Harvard University's first president, Henry Dunster, envisioned that the fledgling colonial College, built in Massachusett territory, would be “the Indian Oxford as well as the New English Cambridge.” Harvard College's Charter, which is still the governing document of the University today, established its purpose as “the education of English and Indian youth of this country in knowledge and godliness.” The Harvard Indian College, the first brick building in Harvard Yard, was constructed to house Native scholars.
“I was taught to believe that time is not a linear stream, but a hoop spinning forward like a wheel, where everything is connected and everything is eternal. In this cosmology, I am here because Caleb came before me, and he was here in anticipation of me.”
- Susan Power (Dakota novelist and Harvard alum), “First Fruits”
At the time, Harvard consisted only of five buildings, with the Indian College being the most strong and substantial structure. They were clustered together in the Yard, along "Cow Yard Row" or Lane.
in 1659, with funding raised expressly for the education of "Indian youth," the preparatory schools which prepared young scholars for Harvard began recruiting and admitting groups of Native students, who studied alongside English youth, in multilingual environments. In addition to learning English, Greek, Latin and Hebrew, the Native students, and some of their English peers, were also encouraged to speak and to read in their own Indigenous languages.
James Printer and his brother Job Kattenanit, were among these young scholars. Two of their peers, Caleb Cheeshateamuck and Joel Iacoombs, Wampanoag students from leadership families on the island of Noepe, became the first Native students in the Harvard Indian College, joining the class of 1665. Another student, John Sassamon, had attended Harvard before the Indian College was established. James took a different path. Rather than entering Harvard with his classmates Caleb and Joel, James became a printer's apprentice at the Harvard/Cambridge Press, which was housed in the Indian College.
An Indigenous American Literary TraditionJames Printer and his fellow scholars participated in and enabled the production of a large body of bilingual literature. These included the Indian Primer and the first bible printed in the English colonies. Although this is often called the "Eliot" bible, crediting the missionary John Eliot as a single author, the text is now understood to be the creative work of at least several Native translators.
Works like the bible and the Massachusett Psalter, reveal the syncretic, bicultural translation of Native translators including James, Joel and Caleb, among others. In the page pictured here, we can see the substitution of the word "Manitoom" (Manitou) for "God," which expresses a more expansive and complex conception of divinity than strict Puritan Calvinism allowed. Some missionaries adopted similar strategies in their preaching, likening the Christian conception of God to Indigenous spiritual concepts, like Manitou.
The Psalter, pictured above, is the only publication that acknowledges James Printer's key role on the frontispiece. These early texts are now being repurposed by the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project and other Native New England communities in language revitalization. The American Antiquarian Society, located in Worcester, Massachusetts, has featured an exhibit with texts written in Algonquian languages. This spiritual and cultural syncretism in also evident in the surviving writings of the Harvard Indian College scholars, including Caleb Cheeshateamuck's address to his benefactors, discussed in the book Our Beloved Kin, and Eleazer's elegy to the minister Thomas Thacher.
Caleb Cheeshateamuck became the first Native graduate of Harvard College, attending commencement in 1665, but he died of consumption shortly thereafter. In 2010, a portrait of Caleb was dedicated at Harvard University, honoring the accomplishments and the legacy of this first Wampanoag graduate. During its 2011 Commencement ceremony, Harvard University also awarded an honorary degree to Caleb's classmate, Joel Iacoomes, who died in a shipwreck before he could participate in the Commencement of 1665. Tiffany Smalley, who also was awarded her degree in 2011, was the first Wampanoag scholar from Noepe to graduate from the College since Caleb, and she was honored alongside her ancestor. Tiffany was among the first research assistants to work on this project.
The scholars who attended the preparatory schools included the sons of leaders from the Wampanoag, Nipmuc and Patucket communities. They studied alongside the sons of colonial ministers and magistrates. James, Joel and Caleb attended school with young men like Samuel Numphow, son of the Patucket sachem Numphow, and William Mammanuah, son of the Wampanoag saunkskwa Awashonks, as well as a young woman named Joan.
Although there are few details which may reveal “Joan’s” identity, there were a number of women named “Joan” within the Massachusett Saunkskwa’s family. However, it was a fairly common Christian name for Native girls. Joan, like Joel and Caleb, may have come from the day school at Noepe, where boys and girls were educated together. In the Wampanoag community on the island, many women became literate, passing the skills of reading and writing onto their children. This presented a stark contrast with colonial towns. English girls did not attend the preparatory schools in Roxbury and Cambridge.
Among those students who attended the Harvard Indian College after Joel and Caleb were John Wampus, a Nipmuc man from James Printer's town of Hassanamesit, who, ironically, was in debtor's prison in England during King Philip's War, and Benjamin Larnell, who attended long after the war. A poem written by Benjamin Larnell was found in 2013 in the Massachusetts Historical Society's collections. A young man known only as Eleazar attended Harvard briefly right after King Philip's War. His poem was published by one of his classmates, Cotton Mather, in Magnalia Christi Americana (1702).
 Daniel Gookin, Historical Collections of the Indians of New England (1674) (North Stratford, NH: Ayer, 2000), 46. Duane Hamilton Hurd, History of Bristol County, Massachusetts, with Biographical Sketches (Philadelphia: J. W. Lewis, 1883), 3. Samuel Gardner Drake, The Book of the Indians (Boston: Antiquarian Bookstore, 1841), 3:28n. Samuel Eliot Morison, Harvard College in the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1936).
 For more on the intriguing, twisting paths of John Wampus, see Jenny Pulsipher's essay, "Playing John White" in Native Acts: Indian Performance, 1603-1832.