Student Activism on Campus

Yesterday and today at Amherst and at institutions of higher education throughout the United States, students have gathered to demand a more “just and inclusive environment” on college campuses.  The Frost Library is honored to be a site of this student movement on campus.

Amherst students have a long history of speaking out on issues of race and of public demonstration on campus.  Evidence of past student activism on campus can be found in the Archives and Special Collections.

The Race and Rebellion at Amherst College exhibition is currently on exhibit in the Archives and Special Collections and in the Lobby of Frost Library.  This exhibit “explores the history of student activism and black lives on campus from the 1820s to the present day.  From the founding of the Anti-Slavery Society in 1833 to the Moratorium on Black Dissatisfaction in May 1969 to the Hands Up, Don’t Shoot! walkout in December 2014.”


1833 Anti-Slavery Society: Records of the Anti-Slavery Society, founded on July 19, 1833, show an early history of activism around race at Amherst and evidence of the first strong challenge to the administration by students of the college.

April 1969 Moratorium: In the spring of 1969, student grievances over College governance, coeducation, the Vietnam War, and race relations on campus led to a two day suspension of classes.  Faculty stated their intent for the moratorium:  “The moratorium can be a constructive period of self-appraisal and provide the framework within which students, faculty, administration and staff can for the first time devote full energies in this way to the questions of education and Amherst College; however, this period will be fruitful only with full participation by all members of the college community.”

pages from “Amherst: A Black Perspective” ca. 1973

May 1969 Moratorium: On May 14, 1969, at the instigation of the College’s Afro-American Society, Amherst held a Black Moratorium, in which seminars were held to address issues of race relations and black dissatisfaction. (This event contributed to the College’s decision to found the Black Studies Department in 1970.)

May 5, 1970 National Student Strike: On May 5, 1970, students and faculty of Amherst College joined more than 1,250 other colleges and universities in a nationwide student strike.  The May 7, 1970 Amherst Student strike resulted in a call by students and faculty to insure justice and full constitutional freedoms for Americans of all races.


Photograph from May 7, 1970 student strike

May 1992 Converse Hall Sit-In: In response to the non-guilty verdict for police officers charged in the videotaped beating of Rodney King, Amherst students took over Converse Hall and issued eight demands, including demands for the hiring of more faculty and administrators of color, as well as an affirmative action officer.


Amherst Student May 6, 1992

Here in the Archives, both on exhibit and in our collections, we have documented evidence of past student activism and protests on campus.  This material is freely accessible to all students and the public.

Yama Yama Halloween

Need an idea for Halloween? See the photograph below from a costume party in Turkey, ca. 1920-21, except for the French soldiers, who are real and probably on duty (which doesn’t rule out their garb for your party purposes). The other men are in “Pierrot” costume, perhaps inspired on this occasion by the popularity of “Yama Yama Man,” a strange song and dance routine not to be missed for your daily dose of weirdness from another place and time.

The photograph is from an album formerly belonging to Dorothea Nesbitt Chambers (Blaisdell), daughter of missionaries William N. and Cornelia P.W. Chambers.  Dorothea, a Bryn Mawr graduate, was a hardworking but fun-loving woman who grew up in Turkey and worked there for the YWCA before her marriage in 1926.  She is probably the photographer here.

Friends of Dot Chambers in Turkey (probably Adana).  Photograph from the Williams-Chambers-Seelye-Blaisdell Papers.

That the Yama Yama dance was popular is clear from this photograph of the 10th reunion (in 1912) of the Class of 1902.

The Class of 1902 at their decennial reunion, June 24 1912. Published in

The Class of 1902 at their decennial reunion, June 24 1912. Published in “College on the Hill.”

Yama Yama Man continued to appear through subsequent decades, including in this album’s title and in one of its tracks.

Chris Barber Band, album ca. 1960.

Chris Barber Band, album ca. 1960.

If anyone ever wanted proof that our small college’s archives has everything from soup to nuts, here it is, our own Yama Yama Man costume (or most of one), a gift from the family of Arthur F. Ells, Class of 1902, who owned it originally and is no doubt in the reunion photograph above.

Portion of a Yama Yama Man costume used by the Class of 1902 in 1912.

