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Caleb's Crossing
Article in Journal of College and Character · January 2012
DOI: 10.1515/jcc-2012-1896
2 authors, including:
Kim Nehls
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
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What They’re Reading
Journal of College & Character
VOLUME 13, No. 2, May 2012
Caleb’s Crossing
Reviewed by Kim Nehls, University of Nevada, Las Vegas
Diana Alexandra Lourdes, University of Nevada, Las Vegas1
Geraldine Brooks. New York: The Viking Press. 2011. 306 pp.
In Caleb’s Crossing, Geraldine Brooks takes a frequently overlooked episode in American history
as inspiration for her fictionalized version of the remarkable true story of Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk,
the first Native American to attend and graduate from Harvard College.
“Caleb? Caleb what?”
“Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk.”
“Outlandish name.” I suppose you insist upon it? You will not like to take another?”
President Chauncy’s pen scraped across the parchment. He set down his pen and bridged
his fingertips together upon the desk. He gazed at Caleb with an air of slight puzzlement,
blinking a number of times. (Brooks, 2011, p. 236)
n 1660, the second president of Harvard College greeted 16-year-old Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk
with this inauspicious introduction to the institution. In Caleb’s Crossing, Geraldine Brooks
takes a frequently overlooked episode in American history as inspiration for her fictionalized
version of the remarkable true story of Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk. Caleb was a member of the
Wopanaak (Wampanoag) tribe of Noepe, an area now known as Martha’s Vineyard, a small island
off the coast of Massachusetts. He was the first Native American to cross the numerous social and
educational barriers to attend and ultimately graduate from Harvard College in 1665, just 29 years
after Harvard was founded.
Harvard College was the first institution of postsecondary learning in America. Shortly
after its founding, much needed funds for sustaining the college’s operations were obtained from
the English Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England. This organization dedicated
resources to educating Indians, and as a result, Harvard College agreed to waive tuition and to
Kim Nehls is visiting assistant professor of higher education at University of Nevada–Las Vegas (UNLV).
Her research interests include higher education philanthropy and student affairs technology. Diana Lourdes
is a doctoral student in UNLV’s Department of Educational Research, Cognition and Development and works
for the Association for the Study of Higher Education.
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2 Journal of College and Character
VOLUME 13, No. 2, May 2012
Figure 1. Conjectural restoration of the Indian College (Source: “History,” n.d.)
provide housing for American Indian students. The Harvard Indian College was built in 1650 with
the sole purpose of housing and educating Native Americans (see Figure 1).
The 1650 charter creating the corporation of Harvard College expanded the institution’s
initial purpose to include “the education of the English & Indian Youth of this Country in knowledge
and godliness” (“History,” n.d.). The founders of Harvard’s Indian College believed that by educating
and converting the “Indian youths” in Massachusetts to Christianity, they would in turn propagate
the gospel knowledge within their own tribal communities.
Although education for Native Americans was the intended purpose for establishing the
Harvard Indian College, the mission was unsuccessful. No more than two native students ever
occupied the Indian College at one time, and during its existence, only four Indian scholars attended
Harvard (Wright, 1988, p. 75). The Indian College eventually was demolished in 1693.
As portrayed by Geraldine Brooks, not everyone in the colonies at that time was supportive
of this radical educational innovation. One wealthy student at Harvard was angered by the apparently
endless supply of funds, support, and buildings for Native Americans:
I do not see why they cannot be boarded elsewhere, as the funds for their education are
limitless, seemingly. You know, I suppose, that it comes, all of it, from England, where the
cause of Christianizing the savages is well supported. I have heard that the new building,
the Indian College as they call it, over yonder in the Harvard yard, cost in excess of four
hundred pounds of English money. Can you credit such a sum? For savages. While English
scholars crowd into a leaking, drafty ruin. (p. 160)
Caleb’s Crossing takes place during a time filled with prejudice and Puritan religious
authority. The novel is narrated through the fictional character of Bethia Mayfield, the daughter of a
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Caleb’s Crossing 3
Christian minister. Bethia and Caleb grew up together on Martha’s Vineyard, and their adventures
on the island comprise the first half of the book. Although both Bethia and Caleb had a strong
desire to learn, they encountered numerous obstacles to obtaining an education. Brooks created
Bethia’s character around a typical woman’s experience during the 1600s, encompassing a prescribed
life with a recommended marriage and numerous constraints on her opportunities for education.
Simply because of her gender, Bethia was denied access to books, the study of languages, and
a formal education. Similarly, Caleb, because of his “inferior” status, was not expected to attain
the educational level required to succeed at Harvard, which at that time consisted primarily of the
original seven liberal arts. Unlike Bethia, however, as a result of the special conditions of the Harvard
Indian College, Caleb was given the chance for a collegiate education and succeeded beyond all
expectations. Among other accomplishments, he learned to read and write in English, Latin, Greek,
and Hebrew. Caleb’s experiences at Harvard College and those of another Native American student,
Joel Iacoomis, are vividly depicted in the latter half of the novel.
