In 1779, a group of Delaware set up camp on Prospect Farm, owned by George Morgan, along a dirt walkway that separated them from the campus of the College of New Jersey, as Princeton University was named until 1896. They brought a boy with them who was about eight or nine years old. His father had named the boy George Morgan White Eyes after the man whose farm the Delaware now occupied. Koquethagachton, also known as the elder White Eyes, had just been murdered by the United States Army troops he had served as a guide, but the government hid this fact from the Delaware. The young White Eyes thought his father had died of smallpox, not of a gunshot wound to the back from a white American soldier.
Their chief now dead, the Delaware received an order from Congress: Pick a new leader and arrange for Koquethagachton’s children to be educated in the English language and white culture, so they could be better equipped to lead them as adults. Morgan was charged with the care of White Eyes and two other indigenous minors as wards of the United States Congress. It was not long before White Eyes was living with the Morgan family on Prospect Farm. His presence in Princeton would provide a local professor with an opportunity to philosophize about why some races were darker than others.
Moravian missionaries had taught White Eyes English, but further efforts at assimilation were in store. Morgan hired Josiah Harned to make him trousers and enrolled him in the Nassau Hall Grammar School to prepare for college. White Eyes entered the College of New Jersey as a freshman in the fall of 1785. As a ward of Congress, White Eyes was America’s first recipient of government-based student financial aid (although Congress had stipulated that they expected a land grant in return).
Then about 15 years old, White Eyes became an immediate curiosity to professor Samuel Stanhope Smith, who was looking for evidence to support his racial theories. Some accounts say White Eyes had a white mother, but Smith thought his lighter skin had a different explanation. Smith believed that the skin color of the indigenous peoples of North America, like that of the peoples of Africa, was derived from too much sun and “savage” ways of living, saying in an essay published in 1788:
A naked savage, seldom enjoying the protection of a miserable hut, and compelled to lodge on the bare ground and under the open sky, imbibes the influence of the sun and atmosphere at every pore. He inhabits an uncultivated region filled with stagnant waters, and covered with putrid vegetables that fall down and corrupt on the spot where they have grown. He pitches his wigwam on the side of a river, that he may enjoy the convenience of fishing as well as of hunting. The vapour of rivers, the exhalations of marshes, and the noxious effluvia of decaying vegetables, fill the whole atmosphere in an unimproved country, and tend to give a dark and bilious hue to the complexion. And the sun acting immediately on the skin in this state will necessarily impress a deep colour.
It so happened that White Eyes was at Princeton at the same time as two distant descendants of Pocahontas (7 generations removed), brothers John and Thedorick Randolph (both Class of 1791). Society generally took the Randolphs to be white. Smith, nonetheless, asserted that the Randolph brothers had lost all characteristics of the indigenous people of North America (other than dark brown eyes) through their life among the people of a “polished” nation, not because their ancestry was predominantly European. John Randolph’s account of Smith’s attitude toward them might give us some insight into how Smith may have treated White Eyes:
He called us into his library and interrogated us about our Indian descent—we knew nothing more than that we derived it through our grand-mother, whom it suited him to make the daughter of Pocahontas, in order that we might be in defiance of time and fact in the fourth descent from her.
Smith wrote that he had closely examined White Eyes, whom he did not name, studying his features and physique to compare them to those of white students, in all probability summoning him to his library for inspection as he had the Randolph brothers. In all of these young men with mixed ancestry, Smith contrived support for his theories that exposing indigenous peoples to European ways of living would alter their features and whiten their skin, which he called “discolored.” Smith said he had observed this taking place with White Eyes.
There is an obvious difference between him and his fellow-students in the largeness of the mouth, and thickness of the lips, in the elevation of the cheek, in the darkness of the complexion, and the contour of the face. But these differences are sensibly diminishing. They seem the faster to diminish in proportion as he loses that vacancy of eye, and that lugubrious wildness of countenance peculiar to the savage state, and acquires the agreeable expression of civil life. The expression of the eye, and the softening of the features to civilized emotions and ideas, seems to have removed more than half the difference between him and us.