Portion of a Yama Yama Man costume used by the Class of 1902 in 1912.

tickets from 1891, 1926 and 1937In honor of Homecoming Weekend, and the Amherst vs Wesleyan football game tomorrow, here are a few glimpses of past games, mostly from our Athletics Collection. Here’s hoping the score tomorrow is more like the one in 1915 or 1935, and less like 1899!


One hundred years ago this weekend, Amherst won against Wesleyan, 10-6. According to the student newspaper “Despite the fact that the deciding touchdown was scored on a fumble, the victory was deserved, the Purple and White eleven making eleven first downs to their opponents’ seven.”


November 18, 1899 – Wesleyan won, 40-0 (!)

October 22, 1927

October 22, 1927 – Wesleyan won, 20-12

October 26, 1935

October 26, 1935 – Amherst won, 26-0

October 23, 1937 - Amherst won, 12-2

October 23, 1937 – Amherst won, 12-2

October 22, 1949 - Amherst won, 14-7

October 22, 1949 – Amherst won, 14-7

Wedded to the Worm


An old letter is like a present.  Its handwriting is the wrapping paper: before you can see or know the present, you have to unwrap it.  The present may be lousy, something you’ll quickly forget.  Or it might be something you keep, something you take with you, maybe even something that changes your life.  But you’ll never know until you unwrap it.

Sometimes a present is for sharing, like the one-pound chocolate bar in your colleague’s desk drawer.  I recently unwrapped such a present –a letter full of delicious nuggets — and want to share it with you because it has lingered in my mind ever since I first read it.

Tyler-WS-fr-autobio-ca1840The letter is from William Seymour Tyler, Class of 1830, to his brother Wellington Hart Tyler, Class of 1831.  The letter is dated January 30, 1837, when both men were in their mid-twenties.  Wellington (apparently nicknamed “Edward”) was principal at an academy in Manlius, New York, while William was at Amherst College teaching Latin and Greek and heading into his glory days as the man whose tardiness inspired the founding of the Philopogonian Society. We often think of Edward Hitchcock, professor and president, as the emblem of early Amherst College, but Tyler was here just as long and served just as devotedly. His “History of Amherst College” continues to be a very valuable, reliable resource, and he was the author of other, more modest works, including the nicely named “Why Sit Ye Here Idle?”


William Tyler’s letter to Wellington hits on a number of topics, including abolition in Massachusetts; the difficulty of finding money for Amherst College; the state of religious feeling at the College, and (my favorite part) about a certain family in Hadley.  To look at it page by page:

1830-Tyler-Wm-1837-Jan-30-p1-to-bro-Wellington“Dear Brother,

            Above is a new lithograph of Buildings & Grounds, which are already familiar & welcome to your mind. The principle diff. between this & the former view consists in the new & elegant house of Esq, Boltwood & the terrace in front, which will soon be finished according to Esq. Wilder’s  plan. In the Printer, you will recognize the name of a member of our senior class.”

[Transcriber’s note: the Boltwood house is off to the left, where Converse is now.  “Esq. Wilder” is trustee Samson Vryling Stoddard Wilder.  The “printer” is Henry G. Van Lennep, Class of 1837, born in Turkey and a missionary and avid amateur artist there for 30 years]. 

 “1830-Tyler-Wm-1837-Jan-30-p2-to-bro-WellingtonWhile on the subject of the college, I will inform you that the application of the Trustees for an appropriation of $50,000 is now pending before the legislature. The joint Committee of the two houses have reported unanimously in favor of the grant. We have not much hope of getting the bill through the house. Better for a literary man to run the gauntlet between as many Indians, than to fall into the hands of the 200 or 250 avowed & trained Radicals in the Mass House of Representatives. The Radicals are opposed in toto to incorporated Institutions. The Demagogues must court the favor of the people by voting for a distribution of the surplus revenue among the towns, though a majority of them doubtless are fully convinced that it will only embroil the people without benefitting them. And when the surplus is thus thrown away, the Legislature will hardly venture or feel disposed to tax the people for an appropriation to Amherst College. Still the prospect is much more favorable than at any former application.”

[By the time of this letter, Amherst had its hard-won charter but was about to enter a period of financial difficulties and was seeking additional funding from the state.] 


“There have been during the past term & vacation four or five hopeful conversions among students, chiefly the freshman class. Rather more feeling, I think, now than last term.

