among those interested in the matter," it excited deep interest among "those keen antiquarians, who delight in nothing so much as in a puzzling hunt of this kind." (Chaplin, Life of Dunster, 1872, p. 226).

John Langdon Sibley's Role

The assistance of John Langdon Sibley, then Assistant Librarian of Harvard College, was then elicited. Sibley developed what I refer to here as the traditional view regarding the location of the Dunster gravesite. Sibley is perhaps best known as the author of the monumental work, Biographical Sketches of Graduates of Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Volume I, 1642-1658 (published in 1873). Volume I covered the years for all of the students that Dunster would have taught during his tenure as President, so Sibley was well acquainted with all of the relevant historical sources of that period. Sibley's view carried the day, and the current site was identified.

The Grave Exhumed

Interest continued to grow. On July 1, 1846, the gravesite was dug up and revealed a man of medium height with long brown hair that matched his beard, whose "thick eyebrows almost met above his nose." (J.G. Palfrey, History of New England, II, at 534 n. 1, 1860, cited in Geoffrey Wandesforde-Smith, "Digging Up Dunster: The Vital Link Between Bury Grammar School, Harvard University, and Higher Education in America," 2007, p. 2, unpublished manuscript - available for download in the "News of Note" section of this website).

Sibley and others believed that one very strong argument in favor of this being the correct site was the special stone slab that had been placed earlier over what had been a "heap of loose stones" and was similar to the two slabs that had been placed on Presidents Chauncy and Oakes' graves. Their tombs were "distinguished from all the other monuments [in the cemetery] by an upper slab of a peculiar type of stone imported from England." (Chaplin, p. 227) Although this special slab might have been placed there earlier, it seems more likely that it had been placed on this spot some time after Dunster's death, possibly during the timeframe when Chauncy and Oakes' graves were receiving their slabs, when it may have been decided to honor all early Harvard presidents buried in the Old Burying Yard in this way.

A Dissenting View

In his 1877 book, History of Cambridge, Cambridge historian Lucius R. Paige raised some doubt (pp. 266-269) as to whether this site was actually Dunster's gravesite, claiming that it might be Jonathan Mitchell's grave instead. However, none of the objections presented by Paige are persuasive enough to overturn the traditional view developed by Sibley. Besides the question of the special slabs, the fact that Dunster made express provision in his will for his burial at the Old Burying Yard and that 'some of his babes' were already buried there - with the graves of two of his grandchildren in close proximity and their names "yet plainly legible on the low headstones" (as of 1872; see Chaplin, p. 227) - are strong indications that the traditional spot is most likely the correct one.

Though we do not know for certain whether this grave is actually Dunster's, there is no question that he is buried in the Old Burying Yard, either at this very spot, or else quite nearby. Regardless of the actual site, this is the place where his memory is honored today.

The State of the Gravesite in Modern Times; First Plaque Installed

A special commemorative Latin slate tablet was placed within the stone slab over the grave after the exhumation in 1846. Today, it currently is cracked in numerous places. The inscription on the slate was still partially legible in 1986 when this author first visited the gravesite, but has continued to deteriorate over the years from the effects of acid rain and obviously is in worse condition as of this writing.

A few years after visiting the gravesite and seeing its condition, this author strongly requested that then Harvard President Neil Rudenstine do something to restore Dunster's tomb to a proper state. The University looked into the matter, but in a response dated August 19, 1992, Rudenstine replied that, "in view of the high cost of repair that would be necessary to do the job properly--Harvard is unable to undertake the restoration at this time."

My response was that I did not believe the situation was "satisfactory," and, as a stopgap measure, urged him to consider at least placing a plaque on the grave to clearly mark it as Dunster's grave, since the Latin slate tablet was becoming more and more illegible. I took for inspiration the fact that Urian Oakes' grave nearby (Harvard's fourth president) had its own plaque, so why shouldn't Dunster's?