We know very little else about the experience White Eyes had at the College of New Jersey. On December 23, 1787, he and several other students were called before the faculty on an accusation of being insolent toward a tutor, after which all were admonished before their classes. Morgan thought that White Eyes might have been acting out because he’d just received news that his mother had been murdered by white men disguised as natives who robbed her of animal skins she was bringing to sell at a market, as well as finally learning the truth about his father’s murder. He urged Congress to consider that “his mistakes and misconduct have been far surpassed by white boys of his age, who have the superior advantage of enlightened and tender parents to guard over them,” and to continue to support his education. Morgan worried that Princeton itself had become a bad influence, however, and suggested White Eyes finish at Yale. Congress was unresponsive.
Frustrated by the delay in response from Congress, White Eyes wrote to George Washington for help. Again not getting a response and complaining that the government had not even given him enough clothing to keep warm in the winter, White Eyes walked to Princeton from New York to pick up clothes he’d left at the Morgans. He found that John Morgan (Class of 1789), George Morgan’s son, had taken his clothes and had totally worn them out. The Board of the Treasury reprimanded White Eyes for going to Princeton without permission, but gave him no chance to explain or apologize. White Eyes then asked for a job in service to the government if he could have no further education, and thus find a way to support himself, pointing out that he had no recourse and felt he’d been subject to a double standard:
I was not without Faults I acknowledge, but they were in my boyish days, & they not greater than what I see committed by Children of many Parents—In me they could not be overlooked—Many a time I reflect on the happy Situation of Children who have Parents tenderly to advise them—I was deprived of that Blessing.
As Congress continued to drag its feet, White Eyes wrote to Washington again, saying he just wanted to go home. “I believe they are tired of doing any thing for me & I am tired of waiting for their duty…” Washington seems to have arranged for White Eyes to have a line of credit until Congress would act so that he could buy some clothes, but the Board of the Treasury, according to White Eyes, disputed the charges and made him feel “not of as much Consequence as a Dog.” Congress finally authorized payment for the debts White Eyes had incurred on August 12, 1790.
White Eyes returned to his people in Ohio one year short of a college degree. On May 27, 1798, a white man shot him to death while White Eyes was rushing toward him with an uplifted tomahawk. He had never finished his education, but at least one account claims he kept his books and was proud of them, showing them off to visitors. This might have surprised John Witherspoon, president of the College, who apparently considered White Eyes the end of a failed experiment in educating indigenous students and further efforts a waste of time. In an essay later published after Witherspoon’s death, he wrote,
The chief thing that a philosopher can learn from the Indians in New Jersey is, that perhaps the most complete experiment has been made here how they would agree with civilized life. … On the whole it does not appear, that either by our people going among them, or by their being brought among us, that it is possible to give them a relish of civilized life. There have been some of them educated at this college, as well as in New England; but seldom or never did they prove either good or useful.
White Eyes was not the first indigenous student to attend Princeton, but our records indicate that he was the last for his century. After White Eyes, the institution would not have another Native American student for another five decades, when the Ross brothers—nephews of the Cherokee chief—arrived in the late 1830s.
Historical Subject Files (AC109)
Papers of the Continental Congress. United States National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC.
Randolph, John. “Original Letter of John Randolph.” Albany Argus 7 June 1833.
Smith, Samuel Stanhope. An Essay on the Causes of the Variety of Complexion and Figure in the Human Species to which are Added, Strictures on Lord Kames’s Discourse on the Original Diversity of Mankind. Edinburgh: C. Elliot, 1788.
Undergraduate Alumni Records (AC104)
Witherspoon, John. The Works of John Witherspoon, Vol. 9. Edinburgh: Ogle and Aikman, 1805.
For Further Reading:
Bush, Alfred L. “Indians, Slavery and Princeton.” Princeton & Slavery.
Bush, Alfred L. “Otterskins, Eagle Feathers, and Native American Alumni at Princeton.” Princeton University Library Chronicle 67, no. 2 (Winter 2006): 420-434.
Guyatt, Nicholas. “Samuel Stanhope Smith.” Princeton & Slavery.
Looney, J. Jefferson and Ruth L. Woodward. Princetonians 1791-1794: A Biographical Dictionary. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.
Woodward, Ruth L. and Wesley Frank Craven. Princetonians 1784-1790: A Biographical Dictionary. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.