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Nathaniel Eaton (1610–1674) was the first schoolmaster of Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and later became a clergyman.



The sixth son of Rev. Richard Eaton (1565–1616) and Elizabeth Shepheard (1569–1636), Nathaniel was christened October 16, 1610, at the church of St Giles Cripplegate, London, England. He was educated at Westminster School and went on to Trinity College, Cambridge,[1] where he was a contemporary and good friend of John Harvard. He later attended the University of Franeker, where he studied under Rev. William Ames. He emigrated to New England between 1634 and 1637 and became the first "professor" of the nascent Harvard College. He erected Harvard's first building, planted its first apple orchard, established the colony's first printing press in March 1639, and created its first semi-public library.

Around the time that Eaton started teaching at Harvard, an Antinomian controversy had erupted in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The governor at the time, John Winthrop, was well-noted for his extreme stance within the Puritan community and was greatly feared by many of the colonists. Even those who were Winthrop's close allies, such as Rev. Thomas Hooker, who cofounded the colony of Connecticut, were repulsed by his personality. As such, many left the colony and any Antinomians who didn't leave voluntarily were forced out, banished, or excommunicated (such as Rev. John Wheelwright who founded Exeter, New Hampshire, and his sister-in-law, Anne (Marbury) Hutchinson, who founded a new colony in what later became Rhode Island).

Eaton's older brother, Gov. Theophilus Eaton, emigrated to the colonies at around the same time in 1637.[1] Deciding that he didn't want to be involved in the animosity, he – like Rev. Thomas Hooker before him – founded a new colony, the colony of New Haven, though Winthrop and others literally begged both of them to stay.[2]

In 1639, the year after Theophilus left, Eaton was fired from his job following allegations that he had beat one of his students too harshly and that his wife had supposedly served students hasty pudding with goat dung in it.[3] Eaton's trial gave rise to the concept of court reporters. After the Church of Cambridge attempted an appeal on his behalf, Governor Winthrop refused them, saying that enough evidence had already been presented by several witnesses. The church, however, was able to secure a promise that all subsequent trials would be accompanied by a recording of facts so that defendants and plaintiffs could refer to evidence already presented without witnesses having to go through the entire process again.[4] The only record of Eaton's own supposed "confession" was destroyed in a suspicious fire in the office of the famous historian, James Savage (1784-1873), and his guilt remains in doubt.

Henry Dunster succeeded Eaton in 1640 as Harvard's first president, and the first students graduated in 1642.[5] Interestingly, Dunster also found himself confronting the students, albeit in a sterner fashion, actually having to whip two of them publicly for abusing one of the citizens of Cambridge. However, the students finally triumphed in the situation,[6] and Dunster himself resigned in 1654 over disagreements with the church about infant baptism.

At around the same time that Eaton was dismissed from Harvard, he apparently was also excommunicated from the congregation in Cambridge. He moved to Virginia in 1640 and then sent for his wife and children, but according to Winthrop in his History of New England [7] (known to be full of inaccuracies), the ship in which they traveled disappeared without a trace. Following the loss of his family, Eaton married the widow Anne (Graves) Cotton [8] (1620–1684), the daughter of Captain Thomas Graves (1584–1635) of Virginia and Massachusetts, and served for several years as an assistant to the Anglican curate at Accomac, Virginia before returning to England, where he was appointed the Vicar of Bishop's Castle, Salop, in 1661 and Rector of Bideford, Devon, in 1669.

In 1647 Eaton was finally "exonerated" of a £100 debt that Winthrop misstated as being for £1,000 in his History of New England, ibid, and with which Eaton had supposedly absconded to Virginia in 1640. The exoneration is documented in Henry Dunster's record book for Harvard College as a copy of a letter by two benefactors that Dunster recorded directly underneath his first design of the seal of Harvard College. The 1640 endowment letter was footnoted in 1647 by Theophilus, who wrote:

this money was put wholey into the hands of my brother Nath:Eaton. 9th August 1647. [signed] Theo:Eaton.

Clearly, the intention of the footnote was to indicate that his brother had finally been repaid, and apparently Nathaniel had in part used the money to further his education as he did receive a doctorate (a Ph.D. and an M.D.) from the University of Padua in that same year. As for the £100, Thomas Symonds – a carpenter who had apparently assisted in the building of the college at Cambridge in 1639 and afterwards – was soon found to be in debt to one of the creditors of the college, John Cogan, for the exact same amount. As stated elsewhere, the college building itself was poorly erected – Symonds being the responsible party after Nathaniel left – and eventually Symonds and at least one of his assistants were thrown into debtor's prison.

Religious Convictions

Nathaniel Eaton's troubles seemed to mount, however, after he graduated from the Jesuit Missionary University; probably because the Catholic church was hated in the New World and he was considered spiritually dead by the Puritans. Thus, he left for England around 1652, where he had already been accepted back by the Church of England and honored as both a vicar and rector (cf. supra), though obviously he had his scruples, and was said to waver back and forth between devotions to his newly found home and that of his former, which he could never return to.

In all likelihood, that "back and forthedness" and covering up set up a scenario of confusion, which seems to have also confused every recordkeeper involved. Ironically, Eaton died in 1674 in King's Bench Prison, where he had been incarcerated for a similar debt: quite probably the same £100 debt from which he had already been given relief. Also, his imprisonment coincided with the restoration of the Stuart Throne, and was likely reposted on an old list that King Charles II's father had kept concerning those of lingering or questionable indebtedness.

Another Nathaniel Eaton?

There is also evidence of another Nathaniel Eaton who lived in the town of Boston at the same time, across the street from Governor John Winthrop, but who spelled his name "Heaton".

