The Board of Trustees of Amherst College decided, on Jan. 26, to drop Lord Jeffery Amherst as an unofficial mascot. Though The Amherst Student’s archives include articles about the controversy dating back to 2001, the movement to remove “Lord Jeff” as mascot accelerated in November, when the faculty unanimously voted against keeping the mascot and hundreds of students who participated in a sit-in demanded the college stop calling its athletes the Lord Jeffs. Subsequently, 83 percent of students voted in favor of removing Lord Jeff.
In light of the Amherst community’s sudden rejection of Jeffery Amherst, who advocated for genocide against American Indians, the “Ephs” may need to examine their namesake’s character as well. Like Amherst, Ephraim Williams Jr. fought American Indians for the British. He closely involved himself with the Stockbridge mission, which worked to convert the indigenous tribe of Mahican Indians to Christianity. He also bought, owned and sold black slaves.
An avid reader who regretted his lack of higher education, Williams left part of his estate to West Township and for the founding of a free school there. Today, West Township and the school, which later became Williams College, both bear his name. The College’s athletic teams are the Williams College Ephs.
Role in Indian Wars
Williams fought in King George’s War and the French and Indian War against the French and Indian tribes including the Caughnawaga Iriqous, Abenakis, Nipissings, Hurons and Scaticooks. He commanded the garrison at Fort Massachusetts, located about a 10-minute drive east of the College on Route 2. The fort’s purpose was to protect the area from raids by American Indians allied with the French. In 1755, he lead a force of 1000 soldiers and 200 Mohawk allies into an ambush near Lake George, N.Y., in which he was killed.
Though not a great military leader, Williams had a reputation for bravery and pleasantness. He was well-liked by his soldiers and other officers.
“Capt. Ephraim Williams … is accounted a man of courage, has lived at Fort Massachusetts and is well knowing in that country. It is generally talked that he maintains good government and I know no man amongst us (except Col. Williams) that men would more cheerfully list under than he,” Williams’s contemporary, Col. John Stoddard, said in a 1748 letter to the Governor of Massachusetts.
There are no records to indicate that Williams harbored malicious attitudes towards American Indians like Amherst did. He maintained a friendship with Hendrick, chief of the Mohawks. Williams helped the Mohawks settle in Stockbridge, Mass., and they fought with him at Lake George, where Hendrick was also killed. The depiction of Hendrick is at the heart of the recent controversy over a mural in the Log that depicts him and Williams before battle.
By the time Williams became a captain, the indigenous population had already declined due to disease, war and migration. His attitude towards their land rights is unclear. In 1751, a group of Scaticook Indians claimed the land on which Fort Massachusetts stood.
“They told the English they must not build the Fort except they would pay them for the land, and that the commander had promist [sic] them pay, but the English had not been as good as their word. In answer I told them as to what promises they had had, I was not accountable, but be they what they would, I did not suppose they were binding upon us now, for it was well known that their tribe was in French interest the last war … and that we now held the land by right of conquest,” Williams said in a letter. “Nothwithstanding I would inform the governor & doubted not but he would lay the matter before the Court.”
Williams and an officer from Albany received orders to determine which tribe had rights to the land, but there is no record that they acted on them. In another instance, when a group of Mohawks sold 800 square miles of land near present-day Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to the Susquehanna Company, Williams was present as a friend of Hendrick and the Mohawks, as well as the settlers from Connecticut.
Williams was devoted to the Catholic education of the Stockbridge Indians at the mission. His first will, which was replaced two months before his death with the will that ultimately established the College, would have provided funds “for the promoting and propagating of Christian knowledge amongst the Indians.”
Though the conversion of American Indians to Christianity and to European lifestyles is not a laudable goal from a modern context, Williams believed strongly in this cause. While some leaders of the town valued the mission only for its role in maintaining a military alliance with the Stockbridge Indians, this does not seem to be the case with Williams. When the Mohawks arrived in Stockbridge, for example, he advocated for building them new schools, giving them land and having a missionary learn their language.
“The Indians had set there [sic] hearts greatly upon you, have often inquired after you, were big with expectations of your coming,” Williams’s sister, Abigail Sergeant, said in a letter to him.
