For those who have visited this blog before, you might know that I am a proud alumnus of Hillsdale College, a small school in Michigan with a rich history and tradition of a classic liberal arts education. Hillsdale has a strong connection with the Civil War in its history, as well. During the 1860s, the campus was host to prominent abolitionists and speakers such as Frederick Douglass and Edward Everett. During the war itself, there were many Hillsdale students who left Michigan behind to don the Federal blue and fight to preserve the Union. Hillsdale’s connections to the Civil War go beyond those who spoke on campus and the students who fought in it, however. As it turns out, Hillsdale is connected to one of the five Civil War veterans who went on to become president: James A. Garfield.
In his early days, James Garfield did not have a discernible direction to his life. Born in a log cabin in the old Western Reserve of Northeast Ohio in 1831, Garfield did not live in a world of privilege. His father died when he was two, and his mother Eliza struggled to raise her young family. It may be said that Garfield’s upbringing was among the most difficult of any president other than Abraham Lincoln. Despite these difficult times, Garfield developed a love of reading. The pages of a book could take him away from his meager home life and transport him into new worlds. Through books, he developed the desire to become a sailor, a job which he believed would lead to a life of adventure. At the age of sixteen, he left his home and went to Cleveland looking for a job on one of the ships traveling the Great Lakes. Unsuccessful in Cleveland, Garfield instead found a job on the canal boat Evening Star, where he worked for about six weeks in the late summer and early fall of 1848. After falling into the canal repeatedly and becoming ill, James returned home to his mother.
Upon coming home, Garfield was ill and unsure of what his next step would be. Though he still wanted to return to his work on the canal, his mother desperately wanted a better life for her son. She pleaded with James to get an education, believing that schooling was the best path toward a better life. Eliza’s efforts to convince James to go to school were aided by the presence and influence of a young teacher at a nearby school in Geauga County. Reverend Samuel D. Bates was just three years older than James, but he had been one of the first students at the Geauga Seminary in Chester, Ohio. The school had been founded by Free-Will Baptists in the early 1840s. The original charter for the school from the Ohio Legislature was rejected by its founders because it restricted the school from admitting any students of color, which was contrary to the abolitionist principles of the Free-Will Baptists who founded the school. The founders initially named the school the “Western Reserve Seminary,” only to later rename it “Geauga Seminary” because of its location in Geauga County. The school opened in 1842 in a church in Chester, Ohio, where students met while other buildings were under construction.
According to Garfield biographer Allan Peskin, it was Bates’s enthusiasm which impacted the young Garfield. While many school teachers were cold and austere, Bates was warm and engaging. In Bates, Garfield saw something of himself. Bates was also a native of the old Western Reserve, and he had used education to pull himself up and make a life for himself. With the influence of Bates and his mother, Garfield agreed to enroll in the school and leave his life on the canal behind. To do this, his mother gave him seventeen dollars, which would cover part of his tuition. For the rest of it, Garfield would have to work hard, save, and live a spartan existence with nothing but the bare necessities. Thus, early in 1849, James Garfield became a student at the Geauga Seminary. There, his path to a better life began.
James A. Garfield during his days at the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute
Over the next ten years, Garfield applied himself, studying and working hard to make his way. In 1851, he became a student at the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (today Hiram College), a school founded by Disciples of Christ, Garfield’s own Christian denomination. By 1853, Garfield had become so proficient in his studies that he began to teach classes to his fellow students. The following year, he left Ohio altogether and enrolled in Williams College in Massachusetts, testing into the Junior Class. After graduating from Williams in 1856, he came back to Hiram, where he resumed his teaching at the Eclectic Institute. The following year, he became the president of the school. On top of his duties in Hiram, Garfield became a well-known speaker and preacher, traveling the circuit and delivering passionate sermons throughout Northeast Ohio. In 1859, he was elected to the Ohio State Senate as a Republican in the same week that John Brown led his raid on Harpers Ferry (Brown had lived for several years in Garfield’s Senate District).
Two years later, when the Civil War began, Garfield lobbied Ohio Governor William Dennison for a position in the army, finally securing the command of the 42nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. By the end of the war, he had risen to the rank of Major General and had been elected to the House of Representatives. After seventeen years as a Republican in Congress, Garfield was elected the 20th President of the United States in 1880. While his meteoric rise to the presidency had great promise, his time in office was not long. His heroic life met a tragic end just months into his term, when he was shot by Charles Guiteau on July 2, 1881, dying of his wounds several months later. Today, James Garfield is largely forgotten as an obscure president, with many only knowing him for his assassination and death despite his fascinating life.
Garfield's assassination in 1881
And yet, what connection does James Garfield have to Hillsdale College?
Hillsdale College and the Geauga Seminary, where James Garfield enrolled in 1849, were founded just two years apart. In 1844, Free-Will Baptists established the Michigan Central College in Spring Arbor, Michigan. The school was founded with the same principles in mind as the Geauga Seminary; it was to admit all students regardless of race, gender, or religion, making it one of the first schools in the United States, and the first in Michigan, to do so. By the mid-1850s, the school moved south to Hillsdale, where it changed its name and became known as Hillsdale College.