This eventually led to a plaque being struck and installed on the gravesite in 1993.

A New Plaque Installed - Fall 2011

However, as I noted in my first book, America's Oldest Corporation and First CEO: Harvard and Henry Dunster (2008, pp. 23-25), this initial plaque was incorrect regarding Dunster's year of birth: it said "1612" instead of "1609" (the reasons go back to Chaplin's biography of Dunster in 1872, when he settled on the date of 1612 for the year of birth; however, additional information on Dunster's birth had since become available that was unknown to both Harvard and myself at the time - another fact that helped drive me to do a modern-day biography of Dunster). The error was first pointed out to me in a letter dated December 18, 1993, from Charles W. Allen, a Dunster descendant and, along with me, a co-founder and member of the Henry Dunster Association.

I had originally hoped that this error might have been corrected in time for the 400th anniversary year in 2009 of Dunster's birth. That did not occur; however, due to the inspiration of another HDA member, Alexandra Mihalas, a Harvard Law School graduate and a Dunster descendant herself, I undertook the project of getting a new plaque approved and installed. The new plaque (shown in the image above) was successfully installed on the gravesite in the fall of 2011, in coordination with representatives of Harvard University (Thomas J. Lucey, Director of Community Relations), the Cambridge Historical Commission (Executive Director Charles Sullivan), and the conservator hired by the City of Cambridge for work in the Old Burying Yard, Mr. Dario Fiorentini, who put it in place. The beautiful new plaque was produced by Franklin Bronze Plaques of Franklin, Pennsylvania.

As far as the rest of the gravesite is concerned, currently cracks remain on the brownstone table top of the tomb, while the granite base has shifted over the past two to three decades. A 2011 condition report on the tomb assessed that it was covered with lichens and a heavy black sulfate mineral crust that has stained most of the stones.

It is hoped that at some point a coalition effort of some kind will make a restoration of the rest of the tomb possible.

Harvard's Real Motto: 'In Christi Gloriam' ('For the Glory of Christ')

The new plaque, besides now having the correct year of birth - 1609 - also commemorates Harvard's early motto (prior to the later re-discovery of Veritas). That motto was and is - "In Christi Gloriam" ('For the Glory of Christ'). This was the official motto placed on Harvard's Charter of 1650, which was instituted by Dunster and still remains the actual corporate charter that governs Harvard University to this day.

The well-known Harvard motto Veritas was approved for the Harvard College seal at a meeting of the Overseers on December 27, 1643, but was largely forgotten for nearly two centuries. Veritas was later rediscovered by President Quincy when he was researching the history of the university. He had the Harvard Corporation adopt it in 1843 as the new motto for the University (see Samuel Eliot Morison, The Founding of Harvard College, 1935, pp. 328-330).

One of Quincy's successors, Edward Everett, did not care for what he had done with Veritas. Everett brought back a third motto to replace it, Christo et Ecclesiae (Christ and the Church), which had originally appeared on a College seal adopted for the short-lived Charter of 1692. There were even efforts to merge the two mottoes as a compromise of sorts - the remnants of which can still be seen today in Harvard Yard. According to a Harvard online biographical entry for Everett, the battle over mottoes (between proponents of Veritas versus Christo et Ecclesiae) went on "until 1885, when Veritas prevailed." (www.harvard.edu/history/presidents/everett)

In the meantime, In Christi Gloriam seems to have been largely put aside and forgotten during this nineteenth century struggle over mottoes, even though its legal claim to the title of "real motto" is perhaps the strongest one of all. Even former Harvard President Lawrence Summers in his 2002 Commencement address acknowledged that In Christi Gloriam was the "real motto" of Harvard.

"In Christi Gloriam" certainly represents Henry Dunster's life goal - bringing glory to God, and it is most fitting that these words should now adorn his gravesite.

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Copyright 2011 by Arseny James Melnick. This page was last updated in December 2011.