The junior class received a valuable accession in a young man by the name of Smith from Yale College. He has more talents & is a more elegant scholar than Maynard. If he exerts himself, he will carry off the palm. You are probably impatient about the colloquia. When I wrote you last term, I had not explored the archives. On examination, I could not find either of the colloquies I wished or any other I ever heard on the stage. I found three or four, which I have not examined. If they are of any value, or will answer, I shall get a couple of them copied for you. Possibly more may be discovered, as the Archives have been thrown into confusion by the President’s moving. If not, might you not venture to write [Haven?] at the Asylum in New York, requesting him to send you a copy of his Colloquy, offering of course to remunerate him?”

[Tyler writes above about the state of religious feeling at Amherst, especially in relation to the revivals that swept through the area.  He refers as well to Class of 1838 members Charles Fuller Smith and Horace Maynard, both of whom had important careers in politics and the law.  Note too that by this time President Heman Humphrey had moved from the “first president’s house” (in the block where Mayo-Smith is now) to the house we still use as the president’s house today.  It’s also interesting that Tyler is already thinking in terms of “archives” — good man, that Tyler.  By “colloquia,” Tyler probably refers to records of religious debates or discussions.]

1830-Tyler-Wm-1837-Jan-30-p4-to-bro-Wellington“The two Sisters ha! It seems I have kept you on tiptoe a month to know who they are. One of them is more likely to be wedded to the worm, than to me. She is probably near her end. She is a bright jewel. But the younger sister is brighter, sweeter still. She is perfectly enchanting tout ensemble form, features, mind, heart. Edward, if you can’t love Miss Nancy Brown of Hadley—nay, if you can help loving her on acquaintance, you are not my brother– ”

[More on this part below…]

[Letter addressed in this space to “Mr. W. H. Tyler, Manlius, Onondaga Co, N.Y.]


Baptist Church, now Human Resources offices.

We’ve had an anti-slavery fraternite [sic] meeting in the [Baptist Church] lately. In firing Cannon to disturb the Lecturer one Evening, a young man had his hand blown entirely off. That gun was a loud Lecture. Write soon. Yours, Wm. Tyler

This brief part of the letter is important for its depiction of the uncertain state of abolitionist sentiment at the time, both among students and faculty at the College and among the townspeople.  The speaker on this occasion was Rev. Nathaniel Colver, who preached against slavery for many decades and who by this time was probably inured to whatever insults the opposing side would hurl (or fire) at him.


Tyler seems to have been sympathetic to the cause, probably agreeing with the author of an op-ed in the Hampshire Gazette that describes the event:


My favorite part of Tyler’s letter, though, is where he writes about the Brown family and uses that spectacular expression, “wedded to the worm.” Did he coin that expression? Surely not, but I have yet to find it anywhere else except in a few articles and one poem (appended at end of post), all dated after Tyler’s letter. Tyler’s comments about the Browns piqued my curiosity, and if you suffer as I do from even a minor case of obsessive compulsion, you will not rest (so to speak) until you know who Nancy Brown is.  But what are the chances?  “Nancy Brown” sounds like a pretty common name.  And she probably married and changed it, so good luck to me.

To my surprise, the family turned up quickly.  And then I found a section confirming the identification in Tyler’s “History,” published more than 35 years after his letter to brother Wellington.  Tyler’s remembrance of the “beautiful and lovely family” and the “accomplished daughters” is downright sentimental, so you can tell the family meant a lot to him:


One by one the Browns died of tuberculosis: one each in 1837 and 1838, four in 1839, and one each in 1840 and 1842. Their home and worldly belongings were sold bit by bit too.


And the horrid cherry on top??  The beds and bedding went up for sale.


Who wants first dibs on the beds from a family of consumptives? You call it? Be my guest.


“La Miseria,” by Cristobal Rojas. Public domain image; accessed through Wikipedia.

If I had all the time in the world to search for answers, and maybe some magical powers too (because the evidence otherwise surely didn’t survive), I’d like to know what unsuspecting soul bought these beds and what became of the people who slept in them. But just how infectious would the beds be? Some sources I checked said that the tubercules wouldn’t survive on objects for long. A few others hedged their bets: “[Mycobacterium tuberculosis] can withstand weak disinfectants and survive in a dry state for weeks.” Certainly, this sale happened before people began to understand the nature of contagion.


“Scanning electron micrograph of M. tuberculosis.” Credit: Janice Carr Content Providers(s): CDC/ Dr. Ray Butler; Janice Carr – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Public Health Image Library (PHIL), #8438. Accessed through Wikipedia.

