3. The Founding of Williamstown & Williams College

Item. It is my will & Pleasure & Desire that the remaining part of lands not yet disposed of Shall be Sold at the Discretion of my Executors, within five years after an Established peace, And the interest of the money, and Also the interest of my money Arising by my bonds and notes, Shall be Appropriated towards the Support and maintenance of a free School (in a township west of fort Massachusetts, Commonly Called the west township) for Ever, provided the Said township fall with in the jurisdiction of the Province of Massachusetts bay, and provided, also that the Governour & General Court give the Said township the name of Williamstown, and it is my further will & Desire that if there Should remain any monies of the above Donation for the Said school, it be given towards the Support of a school in the East township where the fort now Stands. But in Case the above provisions are not Complied with, then it is my will & Desire that the Interest of the above mentioned monies, be Appropriated to Some pious & Charitable uses, in manner & form as directed in the former part of this my last will & testament….In Witness whereof I have here unto Sett my hand and Seal the twenty Second Day of July, in the twenty ninth Year of his Majesties Reign, and in the Year of our Lord One thousand Seven hundred and fifty five.

The above is the final item in Ephraim Williams’ lengthy  last will and testament, which, with prescient premonition, he wrote only two months before the battle which cost him his life. As we see, there are a number of conditions that had to be met before his wishes could be implemented. The first was that the war with France had to end, which didn’t happen until 1763. The second was the uncertainty as to whether Williams’ estate even lay within “the Province of   Massachusetts bay,” or rather in New York, and therefore under which probate laws it should be disposed. The third condition was the founding of a “free school,” which aroused opposition unanticipated by Ephraim among some members of his own family, and particularly Harvard College in eastern Massachusetts.

Even before the war had ended Ephraim’s heirs were quarreling about the location of the educational institution he wished to found. While his will seemed to specify endowing a public school and not a private college, some in his family wanted to establish the latter, not in the “West Township,” which might even be in New York, but safely in Hatfield, Massachusetts, and named “Queen’s College” perhaps to rival  “King’s College” (now Columbia University) which had already been founded in New York. “No way!” exclaimed venerable Harvard College in far off Cambridge, Massachusetts, insisting on its ability to educate ALL eligible students in the Commonwealth. No need for a competing institution! The governor bowed to Harvard and squelched the Queen’s College idea. Williams’ bequest returned to the trustees for further discussion.

Meanwhile, the war having ended, the Massachusetts General Court in 1765 accepted the provision in Eph’s will that the West Hoosac  township be re-named “Williamstown.” Still there was a problem. Was “Williamstown” even in the ”Province of Massachusetts bay”?  This was finally resolved in 1773 when careful surveys determined that our town’s location indeed lay just inside Massachusetts western boundary.  However, the Revolutionary War now intervened, stalling any further  implementation of the will for over a decade,  until 1784, when the Continental Congress in Philadelphia officially approved the Massachusetts decision.

Finally the matter of “free school.”  In 1785, the Massachusetts legislature granted a charter to the “free school” in Williamstown according to the provisions of the will, but not the second  which Ephraim had proposed to occupy the Fort Massachusetts site in what is now North Adams – no doubt because there was barely enough money to support just one. Only eleven thousand dollars had accrued in the estate since Ephraim’s death three decades before.[1] During the next five years thirty-five hundred more dollars were raised by means of  public lotteries, just enough to construct a single building. It was eventually completed and furnished in 1793 and called “West College.” As it stands today, the building looks exactly as it did in the old print below. However, it was entirely rebuilt after a fire in 1951. The original façade had earlier been profaned in 1871 when it was painted yellow to symbolize “renewal of youth and freshness.”  Ah, the ancient pranks of students! Plus ça change, plus c’est la měme chose!

Until 1792, West College did house the “free school” that Williams’ will specified, but worries that after grammar-school, many young men were leaving Massachusetts for better matriculating possibilities elsewhere (in spite of Harvard’s assurances otherwise), caused the Williams’ trustees to  petition the Massachusetts General Court to convert it into a degree granting college. Better to serve “the midling and lower class of citizens,” meaning, of course, only male midling and lower class of citizens.  On June 22, 1793, the General Court approved the petition, and on October 9 of the same year, Williams College officially opened its classroom doors to twenty eager “freshmen.”  However, “freshwomen” had to wait until 1975 to do the same.


[1] It’s foot note-worthy that Williams in his will refers to his money in terms of  pounds and shillings, the currency of Britain, but when the will was finally probated after the Revolutionary War ended in 1783,  his bequests were  calculated in dollars. What happened, of course, was that the new US government had freed itself from the English currency system. Instead of pounds, reminding too much of the evil currency regulations Americans were earlier forced to endure, the new monetary standard was  the dollar, called after the Austro-German “Thaler.”  At the same time, the most popular hard coin circulating in the new world was the Spanish silver doubloon, thousands of which were stolen from the Spanish who had in turn stolen the silver from their dominions  in South America and Mexico. The coins were being minted in Mexico and Panama, and then shipped abroad via sea-going galleons which became the prey of English pirates, the notorious Blackbeard and Henry Morgan, for example; hence the circulation of their captured loot throughout  the British Empire.

In fact the doubloon became more or less equivalent to the new dollar. It was itself divisible into eight lesser coins called in Spanish “reales,“ but in English “bits” because people would some time cut the doubloon into eight separate pieces (“Pieces of Eight” in pirate lingo), which could then be equated with the American metric coinage of nickels, dimes, and quarters. Elder SWCA members will recall how in our youth we once called the silver quarter “two bits” – remember  when we chanted “two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar”?

Furthermore, on the back of the Spanish doubloon was always stamped the insignia of the Spanish Hapsburg Empire, consisting of two classic columns with a scroll in an S-shaped swirl around them.

The iconographic meaning of these columns and of the Latin inscription on the scroll, “ PLUS ULTRA” merits another fascinating story, but for another time.  Note here for now the simple design: two vertical parallel lines united by an S-shaped curve.  Americans in the eighteenth century were quite familiar with this doubloon logo, whether or not they were aware of its meaning.  Thus the designers of a new  American currency, seeking to replace the disfavored  English pound sign with a special icon, one easily recognizable in association with money,  adapted  and simplified the old doubloon logo, as  $, which  ever since has represented and symbolized  the  all-American dollar.

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