Dear Mr. Mudd: Who Was Princeton’s First International Student?

Dear Mr. Mudd,

Can you tell me who Princeton’s first international student was? Were there international students in the first graduating class?


As with all questions about “firsts,” this one is too complicated to answer simply with someone’s name. We are aware that our records aren’t comprehensive, so we can only provide what we have found to be our earliest records, with the understanding that we may later discover earlier records. Even knowing what our earliest records tell us, however, doesn’t make the answer straightforward.

International students, then known as foreign students, slowly became more common at Princeton after the Civil War. This image is of a student we believe to be Rioge Koe, a Japanese student in the Class of 1874, pictured here in 1873. Historical Photograph Collection, Class Photographs Series (AC181), Box MP03

We must begin by defining what we mean by an “international student.” The College of New Jersey graduated its first class of students in 1748, decades before the United States declared its independence. We cannot consider anyone who was a subject of the British Empire to be an “international student,” whether or not they were from the current geographic boundaries of the United States, when New Jersey was a British colony. From this first class in 1748, two students may have crossed the Atlantic to attend the College of New Jersey (which was in Newark until its move to Princeton in 1756, and renamed Princeton University in 1896), but no national borders: Benjamin Chestnut and Hugh Henry. Chestnut was born in England. We don’t know when he came to New Jersey. Henry may have been born in Ireland.

Our records suggest that all of the students at the College of New Jersey were subjects of the British Empire until Peter Tatami came to the College of New Jersey (then in Newark) as a member of the Class of 1753. Little is known about him, but we know he died before graduation, and that he was the first person would have been considered “foreign” whom we have records of attending the College of New Jersey. He was indigenous (Delaware/Lenape). There were other indigenous students in the 18th century, but none who graduated: Jacob Woolley (Class of 1762), Shawuskukhukung (“Wilted Grass”)/Bartholomew Scott Calvin (Class of 1776), and George Morgan White Eyes (1789), all Delaware/Lenape. As we think of international students today, these earliest Native American students both fit and don’t fit our current definitions. English was not their first language, they were under a government that was not their own, and they were often isolated among people whose culture they did not share. At the same time, they were not from different geographically bounded states than their peers of European ancestry, but they were not part of the same nation as the rest of the students. Native Americans gained U.S. citizenship in 1924.

In the eighteenth century, some students also came from places that would later become part of the United States, but were not part of it at the time. John Ruan (Class of 1790) and James Ruan (1792) were both born in St. Croix in the Danish West Indies, which became part of the U.S. Virgin Islands in 1917. The Ruan brothers were orphaned in 1782, at which point Isaac Barnes of Trenton, New Jersey took charge of their guardianship and enrolled them in the Trenton Academy, then run by a member of the Class of 1773, James Armstrong. John Ruan became a naturalized citizen in 1798.

Of students who were from places that are not currently part of the United States, and who were not from the same nation as the College of New Jersey at the time of their attendance, it may be the case that our earliest record is for John Jordan (Class of 1793). Jordan was from Canada (Montreal). His parents sent him to Princeton when he was ten years old to study at the Nassau Hall grammar school and he later entered the College in 1788. Ultimately, he did not graduate.

This list of states and countries represented on Princeton’s campus appeared in the 1890 Bric-a-Brac.

With questions like these, a more fruitful approach might be to consider what the information might tell us about the history of Princeton. At heart, this question is most likely one about how Princeton began its transformation from a regional college to an international institution, something we are able to answer more confidently since it does not rely on the details of individual lives, but rather trends in enrollment over time. James McCosh was deliberate in his goal to broaden Princeton’s exposure to the world beyond, and under his administration we began to see many more students, especially graduate students but also undergraduates, from Asia and Europe. Previously, Princeton primarily drew its student body from New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York, given the mass exodus Southern students 1861. Even when Princeton was attracting large numbers of students from the South, it was rare for anyone to have entered Princeton from west of the Mississippi River. Princeton thus began its transformation from a regional institution to an international one after McCosh took office in 1868. In the 1870s, what it meant to be a Princetonian showed signs of diversification and hints of what it would later become.

Even so, this took quite a bit of time. Princeton of the early 20th century was still focused on finding ways to attract students from beyond its immediate region, and we must not assume that every student who grew up abroad was not an American. Indeed, if one looks a bit deeper at the origins of the students with home addresses in foreign countries in the late 19th century and early 20th, many if not most were born to expats. For example, William Bradford Ewing, Class of 1890, was listed in the 1890 Bric-a-Brac with a home address in Egypt, but was not Egyptian; his father was a consular agent in Alexandria. Even if we were to count such students as “international students,” the listing in the 1890 Bric-a-Brac would only bring the total number of them up to about 1.7% of the student body. By contrast, according to data provided by the Davis International Center, about 24% of Princeton’s students were international students in the 2019-2020 academic year (43% of graduate students and 12% of undergraduates).



Database of Princeton Student Origins (Princeton and Slavery Project)

Historical Photograph Collection, Class Photographs Series (AC181)

Inauguration of Rev. James McCosh as President of Princeton College. Princeton, 1868.

Papers of Princeton

Princeton. Princeton, 1919.

The Princetonians: A Biographical Dictionary:

Undergraduate Alumni Records, 18th Century (AC104.01)

For further reading:

Armstrong, April C. “Dear Mr. Mudd: Who Was Princeton’s First Jewish Student?

__________. “George Morgan White Eyes, Racial Theory at Princeton, and Student Financial Aid in the Eighteenth Century.”

__________. “Howard Edwards Gansworth and the ‘Indian Problem’ at Princeton.”

__________. “The Problem with ‘Firsts,’ Part I: Archival Silence and Black Students at Princeton University.”

__________. “The Problem with ‘Firsts,’ Part II: Archival Silence and Black Staff at Princeton University.”

__________. “Solitary Internment: Kentaro Ikeda ’44.”

__________. “An Update on the Earliest Records of Jewish Students at Princeton.”

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