Ivy League in Marblehead? It almost happened

A 17th-century map pinpoints the approximate location of a once-proposed site for an Ivy League school in Marblehead. Photo by Sam Deeb

What if you were told that there were plans to build an Ivy League school in Marblehead before the town was officially established? Yes, it almost happened, and if it wasn’t for Rev. John Harvard, students today might be traveling up the coast for college rather than commuting to Cambridge. Here is the story of how an Ivy League school almost came to Marblehead.

According to “The History and Traditions of Marblehead,” a book written by Samuel Roads in 1636, the building of a college was proposed near John Humphrey’s farm, which later became known as Devereux Farm. 

In May of that same year, Humphrey had applied to acquire land at a town meeting held in Salem. The request was sent to a committee made up of six men “who were authorized to view the land, and ‘to consider of the premises, least it should hinder the building of a college, which would be many mens’ loose,’” the text reads. 

Humphrey, who was involved with the Dorchester Company and Massachusetts Bay Company, had goals to set up successful trade destinations up and down the coast, from the New England colonies down to Virginia and even the Caribbean. In “The Spirit of 76 Lives Here: Marblehead” by Priscilla Sawyer Lord and Virginia Clegg Gamage, the text says that Humphrey was granted 300 acres of land from “the Clifte” to Forest River, making his acquisition of the land one of the largest parcels granted in the town’s history. The land was able to be improved by Humphrey so that he could sell it. 

In October 1636, £400 was granted toward the construction of the college in Marblehead, and a committee was formed to oversee the project, with Humphrey serving as one of the members. 

“In 1636, the Puritans decided to establish an educational system. They began at the top with the establishment of a college that they dreamed might one day have the prestige of the English universities which claimed several alumni in the Massachusetts Bay Company,” read a paragraph in “The Spirit of 76 Lives Here: Marblehead.”

Both Humphrey and Rev. Hugh Peter were ultimately the ones who decided where the college would go. It was decided that the site in Marblehead would be on the 300-acre parcel of land owned by Thomas Scruggs, from Forest River to the farm located near Humphrey’s estate. 

Not long afterward, however, the bid was won by Harvard when he offered “several hundred pounds towards its erection, and donated his library for the use of the students.” The court, in turn, stated that the college would be built in Newtowne, now known as Cambridge, and be named Harvard College. Had the school ultimately been built in Marblehead, it would have been named Scruggs College in honor of Thomas Scruggs’ generosity in giving up his land. 

The town would certainly look different today had a university been built there. But who knows — maybe if the Ivy League decides to expand in the future, Marblehead will be its first call.