I went to find the Browns in nearby Hadley.  And there they were, all lined up.  I was glad to find them – glad to see them — and it felt like they were glad of company, some of them a little tipsy in excitement.  But it was also sad to see this evidence of a family wiped out in half a dozen years.

Visiting the

The “meek members of the Resurrection” in Old Hadley Cemetery.  Left to right, Edward (age 2.5); Sarah (age 22); son John (age 15); Rev. John (age 53); Mrs. Sarah Brown (age 43); Lucy Ann (age 22); Emilie (age 20), and Nancy (age 23).

So when Tyler referred to the Brown daughter about to be wedded to the worm, he most likely meant Lucy Ann, who died on February 2, only a few days after Tyler wrote his letter:Lucy_Ann_Brown_1815-1837

Unfortunately, and as you can see from the caption in the group photograph above, the perfectly enchanting Miss Nancy Brown also succumbed to the disease.


After most of her family had died, Nancy left her sad home in Hadley to live with relatives in Vermont.  She made provisions so that when she too died, her body would be returned to Hadley to lie with her family.

Nancy Brown died on April 30, 1842. Requiescant in pace.

Nancy Brown died on April 30, 1842.

Nancy’s obituary mentions one last daughter. It took a while to find her, but I finally learned that little Helen A. Brown, born in 1834, went to live with a colleague of her father’s, Rev. Joseph Day Condit.  Helen too eventually died of tuberculosis in 1855 at the age of 21.  This last daughter of Rev. John Brown lies with her adopted family in South Hadley, Mass.

William Tyler must’ve known Nancy Brown was doomed because he didn’t marry her when he could’ve. Instead, he married the bonny Amelia Whiting, who lived to be 85 and with whom he had five children.


William S. Tyler’s letter has a lot of useful information about early Amherst College, but the unfortunate Browns of Hadley continue to rattle around in my thoughts and to visit me in quiet times.


“Oh Where are the Spirits,” from the “New York Mirror,” September 23, 1837.

This picture was take looking south at Walker Hall (left) and Williston Hall and college row (right). Forbes was standing on what would now be the street in front of the Armes Music Center.

This picture was taken on May 10th, 1906, looking south at Walker Hall (left) and Williston Hall and college row (right). Forbes was standing on what would now be the street in front of the Arms Music Center.

One of the projects that I’m working on right now is a complete survey of all the photographic and audio/visual materials in our collections. The ultimate goal of the survey is to make sure that all of these vulnerable materials are being housed in appropriate conditions and to flag items that need conservation work or conversion off of unplayable media.

An impromptu gravestone for one, A. Pair Pants, from October 25, 1906. The text at the bottom reads, "died of skunk juice."

An impromptu grave for one A. Pair Pants, from October 25, 1906. The text at the bottom reads, “died of skunk juice.”

In the course of this project, it has been my deep pleasure to explore the many small collections of photography by students, professors and others associated with the college. One of my personal favorites is the collection of Allan W. Forbes, class of 1908. Forbes, who went on to become an engineer after Amherst, was clearly a passionate amateur photographer. His collection contains more than 100 glass plate negatives, nearly 40 nitrate negatives and prints of around half of the images.

Walker Hall by moonlight, November 24, 1906. This image was toned a reddish color.

Walker Hall by moonlight, November 24, 1906. This print was toned a reddish color. The halo around the picture is caused by the silver particles in the image degrading and migrating to the surface of the paper.

In addition to providing an interesting view of the campus and surrounding areas, Forbes’ images show an approach both analytical and artistic; he experimented with taking pictures of running water and there is a delightful series of night shot of campus. His prints show his experimentation with various development techniques, including different color toning, and different types of photographic paper.

A frozen waterfall on Mt. Toby, December 5, 1906.

A frozen waterfall on Mt. Toby, December 5, 1906.

Please enjoy this photographic glimpse back to 1906-1908 and look for highlights from other collections in the coming months.

Students celebrating Mountain Day on Mt. Toby, October 1907

Students celebrating Mountain Day on Mt. Toby, October 1907

Students celebrating Mountain Day on Mt. Toby, October 1907.

Students celebrating Mountain Day on Mt. Toby, October 1907.