One of the key figures in Hillsdale’s founding and early history was Ransom Dunn. A native of Vermont, Dunn became an influential figure in the Free-Will Baptists as a preacher, theologian, and educator. He taught at numerous educational institutions during his lifetime, including Hillsdale. Dunn was instrumental in raising funds for the construction of a new campus in Hillsdale, including Central Hall, which still stands in the center of Hillsdale’s campus today. Without Dunn, the school likely would not have survived through its early years, as well as the tumultuous times of the American Civil War, when many other schools died out when their students left for the Union army. Hillsdale sent a higher percentage of students to the army than any other school in the state of Michigan, surviving the ordeal and continuing to provide a strong liberal arts education while its students defended the Union on the battlefields of the South. Four Hillsdale students won the Medal of Honor during the war, and sixty died during the conflict. Dunn helped the school to survive these trying years.
Dunn’s association with Hillsdale College was just one part of his long and productive life in education. Indeed, he was involved with schools in other states, including several in Ohio, one of which just so happened to be the Geauga Seminary. Dunn was on a commission of Free-Will Baptists that founded the Geauga Seminary, and he taught at the school as well. Thus, Geauga Seminary and Hillsdale College shared the same principles in their founding, as well as some of the same professors.
Ransom Dunn, a man critical to the success of Hillsdale College...
and future President James Garfield
Indeed, the two schools would end up sharing more than just professors. According to A Consecrated Life, an early biography of Ransom Dunn, the establishment of the school in Hillsdale led to dramatic changes for the Geauga Seminary:
“When Hillsdale College was established it was thought best to centre the educational work there, and through the influence of Ransom Dunn and Samuel Philbrick, the funds and apparatus were turned over to the college, the building sold for a public school, and the useful work of the [Geauga Seminary] merged into the new and larger institution.”
An essay by John Patterson in the Pioneer History of the State of Michigan explores the combining of the two schools further:
On motion of Ransom Dunn, a committee was appointed to negotiate with the authorities of Geauga Seminary, with a view to consolidating the two schools. This seminary had been established by the Free-Will Baptist denomination in 1843 at [Chester] Geauga County, Ohio, and had been the result, to a very large extent, of the labors of Elder David Marks, who had acted as its financial agent. The trustees of this institution had rejected the first charter granted to it by the Legislature of Ohio, for the reason it excluded colored students from the privileges of the school. It was here that James A. Garfield commenced his studies. He was persuaded to enter this seminary by Rev. Samuel D. Bates, one of the founders, and for many years a trustee of Hillsdale College. Here Garfield recited to Prof. Ransom Dunn and Rev. George E. Ball, then teachers in the seminary, now of Hillsdale College and here he determined to purse a course of study.Hon. Samuel B. Philbrick, H.D. Johnson, J.E. Snow, and Daniel Branch were among the founders and friends of this school. Daniel Branch, Mrs. Daniel Branch, John Beech, Miss Abigail Curtis, Rev. George E. Ball, D.D., Rev. Ransom Dunn, D.D., Rev. George T. Day, D.D., Prof. Spencer J. Fowler, A.M., and Rev. C.B. Mills, A.M., were among the teachers of the school. The last five persons named have been members of the faculty at Hillsdale.After a year of negotiations, Geauga Seminary was sold, its scholarships redeemed, and the remaining effects, amounting to two thousand dollars and upwards, were transferred to Hillsdale College. Elder David L. Rice and Hon. Samuel Philbrick, of Ohio, rendered great service in procuring this transfer. Geauga Seminary and Michigan Central College were thus consolidated, and became the principal organized factors of Hillsdale College.
Hillsdale College in the 1850s
That’s right. Geauga Seminary, where future Union general and 20th President of the United States James A. Garfield received his first truly formal education, was not only founded with the same principles as those of Hillsdale College and shared some of the same professors and faculty; the school itself was incorporated into the Michigan Central School, becoming a part of Hillsdale College in 1854. By this time, Garfield himself had moved on to other schools. While Garfield had left, the Geauga Seminary’s influence on him was not over. It was there at that school where Garfield met young Lucretia Rudolph. Though it would take time before a strong relationship would develop between the two, James and Lucretia married in 1858. Thus, not only did Garfield attend school at the Geauga Seminary, but it is also where he met the future First Lady Lucretia Rudolph.
Even more than its influence in introducing Garfield to his future wife, the Geauga Seminary helped to light the fire of education within the young Garfield. Ransom Dunn was not only instrumental for Hillsdale College in its early years, but he taught and helped to shape a young James Garfield in his youth. Dunn was among several others who had an impact on the future president, teaching him to pursue higher education and truth with a strong work ethic. Garfield would go on to become one of our nation’s most erudite presidents. He was literate in several languages, well versed in science and literature, and his oratory was informed and influence by his firm grasp of the Classics. By the time he was in his mid-twenties, Garfield was teaching classes at the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute, becoming the school’s president in 1857 when he was only twenty-six years old. Surely, his quick rise in academics is due in large part to the schooling he received when he was young, something which was influenced dramatically by Ransom Dunn.
