The Biographies

Rev. Jeremiah Chaplin, Dunster's First Biographer, 1813-1886.
Jeremiah Chaplin was an American Baptist clergyman and also at one time, like Dunster, a college president (of Waterville College in Maine, from 1820-1833). His 315-page biography, Life of Henry Dunster, published in 1872, is undoubtedly the single most important early work published on Dunster. It strongly influenced all subsequent efforts to tell the story of this extraordinary man. It brought together for the first time in one volume the disparate details of Dunster's life and captured the life and spirit of the man and his enormous contributions, as well as painting for us the dramatic scenes of his struggles before leaving Harvard, his voluntary exile and his sad but triumphant posthumous return. The book provides a wonderful tapestry of the history of the period by presenting Dunster's rightful place within that history. Chaplin's personal hope for the book was that it might "subserve the cause of Truth and Spiritual Freedom," - a goal he nobly met. One criticism might be in how the book is organized.

Chaplin was a prolific writer and biographer. Two years after publishing his biography on Dunster, he published a Life of Charles Sumner (1874) and two years later, The Life of Benjamin Franklin (1876), as well as several other books. It is interesting to consider what was happening on the Harvard campus itself at about that same time. Two years earlier, in 1870, the Rev. Phillips Brooks laid the cornerstone for what was to become Memorial Hall - a memorial to the Harvard men who had just recently perished in the U.S. Civil War to defend the Union.

Life of Henry Dunster, First President of Harvard College (CLICK for Link to TEXT) (1872) by Jeremiah Chaplin. (INTERNET ARCHIVE MICROFORM LINK)

A paperback copy of this book can also be ordered from The Michigan Historical Reprint Series of the University of Michigan University Library, available through via this link: Life of Henry Dunster, First President of Harvard College (Paperback)

Samuel Dunster (1803 -?). The Genealogical Account. Chaplin's book aroused great interest among Dunster's descendants. One of them, Samuel Dunster, was inspired to write a book that dealt mostly with Henry Dunster's descendants in America. This appeared in 1876 in Henry Dunster and His Descendants. Samuel Dunster believed that the genealogy in Chaplin's book was incomplete. In his "Introduction" he wrote that "some of the female descendants were grieved that they and their children could not be noticed." Then he added, "It is our purpose, as far as we are able, to amend this acknowledged wrong..." He sought to do so in a volume of 333 pages that contains a great deal of genealogical and family minutiae, even though he wrote that the work was "abridged in many places, and matter which we should gladly have put in is omitted."

While suffering even more severely from organizational problems than Chaplin's book, Samuel Dunster's book contains many gems, including fascinating stories of early American history from colonial times up through the American Revolution and beyond and what roles Henry Dunster's descendants played in that process. For example, he includes the story (pp. 81-90) of Rev. John Marrett (1741-1813, son of Amos and Mary (Dunster) Marrett, graduated Harvard College, 1763), who, upon warning from Paul Revere and others, personally protected John Hancock and Samuel Adams from British forces and took them to a safe place during some of the events leading up to the march at Lexington. At the time, it was considered a capital crime to assist Hancock and Adams, who had been exempted from the general pardon of General Gage.

A passage from a letter of John Marrett to his uncle, Isaiah Dunster, recorded by Samuel Dunster, dated July 28, 1775, captures the spirit of the age and also that same sense of independence that motivated his famous forbear, President Dunster, when the latter issued the first degrees in the New World without any sanction from the British Crown: "As to the British Parliament having supremacy over the American Colonies, as now contended for by that Body, I hope that through the help of Divine Providence by next September Great Britain will be convinced she never did, nor will hold such a Power in her hands." (p. 89) Such was the stock of a Massachusetts minister and American patriot descended from Henry Dunster.

Henry Dunster and His Descendants (CLICK for Link to TEXT) (1876) by Samuel Dunster.

Arseny James Melnick, Dunster - The Man Who Saved Harvard and Established American Higher Education (in draft, 2015). Many of the biographical excerpts on this website are taken from this book. If you would like more information on when this volume becomes available, please send an email to:

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This page was last updated in April 2015