This Week in Princeton History for May 3-9

In this week’s installment of our recurring series bringing you the history of Princeton University and its faculty, students, and alumni, a “Wild West” show is in town, a junior asks his father to send news about riots at home, and more.

May 4, 1807—Trenton’s True American prints a letter from “A Collegian” from Princeton responding to a recent statement by the Board of Trustees about student rebellion, “With respect to this publication of the trustees, it is necessary further to observe, that their relation of the matter is by far too indefinite; they merely skim over in a superficial manner the most material cause of the insurrection, in order to suit their own purpose, and to conceal their injustice under the base disguise of prevarication.”

May 7, 1895—The “Wyoming Historical Wild West” show is in town, led by Buck Taylor. Students can attend for an admission fee of 25 cents.

This ad appeared in the Princetonian on April 26, 1895. Wild West shows like these were popular in Princeton and elsewhere in the United States in this era. They tended to be characterized by fictionalized reenactments of historical events on the American frontier. Typical shows would have sensationalized portrayals of Native Americans.

May 8, 1844—Charles Godfrey Leland, Class of 1845, writes to his father asking for him to send newspaper accounts from home in Philadelphia about the city’s anti-Catholic Nativist Riots.

May 9, 1872—A group of students annoys the campus with a bonfire on Cannon Green. “They evidently like hard work better than we do, for it must have been no small amount of labor to have lugged such heavy stuff so great a distance, and all for the insignificant reward of seeing it burn up.”

For the previous installment in this series, click here.

Fact check: We always strive for accuracy, but if you believe you see an error, please contact us.


On Saturday, November 17th, 2012, at 7:00 p.m., we went back to Cannon Green to re-light a fire that has been dormant for six years, the BONFIRE!


Timeframe unknown

The bonfire is one of the oldest traditions at Princeton University. The Princetoniana Committee, part of the Alumni Association, describes the fire as “one of the most memorable– and sporadic– of all traditional Princeton activities.” The celebratory fire occurs only after the Princeton football team has defeated both Yale and Harvard.

“According to tradition, the construction of the Bonfire rested with the Dink Wearing Freshmen. It was their responsibility to gather wood from the surrounding area, often aided in large part by townspeople and campus construction workers. Once a tall pyre had been placed in the center of Cannon Green, the final adornments usually included an outhouse and an effigy of John Harvard or a Yale Bulldog, or both.” – Princetoniana Committee

Here we showcase just a few of the many historical photographs of bonfires that are in the Princeton University Archives, housed here at the Mudd Manuscript Library. The following reside in the Historical Photograph Collection: Campus Life (AC112)  and the Office of Communications Records (AC168).


Remnants of the 1897 bonfire


Gathering the materials for the 1901 fire.


A large pyre for the 1914 fire

Students turn away from the heat of the flames during the 1946 fire.

Students turn away from the heat of the flames during the 1946 fire.


From 1948: the outhouse is shown with Yale Bowl painted on the side


Football coach Charlie Caldwell ’25 and team captain George Chandler ’51 lighting the bonfire in 1950.

A closer look at the outhouse from the 1952 championship event.

A closer look at the outhouse from the 1952 championship event.


Huge flames during the 1981 bonfire.

Huge flames during the 1981 bonfire.



Students watch the 1985 fire from the trees.



The Princeton Tiger lights the 1994 bonfire.


The most recent fire in 2006. Photo courtesy: John Jameson, Office of Communications

PAW Photo from 2013 - Credit - Beverly Schaefer

PAW Photo from 2013 – Credit – Beverly Schaefer

Princeton Pause also compiled a video from the 2006 fire featuring items from our archives.

More photographs can be viewed in person by visiting the Mudd Reading Room. Digital copies of photos are also available. Start your search with our Historical Photograph Database. 

If you are attending and sharing photos using Twitter or Instagram, please use the hashtag #bonfirePU and contribute to documenting the history of this wonderful event!

Please also feel free to leave a comment about your bonfire memories!