Nathaniel Eaton

From Academic Kids

Nathaniel Eaton (16091674) was the first schoolmaster of Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and later became a clergyman.



The sixth son of the Rev. Richard Eaton (1565–1616) and Elizabeth Shepheard (1569–1636), Nathaniel was educated at Cambridge University, where he was a contemporary and good friend of John Harvard, and later at the University of Franeker in Leiden, where he studied under the Rev. William Ames. He emigrated to New England around 1637 and became the first "professor" of the nascent Harvard College. Eaton planted Harvard's first apple orchard, erected its first building, and created the Colony's first semi-public library.

Around the time that Eaton started teaching at Harvard, an Antinomian controversy had erupted in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Governor at the time, John Winthrop, was well noted for his extreme stance within the Puritan community and was greatly feared by many of the colonists. Even those who were Winthrop's close allies, such as the Rev. Thomas Hooker who co-founded the Colony of Connecticut, were repulsed by his certain personality. As such, many left the Colony; and Antinomians who didn't leave voluntarily were forced out, banished, or excommunicated such as the Rev. John Wheelwright who founded Exeter, New Hampshire, and his sister-in-law, Anne (Marbury) Hutchinson, who founded a new Colony in what later became Rhode Island.

Eaton's older brother, Gov. Theophilus Eaton, emigrated to the colonies at about the same time.1 Deciding that he didn't want to get caught up with all this animosity, he – like the Rev. Thomas Hooker before him – founded a new colony, the Colony of New Haven, though Winthrop and others literally begged both of them to stay.2

In 1639, the year after Theophilus left, Eaton was fired from his job following allegations that he had beat one of his students too harshly, and that his wife had supposedly served students hasty pudding with "goat dung" in it.3 Eaton's trial is the reason we have court reporters today. After the Church of Cambridge attempted an appeal on his behalf, Governor Winthrop refused them, saying that enough evidence had already been presented by several witnesses. The Church, however, was able to secure a promise that all subsequent trials would be accompanied by a recording of facts such that defendants and plaintiffs could refer to evidence already presented without witnesses having to go through the whole thing all over again.4 The only record of Eaton's confession was destroyed in a fire and his guilt remains in doubt.

Henry Dunster succeeded Eaton in 1640 as Harvard's first president, and the first students graduated in 1642.5 Interestingly, Dunster also found himself confronting the students, as they attempted to depose him as well. This time their efforts failed, though Dunster ended up resigning in 1652.

At around the same time that Eaton was dismissed from Harvard, he apparently was also excommunicated from the congregation in Cambridge. He moved to Virginia in 1640 and then sent for his wife and children, but according to Winthrop in his History of New England (known to be full of inaccuracies) the ship in which they traveled disappeared without a trace. Following the loss of his family, Eaton married Anne Graves, the daughter of Thomas Graves of Virginia and Massachusetts, and served for several years as an assistant to the Anglican curate at Accomac, Virginia, before returning to England.

Eaton died in 1674 in King's Bench Prison, where he had been incarcerated for a debt.

A second Eaton

There is also evidence of another Nathaniel Eaton who lived in the town of Boston at the same time, across the street from the Governor John Winthrop, but who spelled his name Heaton.

His wife was also named Elizabeth, and there's some doubt as to whether the children that are listed in the Colony's birth records at Boston are his children or Eaton's, since there are double listings for all of them spelling the name as "Eaton" and "Heaton", and since a mysterious fire destroyed the Cambridge town records in 1643.

End notes

1 And possibly on the same ship with Nathaniel, the Hector, though there is no record of Nathaniel being on it, just that a Nathaniel Heaton emigrated in 1634 on another ship, the Griffin with William Hutchinson and his wife Anne (see Anne (Marbury) Hutchinson, supra), and on the very same ship that the Rev. Thomas Hooker, the first pastor of the church at Cambridge, had emigrated on a few months earlier.

2 Cf. John Warren Barber History and Antiquities of New Haven, (Conn.) (1831) pp. 25–29

3 Cf. Samuel Eliot Morison Builders of the Bay Colony (1930) pp. 190–191 where you will find his wife's supposed confession that was obviously coerced. Allegations of embezzlement appear to be ex post facto or after the fact, and when one confers the entries in: Thomas Lechford's Note Book Kept by Thomas Lechford Lawyer, 1638–1641 (1885), it can easily be seen that Nathaniel paid all his debts and was even owed money by Thomas Lechford, himself.

4 Cf. Nathaniel B. Shurtleff, M.D. Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England (1853, vol I) p. 275; and subsequent later trials such as the Salem Witch Trials where it can be seen that testimonies at trial etc. were thereafter taken down.

5 According to Cotton Mather's Magnalia Christi Americana (1702), the graduating class of 1642 included the following individuals ...

Benjamin Woodbridge
Georgius [George] Downing
Johannes BulklŠus [John Bulkeley]
Gulielmus [William] Hubbard
Samuel Bellingham
Johannes Wilsonus [John Wilson]
Henricus [Henry] Saltonstall
Tobias Barnardus [Barnard]
Nathanael Brusterus [Nathaniel Brewster]


  • James Kendall Hosmer, editor Winthrop's Journal 'The History of New England' 1630–1649 (1908 edition) vol. I, p. 314 — Appeal by the Church of Cambridge and the seizing of Nathaniel Eaton's estate. See also: James Savage's footnotes in his edited version of the same above Winthrop's Journal 'The History of New England' 1630-1649 (1825–26 edition)
  • Nathaniel Bradstreet Shurtleff, M.D., editor Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England (1853, vol. I) [1628–1641] by page ...
p. 210 – [Eaton] left out of tax rate for 1637 on November 20 1637
p. 262 – 500 acres [2 km²] of land granted on June 6, 1639 vis-Ó-vis: "If hee continew his employment wth vs for his life".
p. 275 – Removed from employment on September 9, 1639
p. 275 – Judgements henceforth, after the Eaton Trial, to "bee recorded in a booke, to bee kept to posterity". (same day as above: September 9, 1639)
p. 277 – His estate attached on November 5 1639
p. 374 – Nathaniel Eaton Made a Freeman on June 9 1638
p. 375 – Nathaniell Heaten made free on May 25 1636
  • Thomas Lechford Note Book Kept by Thomas Lechford Lawyer, 1638–1641 (1885) p. 236
"I payd Nathaniel Heaton for full of writings & cutting wood. 11.31.1639. 5s".
  • Cotton Mather Magnalia Christi Americana (The Ecclesiastical History of New England) (1702) [7 books; 2 volumes in modern versions]
  • John Warren Barber Connecticut Historical Collections (1837 edition) pp 134–185
  • Benjamin Trumbull, D.D. A Complete History of Connecticut (1818) [Also, 2 volumes]
  • New England Historical and Genealogical Register (1855, vol. 9) pp 269–271, article entitled "The First President of Harvard College"
(all preeding dates are in their original Julian Calendar format)

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