And what of Reverend Samuel Bates, the young man who helped to convince James Garfield to attend the Geauga Seminary? The Reverend Bates went on to found and preach at several churches and teach at several schools. Later on, he served as a Trustee at Hillsdale College for fifteen years. Throughout his life, Bates maintained a close friendship with Garfield, who never forgot the influence that the Reverend had on him. Without Bates, it is not clear if Garfield would have enrolled at the Geauga Seminary, dramatically altering his life story and his rise to prominence.
And yet, the connection between Garfield and Hillsdale College goes further than this. Just as Garfield always remembered the influence of the Geauga Seminary, so too did his professors there remember him. When Garfield died of an assassin’s bullet in 1881, mourning spread across the United States. Memorials were held in churches, schools, and public venues throughout the nation. It was no different in Hillsdale, where the connection between the school and Garfield was not lost on the mourners. A memorial service was held at the college, and among those who spoke was none other than Garfield’s former teacher, Ransom Dunn.
Dunn’s daughter, Helen Dunn Gates, described the difficult days surrounding the president’s death in her biography of her father, noting the strong connection between the late president and Hillsdale College:
But with the waning days of summer [Garfield’s] life went out and a nation mourned. Hillsdale joined with others in memorial services, and none more appropriately; for, as Dr. Ball said, “if there had been no Geauga Seminary from which to send out a teacher, S.D. Bates, to teach in Garfield’s school district and urge James Garfield to go to school, if there had been no Geauga Seminary at Chester Hill, five miles from his home, to which he could go in his poverty and there find help and encouragement, there would have been no General Garfield, no President Garfield. He was one of the early fruits of Free Baptist sacrifice in the cause of Christian education.’ And Geauga Seminary was now a part of Hillsdale College, and so it was eminently fitting that Ransom Dunn, who helped to found both, should speak at the Garfield memorial service. The suggestion was made by citizens that the remaining one of the group of five buildings be erected and named ‘Garfield Hall.’ But it is still waiting for some good friend of Garfield or of the college to give the necessary sum to erect and equip it, which we trust may soon be done, for the college needs today as much as then more buildings, better equipment, and larger endowment.”
But for the lack of a financial backer, Hillsdale College may very well to this day have a “Garfield Hall” on its campus, in honor of the martyred president whose life was forever changed by the efforts of Ransom Dunn and other Free-Will Baptists.
Without the efforts of Samuel Bates, Ransom Dunn, and others, James Garfield would never have become the man he did. These men and others at the Geauga Seminary were key to Garfield’s rise from the poverty of a log cabin to the battlefields of the Civil War, and from there, to a life and career in national politics that eventually led him to become the 20th President of the United States. And of course, Bates, Dunn, and others, would also be so important to the founding, survival, and success of Hillsdale College.
March 4, 1881. James Garfield is sworn in as the 20th President of the United States
I want to thank by good friend and college buddy Pat Maloney for his help on this research. Having just published my book on Garfield, James Garfield and the Civil War: For Ohio and the Union (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2015), I was unaware of this connection until Pat brought it to my attention. While I was familiar with Hillsdale’s background and founding by the Free-Will Baptists, and with the story of Ransom Dunn, I did not know about Dunn’s involvement with the Geauga Seminary until recently. It was only after looking into a source that Pat passed along that I realized the extent to which Hillsdale’s own Ransom Dunn and Samuel Bates impacted the life of the young James Garfield. Having grown up a short distance away from the James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio, I have always felt a close connection with President Garfield, which led me to write a book on his Civil War career and the impact the war had on his life and rise to the presidency. Learning about his connections to Hillsdale only augments my appreciation for and connection to Garfield and his story.
Pat and I are both alumni of Hillsdale College, proud of its continuing legacy of standing for what is right through the years. From its initial charter prohibiting any discrimination based on race, gender, or religion, to its contribution to the Union cause during the Civil War, to its continued pursuit of a strong liberal arts education rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition today, Hillsdale has been a stalwart example of the best of American education for over 170 years. Its connection to James A. Garfield is yet another noteworthy part of that tradition.
 Allan Peskin, Garfield: A Life (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1978), 13.
 Helen Dunn Gates, A Consecrated Life: A Sketch of the Life and Labors of Rev. Ransom Dunn, D.D., 1818-1900 (Boston: Morning Star Publishing, 1901), 65-67
 John C. Patterson, “History of Hillsdale College” in Pioneer Collections: Reports of the Pioneer Society of the State of Michigan, together with Reports of County, Town, and District Pioneer Societies, Vol. 6 (Lansing, MI: W.S. George and Co., State Printers and Binders, 1884), 151.
 Gates, A Consecrated Life, 199-200.