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WashU History Resources

A guide to researching the long and complex history of Washington University in St. Louis (Missouri, USA).

Founding of Washington University in St. Louis

While Wayman Crow is entirely responsible for securing the charter that brought the University into existence, William Greenleaf Eliot supplied the educational vision that guided the institution in its formative years. Both Crow and Eliot publicly acknowleged each other's contributions to the founding and development of the institution. Eliot said of Crow:

The Act of Incorporation of this institution, known at first as Eliot Seminary, was approved February 22, 1853. Its passage was obtained by the exertions of Hon. Wayman Crow, at that time Senator from this district, to whose feelings of personal friendship the name first selected must be attributed. As he was the sole originator of the design and himself prepared the charter, the existence of the university is primarily due to him. (William Greenleaf Eliot, address at the Inauguration of Washington University, April 23, 1857)

Crow said of Eliot:

As President of the Board of Directors, it fell within your province to prepare and develop the general plan upon which the success of the experiment was believed to depend. To you was committed the duty of organizing the different departments of instruction as they were rendered necessary to accommodate the ever widening circle of scholars (Wayman Crow, address at the installation of William Greenleaf Eliot as Chancellor of Washington University, February 29, 1872.)

Naming A University

Wayman Crow wrote a three page letter to William Greenleaf Eliot, February 2, 1853, from the Senate chamber in Jefferson City, Missouri. In the body of the letter, Crow brings Eliot up to date on events in the Senate. In the postscript, which can be seen on page 3, Crow informs Eliot for the first time of the forthcoming charter for a new education institution, to be known as the "Eliot Seminary".This letter from Crow to Eliot, February 2, 1853, is the earliest surviving letter concerning Washington University, and a full transcription of this document is available.

In 1857, the Eliot Seminary changed its name to "Washington University." Crow writes:

If you see notice of a charter to incorporate the "Eliot Seminary" - don't condemn me for using the title - it is rather a favorable time to get acts of incorporation and I avail of it, as our Society may desire to have the privilege of establishing such an institution at some day, and this can be partially organized and held in reserve.


To see the letter in a larger format, click the links below.

Transcription of Wayman Crow Letter, February 2, 1853

(Transcription by Carole Prietto, University Archivist, 1997. Spelling and capitalization have been modernized)

Senate Chamber
Jeff. City Feb. 2, 1853

My Dear Sir,

I must renew my thanks to you for the kind interest you have taken in a subject which has given me so much solicitude, as manifested by your several letters. The present fortune of affairs is perhaps lost and I can only hope for the best, though it seems to me like hoping when there is hardly any hope.

The trunk of articles from the Clint(?) Institute has just arrived but in broken condition. I have not opened it to see what the contents are. I will use some early occasion to have them exhibited to the members of the Legislature and trust that an appropriation of [over?] $13,000 for a building can be had.

The present General Assembly is behind any former one I have known in talent and working ability, and much business will be neglected and left undone. This is strikingly true of the House, and our immediate representatives are not attending, I fear, to our local interests as they require.

I have not heard of the bill you allude to but will be glad to facilitate its passage. I will keep a watch out for it. I find the numbers of the Republican containing your sermons to ladies are much sought for by the women of Jefferson City. We shall [?] I [?] on [the] 28th in St. Louis. I hope to be home about [?] [?]. Please present me to Mrs. Eliot, Mr. Rhodes, and your children.

And believe me most truly

Your friend
Wayman Crow

Rev. Wm. G. Eliot, Jr.

P.S. If you see notice of a charter to incorporate the "Eliot Seminary" -- don't condemn me for using the title -- it is rather a favorable time to get acts of incorporation and I avail of it, as our Society may desire to have the privilege of establishing such an institution at some day, and this can be partially organized and held in reserve.

N.B. I have just seen Mr. Newland of Rolla, who informs me the law was introduced by him -- referred to Judiciary Committee; was to have received attention from Blair but not having it, the Committee reported adversely to the law and it was rejected. If I can get a copy I will try to start it anew in the Senate.

About Wayman Crow

The youngest in a family of twelve children, Wayman Crow was born in Hartford, Kentucky, on March 7,
1808. Crow first entered the dry goods business in 1820, when he began a five-year apprenticeship in a general dry goods store in Kentucky. By 1828, he was operating his own dry goods store, and he moved to St. Louis in 1835. In partnership with his cousin, Joshua Tevis of Philadelphia, he established the wholesale dry goods house of Crow & Tevis. In later years, the business would be known as Crow, McCreery & Company; Crow, Hargadine & Company; and Hargadine-McKittrick Dry Goods Company.

In 1840, Crow was elected to the Missouri state senate, on the Whig ticket. He was elected to a second term in the senate in 1850. In 1846 he secured the charter for the St. Louis Mercantile Library Association, and in 1853, he secured the charter for the institution now known as Washington University. The institution's original name was Eliot Seminary, a tribute to Wayman Crow's close friend, St. Louis educator William Greenleaf Eliot.

Crow remained a trustee of the university from 1853 until his death in 1885, and was one of the university most generous benefactors.

About William Greenleaf Eliot

William Greenleaf Eliot was born August 5, 1811, in New Bedford, Massachusetts. His father, a merchant and shipowner, suffered financial reverses as a result of the embargo that accompanied the War of 1812, and soon moved his family to Baltimore and then Washington, D.C., where he received an appointment as chief examiner in the auditing office of the Postal Department. William, however, returned to New Bedford as a young boy in order to attend the Friends Academy, and later continued his education at Columbian College in Washington, D.C. (now known as George Washington University), from which he graduated in 1830. In 1831 he entered the Cambridge Divinity School, and on August 17, 1834 he was ordained a Unitarian minister in Boston. In 1834 he went to St. Louis as a missionary, and became the first Unitarian minister west of the Mississippi. Eliot spent the remainder of his life in St. Louis.

Throughout the 1840's he led in the efforts to establish and strengthen the St. Louis Public School System, and in 1848 was elected president of the school board. In 1853 Wayman Crow, a friend of Eliot's, secured a charter for a proposed college to be named Eliot Seminary. In 1854 Eliot became Chairman of the Board of Trustees, a post he held until his death. In 1854, at Eliot's request, the new institution's name was changed from "Eliot Seminary" to "Washington Institute of St. Louis". In 1857, the name was changed again to "Washington University.". In 1976, University Trustees further modified the name to "Washington University in St. Louis."

In 1870 Eliot assumed the Chancellorship on an interim basis and in 1872 was officially installed in that post, which he held until his death. From 1870 until his death he served both as Chancellor and Chairman of the Board of Trustees. When Eliot took over the post of Chancellor he resigned his pastorate in order to devote full-time to the University.

During the Civil War he was instrumental in the creation, together with his friend, James B. Yeatman, of the Western Sanitary Commission that ministered to both the medical and spiritual needs of union and confederate soldiers throughout the Mississippi Valley. After the war Eliot became increasingly active in reform and benevolent movements such as temperance and women's rights.

William Greenleaf Eliot died in Pass Christian, Mississippi, in 1887.

More information about William Greenleaf Eliot is available online and at University Archives. Links to that information are available below.