The view south to the Holyoke Range from Pratt Gymnasium (now Charles Pratt Dormitory), June 20, 1908

The view south to the Holyoke Range from Pratt Gymnasium (now Charles Pratt Dormitory), June 20, 1908

View of the rear of Stearns Church, September 1907. All that remains of the church is Stearns Steeple by the Mead Art Museum.

View of the rear of Stearns Church, September 1907. All that remains of the church is Stearns Steeple by the Mead Art Museum.

In college student life, it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between raucous traditions and random acts of stupidity. Traditions often degrade over time, ultimately ending with some egregious incident — or series of them, each progressively worse — that causes their dissolution09-2. At Amherst College, the statue of the mythical nymph Sabrina is perhaps the best known but not the only example. Fraternity hazing rituals, silly pranks, drunken stunts, rivalry-fueled acts of humiliation, stolen vehicles, property damage — these, unfortunately, are constants at colleges and universities. But the nature of such incidents, and the nature of college traditions in general, have a somewhat different flavor in earlier eras as compared to today; it may be the long winters, the lack of entertainment options, the stifling isolation of campus life, and the inherently strict moral codes of its community that have made colleges a breeding ground for antics of every sort.  Many of them are documented in the College Archives, though probably the great majority of them are not.

Last year I wrote about the “Squirt-Gun Riot of 1858,” which seems to have put me on the lookout for more “Acts of Stupidity” (yes, that’s an actual subject heading in our General Files, where we compile odds and ends related to the history of the college). Today let me share a few more of these with you. (Maybe this will be an occasional series?)

1. Chicken Stealing: William Hubbard (AC 1844), Non-Graduate

Hubbard’s problem seems simply to have been impulse control. He was dismissed from Amherst for a string of offenses culminating in the incident of March 5, 1842, involving the theft of chickens. Hubbard later graduated from Brown University (1845), practiced law in Minnesota, and later taught school in the South. Interestingly, despite his unfortunate experience at Amherst, he sent three of his sons there (William 1871, Charles 1876, and Edward 1885).

This letter from Prof. William S. Tyler (PDF) lays out the facts:

Amherst College, Mar. 9, 1842.

Mrs. Hubbard

Dear Madam,

I regret extremely, that I am obliged so soon again to be the bearer of unwelcome intelligence respecting your son. When he returned, he made many fair promises of amendment both as a scholar & a Christian. But he has disappointed our hopes, returned to his former bad habits & even committed higher misdemeanors. You will learn, what I mean, from the following note of the Faculty: “Whereas on Saturday night the 5th of March last, Sophomore Hubbard, after indulging in festivities & cardplaying till a very late hour with several of his classmates at the room of a classmate, proceeded with one of his companions to take without liberty several fowls from a neighboring barn roost for the purposes of continuing the entertainment, & whereas this is but one of a series of offences of which he has been found guilty & for which he has been subject to college censure; therefore vote that he be & hereby is dismissed & that his parent be informed, that unless there is a radical change in his character, it cannot be safe or [wise?] for him ever to return to this college.”

I feel constrained to add, not for the sake of distressing you more, but for the purpose of acquainting you fully with the facts, painful as they are, that besides cardplaying & Sabbath breaking (for by our laws, the previous night is regarded as a part of the Sabbath) the misconduct of your son was aggravated by falsehood & misrepresentation.

I think, Madam, you will agree with the Faculty that unless there is a radical change in his character, there will be as little [encouragement?] for you to send him back to College, as for us to receive him. Dismission necessarily involves separation from College for one year. At the end of that time, should you wish to send him to another College, we shall interpose no obstacle. That you may be sustained & sanctified under this event so painful to us as well as to you, is the sincere desire of myself & all my associates in whose behalf I write.

Yours Truly

Wm. S. Tyler

2. The Burning of the Peagreen Beanies (I) – 1927

Pea-green beanies from ca. 1921

As I wrote in an earlier blog post, several generations of Amherst freshmen in the first half of the 20th century were forced to wear these universally loathed, completely fashion-backward wool beanies (above) when out in public during the first months of college. Ostensibly their purpose was to identify members of the incoming class, but their true purpose, of course, was a not very subtle form of ritual humiliation: the Sophomore class asserting its newfound superiority over another peer group. Because they had to endure it, now it was time for the class below them to endure it too.