Caleb’s incredible yet tragic life was filled with indoctrination, prejudice, skepticism, and
undervalued triumph. Brooks does an excellent job illustrating the racism and inequality that were
present in the 17th century. Although Caleb and Joel overcame various obstacles to attend Harvard,
their isolated experiences during college were equally challenging. This almost entirely forgotten
time in the history of higher education is vital in remembering the struggles that many individuals
experience with access to education. What we in higher education can gain with this novel is an
increased understanding of the struggles and hardships that some students experience when attending colleges dominated by one culture, one social class, and/or one religion. The story of Caleb’s
experiences in entering a foreign educational environment emphasizes the importance of remaining
aware of the biases and prejudices that may be present. Through an examination of historical documents, Wright (1988) explained that the American colonists viewed education as a necessity for
educating and Christianizing Indians, as well as “to civilize and remake them in the image of the
European” (p. 73). Assimilation was the goal in the 17th century. It does not have to be so in the 21st .
To immerse her readers in the 17th century atmosphere of Caleb’s story, Brooks recreated the
language and style of the time. Archaic word usage, such as tegs, decoctions, shapeling, sumptuary,
breechclout, gallnut and sneakery, add to the authenticity of the characters’ voices. As with her
other historical fiction, Brooks researched the geographic area, food, medicine, education, writings,
and diseases of the time to accurately portray the life and loss surrounding the early years of the
first American college. The flavor of 17th century Harvard is described in the passage below:
The scholars and their tutors lived in their own world, walled off from ordinary folk by their
black cloaks, their Latin speech and their high thoughts. Samuel had told me that there was
much talk, in the early days of the settlement, against the expense of building a college
such as this one. It would have been easier, and cheaper, in that straightened time, to have
the scholars boarded among the townsfolk, meeting together for classes, as the universities
of Europe generally fashioned it. But the English who visioned this place had graduated
from the colleges and Cambridge in England, and they aspired to what they had themselves
known: a gated sanctuary where the boys and their tutors lived together, a lofty remove
from the town, with its miserable distractions and ungirt life. Scholars were not to leave
the college yard, except by express permission of their tutors. In that way, it was supposed,
they would eat, sleep, and breathe their studies, encountering nothing that was not to the
purpose of learning. (pp. 236–237)
Although the actual situation of, and the relationships between, the Puritan and Native
students at Harvard College are undocumented, in Caleb’s Crossing, Brooks provides a detailed
and credible picture of what it might have been like for the only two Native Americans at Harvard
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VOLUME 13, No. 2, May 2012
during those years. The novel ends with King Philip’s war in 1675 and a description of how that
ultimately ended any compassionate relationship between Native Americans and the English.
We recommend the book for a purely enjoyable read as well as for the significant insights it
provides into the long-standing history of inequality in American higher education. These historical
insights from Caleb’s Crossing would complement more traditional texts in a history of higher
education course.2 The book is enlightening and involving, yet tragic and frustrating at the same
As this novel portrays, access to higher education was challenging for Native American
students in the 17th century. The issue of access for minority groups continues to be a persistent issue
in higher education today. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES, 2011) indicated
that, since 1976, American Indian/Alaska Native enrollments in degree-granting institutions have
increased from only 0.7% of total enrollments to 1.0% in over 30 years. During the same time period,
enrollments for other minority groups have multiplied from 3.5% to 12% (NCES, 2011). With this
in mind, diversity education is clearly a continuing and essential discourse in higher education,
especially when racial and ethnic minorities enroll at predominantly White campuses. As identified
by Swail, Redd, and Perna (2003), Native American students continue to face barriers to persistence
in higher education as “racism, hostility, prejudice, discrimination, a ‘chilly’ climate, institutional
bias, negative stereotypes, self-doubt, alienation, isolation, and cultural insensitivity” persist today
(p. 20). Why does this description not sound much different from what Caleb experienced in 1650?
Creating an inclusive campus environment that welcomes diverse viewpoints and cultures is central
to the mission of most higher education institutions. Caleb’s Crossing effectively illustrates the
detrimental effects of the barriers to diversity education faced by students and draws attention to
the continuing struggle of Native American students.
Nearly four centuries after Caleb earned his degree, in 2011 Tiffany Smalley earned a
Bachelor of Arts from Harvard; she is the “first Martha’s Vineyard Wopanaak since Caleb Cheeshahteaumauk to complete an undergraduate degree at Harvard College” (p. 306).
History (n.d.). The Harvard Indian College. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Peabody Museum
of Archaeology and Ethnology. Retrieved from http://www.peabody.harvard.edu/node/477
National Center for Education Statistics. (2011). Digest of Education Statistics, 2010, Table
235, (NCES 2011-015). Washington, DC. U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from
Swail, W., Redd, K., & Perna, L. (2003). Retaining minority students in higher education. A
framework for success. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report, 30(2).
Waterman, S. J., Shotton, H., & Lowe, S. (Eds.). (2012). Beyond the asterisk: Understanding native
students in higher education. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
Wright, B. (1988). “For the children of the infidels”?: American Indian education in the colonial
colleges. American Indian Culture and Research Journal, 12(3), 1–14.
For further reading, Stylus will publish a book on Native American college students later this year: S.J.
Waterman, H. Shotton, & Lowe, S. (Eds.). (2012). Beyond the asterisk: Understanding native students in
higher education. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
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