His wife was also named Elizabeth, and there's some doubt whether the children that are listed in the colony's birth records at Boston are his children or Eaton's, since there are double listings for all of them spelling the name as "Eaton" and "Heaton". Further complicating the situation was a mysterious fire that destroyed the Cambridge town records in 1643.

Further, as Eaton had graduated from Franeker in 1633, and the Revs. John Cotton and Thomas Hooker, and others, had all decided to leave for the colonies in the same year, it is quite probable that the Nathaniel Heaton who immigrated in 1634 with Revs. Hutchinson and Hooker is the very same Nathaniel Eaton that was the first professor of Harvard College. (Cf. endnote 1, infra)

Lastly, since Eaton had no place else to go, and no records are found of him in England or Holland after 1634, the evidence is strong that they are the same person.


  1. ^ Nathaniel Eaton in Venn, J. & J. A., Alumni Cantabrigienses, Cambridge University Press, 10 vols, 1922–1958.

1. ^  And possibly on the same ship with Nathaniel, the Hector, though there is no record of Nathaniel being on it, just that a Nathaniel Heaton emigrated in 1634 on another ship, the Griffin with William Hutchinson and his wife Anne [see Anne (Marbury) Hutchinson, supra], and on the very same ship on which the Rev. Thomas Hooker, the first pastor of the church at Cambridge, had emigrated a few months earlier.

2. ^  Cf. John Warren Barber History and Antiquities of New Haven, (Conn.) (1831) pp 25–29

3. ^  Cf. Samuel Eliot Morison Builders of the Bay Colony (1930) pp 190–191 where can be found his wife's supposed confession that was obviously coerced. Allegations of embezzlement appear to be ex post facto, or after the fact, and when one compares the entries in: Thomas Lechford's Note Book Kept by Thomas Lechford Lawyer, 1638–1641 (1885), it can be seen that Nathaniel paid all his debts, and was even owed money by Thomas Lechford himself.

4. ^  Cf. Nathaniel B. Shurtleff, M.D. Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England (1853, vol I) p. 275; and subsequent later trials such as the Salem Witch Trials where it can be seen that testimonies at trial, etc., were thereafter taken down.

5. ^  According to Cotton Mather's Magnalia Christi Americana (1702), the graduating class of 1642 included the following individuals:

Benjamin Woodbridge
Georgius [George] Downing
Johannes Bulklæus [John Bulkeley]
Gulielmus [William] Hubbard
Samuel Bellingham
Johannes Wilsonus [John Wilson]
Henricus [Henry] Saltonstall
Tobias Barnardus [Barnard]
Nathanael Brusterus [Nathaniel Brewster]

6. ^  Since then Harvard has been marred by occasional shunnings, chastizements, and forced depositions of their Presidents by possibly the most powerful, if not notorious, student body in the history college education.

7. ^  James Savage, Winthrop's Journal "The History of New England" 1630–1649 (1825–26 edition). There are other versions, including the original 1649 version, but Savage's annotated edition, or its 1853 revision, is considered to be the most comprehensive.

8. ^  Many spelling variations exist, such as "Greaves" for "Graves". Also, some authorities state that Ann in fact was the daughter of Francis Graves, the son of Thomas Graves. She later married Francis Doughty as her third and final husband.


  • James Kendall Hosmer, editor, Winthrop's Journal 'The History of New England' 1630–1649 (1908 edition) vol. I, p. 314 — Appeal by the Church of Cambridge and the seizing of Nathaniel Eaton's estate. See also: James Savage's footnotes in his edited version of the same above Winthrop's Journal 'The History of New England' 1630-1649 (1825–26 edition)
  • Nathaniel Bradstreet Shurtleff, M.D., editor, Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England (1853, vol. I) [1628–1641] by page ...
p. 210 – [Eaton] left out of tax rate for 1637 on November 20, 1637
p. 262 – 500 acres [2 km²] of land granted on June 6, 1639 vis-à-vis: "If hee continew his employment wth vs for his life".
p. 275 – Removed from employment on September 9, 1639
p. 275 – Judgements henceforth, after the Eaton Trial, to "bee recorded in a booke, to bee kept to posterity".
(Same day as above: September 9, 1639, and written in after the above "deposition" event. It's probable that the "deposition" was a "first order of business", and not just something anticipated long before "recordation of facts" had even been conceived.)
p. 277 – His estate attached on November 5, 1639
p. 374 – Nathaniel Eaton Made a Freeman on June 9, 1638
p. 375 – Nathaniell Heaten made free on May 25, 1636
  • Thomas Lechford, Note Book Kept by Thomas Lechford Lawyer, 1638–1641 (1885) p. 236
"I payd Nathaniel Heaton for full of writings & cutting wood. 11.31.1639. 5s".
  • Cotton Mather, Magnalia Christi Americana (The Ecclesiastical History of New England) (1702) [7 books; 2 volumes in modern versions]
  • John Warren Barber, Connecticut Historical Collections (1837 edition) pp 134–185
  • Benjamin Trumbull, D.D., A Complete History of Connecticut (1818) [Also, 2 volumes]
  • New England Historical and Genealogical Register (1855, vol. 9) pp 269–271, article entitled "The First President of Harvard College"
  • James D. & Georgiana W. Kornhoff, Architecture and Town Planning in Colonial North America (2002) vol 2, pp. 981–986 [Harvard College]
(all preceding dates are in their original Julian Calendar format)
Academic offices
Preceded by
New position
Schoolmaster of Harvard College
Succeeded by
Henry Dunster, as President of Harvard College


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