Amherst Student, Feb. 24, 1927

Amherst Student, Feb. 24, 1927

In late February 1927, when the members of the Freshmen of the Class of 1930 were no longer required to wear the hated beanies, they celebrated with a ritual ceremony of burning them in a bonfire. This had apparently become a tradition for the past few years. As this report from the Amherst Student (right) entertainingly describes, the celebration got a bit out of hand, with the freshmen taking over the streets of downtown Amherst, blocking trolleys, snowballing the police, turning around passing cars, and generally acting like prisoners released from confinement. The ugliest business occurred with the “liberation” of a trolley conductor’s cap by an unnamed assailant.

The archives has the following letter from the president of the Freshman class apologizing to the president of the trolley company, and the latter’s surprisingly good-humored reply:

(The cap-stealing part of the incident will no doubt remind P.G.Wodehouse fans of the hilarious efforts of several characters in his stories to steal policemen’s helmets on Boat Race Night at Oxford and Cambridge. Is it possible that the Amherst miscreant had Wodehouse in mind? Please enjoy this video homage.)

3. The Burning of the Peagreen Beanies (II) – 1930

The last incident I’d like to present also involves the cap-burning ritual, this time three years later. However, this had a much more serious and tragic outcome, and brought a lot of unwelcome sensational press coverage to the college.

1930_bostonpost1During the week leading up to the February 22, 1930 cap-burning, freshmen had kidnapped some of the sophomore officers, so several members of both classes were ready for a battle. Freshmen arranged a large pile of wood on the lawn in front of Converse Library; if they successfully guarded the pile until 6 p.m., then by agreement they could have their fire in peace and burn their caps. If the Sophomores burned the wood before that time, or in some way prevented the fire, the Freshmen would have to wear their caps for a few more weeks.

The Sophomores gathered on the hill near the Octagon about 5 p.m. Suddenly they rushed down the hill with buckets of what appeared to be water, which they attempted to throw on the wood. They succeeded in getting themselves and the Freshmen as well as the wood thoroughly soaked. They returned to the Octagon, and then again very suddenly rushed down with blow torches. As Richard H. Plock (AC 1930) relates in a letter,

We discovered to our horror that they had gasoline in the buckets. In no time at all there was great confusion. Some of the boys tripped with the torches, others aimed them poorly, and before we knew it, the clothing of several of the sophomores and freshmen was on fire. […] Several of the boys received rather bad burns, but fortunately none were fatally burned.*

The Dean wanted to issue a harsh punishment to the entire Sophomore class, but officers of Scarab (an honor society then active at Amherst at that time which was mainly responsible for overseeing college traditions) intervened and had penalties loosened somewhat. However, this marked the end of the cap-burning tradition forever.

* TLS to Walter B. Mahony (AC 1936), Apr 23, 1936, in General Files: Student Life and Customs: Cap Burning.

Although Lord Jeffrey Amherst married twice, he left no direct heir when he died in 1797. When his brother, Lieutenant-General William Amherst (1732–1781), died in 1781, Lord Amherst took his orphaned nephew and two nieces into his household and raised them as his own. Through a special remainder, the title of Baron Amherst of Montreal passed to his nephew, who became William Pitt Amherst, Second Baron Amherst of Montreal.

John Hoppner. William Pitt Amherst (1773-1857), 2nd Baron Amherst of Montreal and 1st Earl Amherst of Arakan (Mead Art Museum, Amherst College)

The Archives & Special Collections at Amherst College holds a small collection of papers by and about William Pitt Amherst. As with our holdings of material related to Lord Jeffrey Amherst, much of this material was donated to the college by alumni, largely by Jack W. C. Hagstrom, MD (Class of 1955) who served as executor of the estate of the final Earl Amherst who died in 1993.

After completing his education at Westminster School and Christ Church, Oxford, William Pitt Amherst went on to a career that carried him far from home, but in the opposite direction from the one his uncle traveled. The collection at Amherst College begins with a series of letters to and from Amherst that document his appointment as ambassador-extraordinary to the court of the Two Sicilies in 1809.

Letter from William Pitt Amherst to Sir John Stuart, 26 June 1809.

Letter from William Pitt Amherst to Sir John Stuart, 26 June 1809.

The most substantial portion of the William Pitt Amherst Collection is made up of ten portfolios full of manuscript documents just like this one. Six of these portfolios, containing several dozen items each, cover Amherst’s time in Italy between 1809 and 1812.