Williams was, however, aware of the mission’s role in attaching the Indians to the British and of the tac-tics British officers used to convince Indians into fighting for them.
“Gov. Shirley has took too many indirect methods to git them [Indian allies] with him, has offered them large sums of money, has done everything in his power to disaffect them to the disaffect them to the General & its said has counterfitted [sic] letters, too many things to mention at this time,” Williams said in anticipation of the Battle of Lake George.
How many slaves Williams owned in his lifetime, how he treated them and what attitudes he held toward slavery are all unknown. At least three documents, however, confirm that he was a slave-owner.
In a bill of sale from 1750, Williams writes, “I do hereby assign, sell and convey to him [Israel Williams] a certain negro boy named Prince aged about nine years, a servant for life, and do hold him and his heirs against the claims of any person whatsoever.”
Ephraim likely bought Prince as part of house and land he acquired before selling the slave to his cousin, Israel. In 1755, Williams bought a slave, possibly to act as his body servant during the campaign in which Williams died.
“I do hereby acknowledge & myself satisfied and paid Do hereby sell, assign, set over, and convey to the said Ephraim Williams his heirs & assigns my Negro boy named J. Romano aged about sixteen years to be the sole property of said Ephraim and his heirs and assigns to his and their use, benefit and behoof, as his & their slave, during the natural life of the said J. Romano,” a bill of sale reads.
Williams’s will says, “I give and bequeath unto my beloved brothers … my homestead at Stockbridge, with all the Buildings and Appertenances therunto belonging, with all the Stocks of Cattle and Negro Servants now upon the place.”
The extent to which historical context excuses Williams’s slave ownership is up for debate.
“It was very common to own slaves if you were a member of the upper echelon of society if you weren’t a Quaker,” said Jessika Drmacich-Flach, the Archive’s records manager and digital resources archivist. “But there absolutely was an abolitionist movement in Massachusetts at this time.”
Judicial decisions effectively ended slavery in Massachusetts about 40 years after Williams’s death, but Massachusetts residents were challenging the practice during his lifetime. Early signs of abolitionist sentiment in the colonies include the essay, “The Selling of Joseph,” published in 1700 in Massachusetts. Jonathan Edwards, the revivalist preacher, fought over theological issues with the Williams family when Edwards became the leader of the Stockbridge Mission. Edwards, though a slave owner himself, criticized some aspects of slavery.
“We are made of the same human race, and [God] has given us the same human nature … both have one Maker, and that their one Maker made ’em alike or with the same nature,” Edwards wrote in his notes.
Williams would have certainly been exposed to the notion that slavery was morally wrong.
Unlike Amherst, Williams College’s namesake is actually its founder. Jeffrey Amherst has nothing to do with the founding of Amherst College. When the town was incorporated, the colonial governor named it Amherst after Lord Jeffrey, who was a much more significant military leader than Williams. The college, in turn, took its name from the town. Perhaps that makes it easier for Amherst to drop the Lord Jeffs moniker than it would be for Williams to do the same.
The College does owe its existence, in part, to Williams. His intention, however, was to establish a small village school. The $11,277 he left in his will, worth a few hundred thousand in 2016 dollars, was not even sufficient to build the original schoolhouse, today’s West College. The trustees had to devise a lottery to raise sufficient funds. For perspective, the “Teach it Forward” capital campaign aims to raise $650 million. Many donors, trustees, students, faculty and staff have had just as substantial roles in making the College what it is today.
Ephraim, however, could be a sticking point for some of those donors. According to an article in the New York Times, many Amherst alumni were angered by the college “erasing history.” There is an Ephraim Williams Society for donors who leave money to the College in their wills or other plans. For a college like Williams, which relies on gifts and its endowment for almost 60 percent of its operating budget, angering alumni can be a risky move. That would not be unfamiliar territory for the College, which made the controversial decision to abolish fraternities in 1962.
So far, the College’s position has been to praise Ephraim. A plaque on Thompson Chapel commemorates him. The Alumni Society erected a monument near where he was killed. The College has held many celebrations of his life, including a 300th birthday celebration last March.
If the newly-formed Committee on Historical Representation, or a group of concerned students, takes a closer look at Ephraim Williams, there could be a challenging discussion about his actions and value to the College.