Two weeks ago, the birthday of the College’s founder and beloved namesake Ephraim Williams came and went. The day passed quietly, with most people – myself included – completely unaware of the significance of the day to the campus. Who, then, is the man behind the name?
The story of Ephraim Williams began a little less than 300 years ago, with his birth on Feb. 24, 1715. Ephraim Williams was born in Newton, Mass., to Ephraim Sr. and Elizabeth Jackson Williams. His great grandfather, Robert Williams, had immigrated to Massachusetts from England in 1638; as a result of this, our Ephraim was born into an elite colonial family with significant social pull.
Williams (quite ironically) never went to college, though most of his contemporaries did. This, however, did not mean that he was uneducated. He completed his secondary education in 1733, and then proceeded to supplement this with the real-world education he would gain from his tours of England, Spain and Holland. He was also a voracious reader; books were so important to him that he often ordered obscure titles from London and had them shipped overseas. He also used his books for religious exploration. While he was a devout Protestant, he owned books about the Catholic priests of a Jesuit order that was particularly despised by his own church, and while he was from a colonial family of strong Tory beliefs, he is known to have taken two works of radical Whiggism along with him on his military escapades. The collection of books in his private library, amassed throughout his lifetime, became so large that he decided to divide it up and bequeath sections of it in his last will and testament to many different people. This man was one that understood the power of literature to education, and “often lamented his want of a liberal education,” Ebenezer Fitch wrote in his biography of Williams. We can guess that the seeds of what would become Williams College were beginning to sprout in the founder’s mind.
Aside from being an intellectual, Williams was also a military man. A short-lived but character-defining military career began in 1745 when Williams was 30 years old. On June 10 of that year, he received a commission as captain in the Massachusetts provincial force and took command of a line of forts along the state’s northern border. In 1746, Fort Massachusetts was completed under his supervision, and Williams relocated his headquarters there. Throughout the next 10 years, he would lead many military expeditions and missions from Fort Massachusetts. Notably, he is well-remembered for having bravely led a rescue mission to recover some of his men that had been ambushed by the French and Indians right outside of the Fort’s borders. On Sept. 8, 1755, after only 10 years in military service, Williams was caught in what became known as “The Bloody Morning Scout.” Williams received whispers that French troops were nearby. Willimas was scared that their presence threatened the English supply base at a nearby Fort, and he led his men out on an expedition to find out whether or not this threat was real. What they did find was an ambush, and Williams tragically fell on the field.
It was in the last letter he wrote to his cousin Israel Williams, only months before his death at the hands of the French, that the fate of Williams College was sealed. Attached with the letter was his revised – and final, as it turns out – will and testament. On this document, he requested that part of his estate be used for the establishment of a school in West Hoosac. Two and a half centuries later, we sit in that school today.
Ephraim Williams, it seems, was just a regular old chap, something that time and the compilation of urban legends seems to make us forget. Wyllis Wright, in his biography of Williams, wrote that, “He was not a great man and certainly not a great military commander. But he was a man one would have been glad to know and to count among one’s friends.” In Fitch’s biography of Williams, said that “He frequently entered into the pastimes of his soldiers, upon and equal footing with them: and permitted every decent freedom.” Williams was known to be a good-hearted man who valued honesty, loyalty and justice, and who would often go out of his way to be friendly. To use Write’s words, one thing for sure can be said about Williams: “those who knew him liked him.”