There is a gap in our collection until the next portfolio picks up in 1815 when he was called to lead an embassy to the court of the Chinese emperor. While preparing for his departure, Lord Amherst received this letter from the East India House to remind him of the provision preventing “any individuals who should accompany the Embassy to Pekin from attempting to be at all concerned in any Mercantile Transaction during that Service.”

Letter to Lord Amherst from East India House, 26 January 1816.

Letter to Lord Amherst from East India House, 26 January 1816.

In addition to such official documents, the collection also includes some correspondence between Lord Amherst and his wife, Lady Sarah Amherst (1762-1838). During his voyage to China in 1816, he wrote a series of letters that were dispatched to her about two weeks before he arrived in China. He helpfully includes his longitude and latitude at several points, which can easily be plugged into Google to track his progress.

Letter from Lord Amherst to Lady Amherst, 11 May 1816.

Letter from Lord Amherst to Lady Amherst, 11 May 1816.

Thanks to Google, we can pinpoint Lord Amherst’s location off the southern end of Africa when he wrote the above letter to his wife.

William Pitt Amherst's position at sea, 11 May 1816

William Pitt Amherst’s position at sea, 11 May 1816

The collection includes some interesting pieces of printed ephemera that round out this glimpse into the workings of the British Empire at the start of the nineteenth century. Apparently, someone in Lord Amherst’s party brought back an “ourang outang” — though it is unclear whether this violates the prohibition against accepting gifts noted in the letter from the East India House.

Broadside. Ca. 1817.

Broadside. Ca. 1817.

There is another gap in the collection between Amherst’s return from China and his appointment as governor-general of Bengal in succession to the marquess of Hastings. This piece of ephemera, printed by George Pritchard at the Hindoostanee Press, announces the arrival of Lord and Lady Amherst:

John Bull Extraordinary. George Pritchard, Hindoostanee Press, 1 August 1823.

John Bull Extraordinary. George Pritchard, Hindoostanee Press, 1 August 1823.

Unfortunately, Lord Amherst’s time in India was fraught with difficulties. Less than six months after his arrival, war was declared between British India and Burma on 24 February 1824. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography article about William Pitt Amherst neatly summarizes this conflict:

What had been predicted to be a short and cheap war of no more than six weeks turned into two years of arduous campaigning that cost nearly £5 million, yielded little loot, gained the unprofitable territories of Arakan, Tenasserim, and Assam, and so demoralized the army that not only was there a spectacular rise in desertions but British troops were forced to put down brutally a mutiny of Indian sepoys at Barrackpore in October 1824. Even the short and victorious campaign against Bharatpur conducted between December 1825 and January 1826 could not expunge the memory of the First Anglo-Burmese War. (Douglas M. Peers, ‘Amherst, William Pitt, first Earl Amherst of Arracan (1773–1857)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2009)

The collection includes a very small amount of material about Amherst’s time in India. This letter sent from Barrackpore on 20 March 1826 is one of the few items that provides any detail of the military campaign. (View the entire letter as a PDF: Lord Amherst letter 1826)

Letter from Lord Amherst, Bharatpur, 20 March 1826

Letter from Lord Amherst, Bharatpur, 20 March 1826

What the collection lacks in material from Lord Amherst for this period is more than made up for by the extensive diaries kept by Lady Amherst.

Thomas Lawrence. Hon. Sarah Archer (1762-1838), Countess of Plymouth & Countess Amherst of Arracan. (Mead Art Museum, Amherst College)

Amherst’s first marriage was on 24 July 1800 to Sarah, countess dowager of Plymouth (1762–1838), widow of the fifth earl of Plymouth and daughter of Andrew, second Lord Archer, whom he had first met while touring the continent in 1793. Her diary begins with their voyage from England to India and the seven bound volumes cover the entirety of their stay until they return home in July 1828.

Lady Amherst Diary vol. 1, 1823-24.

Lady Amherst Diary vol. 1, 1823-24.

The diaries are in the queue for high-quality imaging to be added to Amherst College Digital Collections, but these images give a sense of the contents. Lady Amherst took a serious interest in her new surroundings and includes several sketches in her diaries.

Lady Amherst Diary vol. 1, 1823-24.

Lady Amherst Diary vol. 1, 1823-24.

We hope to have the full finding aid for this collection online soon. It will take some time for us to digitize the entire collection, but we want the world to know that all of his material is available to researchers in the Archives & Special Collections at Amherst College.


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