Over the last two centuries quite a bit has remained the same as Kenyon has developed. The river still flows south on its winding path and pileated woodpeckers can still be heard, and occasionally seen, as they make their way about searching for bug infested trees. Quite a bit has also changed. To take just one example, on page 71 of George Franklin Smythe’s 1924 Kenyon College, Its First Century at the time of the colleges construction residents of Knox County believed that, “God was Bishop Chase’s Friend”, due to a series of fortunate events that helped Philander Chase along in the construction of his shining city upon a hill. More recently on page 25 of Will Bunch’s 2022 After the Ivory Tower Falls: how college broke the American Dream and Blew up Our Politics- and how to fix it, the author notes that some of the residents of Mt. Vernon refers to the residents of the hill as, “the God haters.”

I used this anecdote at the beginning of this blog post because I find it to be an amusing little tidbit of information, but in all seriousness one of the things that has changed on campus is our perception of our founding figure. When I visited campus for the first time, before walking to admissions I explored the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. It was my first experience on campus. In that church you can find a marble bust of, and quote on Chase. If you go to the post office you’ll see the mural of him on horseback surveying the land where he would build the school. We have all, of course, heard his famous quote of, “this will do.” It would not be an exaggeration to say that Mr. Chase is currently a quasi-mythical figure for the college. You can see this glorification at work within the previously mentioned Smythe book, and it seems that since the time of that book’s publication that the trend towards aggrandizement has continued.

The Kenyon Archaeological Project, is a historical archaeological project, and as such we have been using archival information and primary sources on the college’s founding to help inform our research process, and in the near future, to interpret our findings from the site. Currently the digital Kenyon website maintains a collection of 56 website pages that host the letters and journals of Philander Chase and his family. These documents are proving to be particularly useful for understanding what we are looking for underneath the campus grounds.

These writings are also informing some of the potential research questions that our findings can answer, to give just one brief example. Chase’s letters frequently allude to fund raising issues. The quality of goods found within the archeological assemblage can potentially give insight into how severe these issues were. Another potential outcome from this study is a better picture of how strictly Chases edicts were enacted. To Take another example, Chase frequently complained about the use of liquor. Similar projects on campus archaeology at Harvard university have revealed that high quantities of alcohol were consumed in the college’s early years despite the substance being banned. Perhaps something similar happened at Kenyon, and our excavations may reveal this. If we were to find something like that it would pose new questions regarding things like Chase’s true role at Kenyon.

With that Being said the Journals and letters also reveal interesting lesser known pieces of information about Philander Chase. To put it bluntly, Mr. Chase was a bit of a character, and not just by modern standards. In one letter dated 3-3-1825 Mr. Chase complains about a negative pamphlet written on his character on efforts in England. This was actually a recurring problem for Philander that occurred multiple times within the 1820’s. I thought it might be fun to share some of these historical anecdotes.

You can see the silliness of Mr. Chase’s life within the earliest letter we have from Mr. Chase, in which he details how he may be removed from Dartmouth after being accused of cutting off a fellow student’s hair during a religious service. He was later acquitted of this charge.

In another Incident, while the college was still being housed in Worthington Ohio, Mr. Chase complains in a 1822 letter to his son Philander Chase Jr. about how his students have formed a mini rebellion against their tutor, who they apparently disliked. Here I will use a little excerpt from the Bishop:

“They proceeded to raise a rebellion in the other students and succeeded so far as to get 11 names to a paper addressed to the Faculty dictating that the delinquents should not be punished and accusing the Tutor of Tyranny.”

Beyond these misadventures the Bishop was often prone to decrying perceived sins and vices within society, which led him to choose the remote location of Gambier for his school. In one letter written on, 1-25-1828, Chase writes to his wife describing how he tried using a story of a drunken worker in Gambier who died in an alcohol induced accident to attempt to educate the non religious.

There are numerous other examples of amusing stories that can be found within Chase’s letters, and it’s fun to juxtapose these tales against the dignified image we have of Chase today. These writings serve as an important reminder that history is always more complicated than we make it out to be. One of the benefits of archaeology is that through physical reminders of the past we can form a clearer picture of what happened. This is the aim of our studies.

-Ethan McCullough

The Image shown above is a diary entry and sketch done by Philander Chase in his 1824 diary, which largely details Chase’s travels to London in that year. The full diary can be found, along with the rest of Chase’s writings on the digital Kenyon Website

Figure 1: A diary entry and sketch done by Philander Chase in his 1824 diary, which largely details Chase’s travels to London in that year. The full diary can be found, along with the rest of Chase’s writings on the digital Kenyon Website