In Caleb’s Footsteps

This spring Tiffany Smalley of Aquinnah becomes the second Island Wampanoag to graduate from Harvard College. Here she reflects on her connections with the first – who lived 350 years ago.

When I first came to Harvard College in 2007, I knew little about Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck and Harvard’s Indian College, aside from the fact that in 1665, Caleb, an Aquinnah Wampanoag, was the first American Indian to graduate from this institution. In my search for more knowledge, I came to find that while he is virtually voiceless in existing records, he is an important figure in the little-known, ongoing historical narrative between my people and Harvard. He and I share a common history, and I desperately wanted to learn more.

During my first semester, I participated in an archeological dig in search of remnants of the Indian College, built of brick circa 1655 in Harvard Yard. Through this process, I found it comforting to discover more evidence, though indirect, of Caleb’s presence. I was also gratified to find that many others, including fellow students, faculty, administrators, alumni, and community members near and far, were eager to help in the efforts to document and commemorate this history.

Over the past several years, Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck’s story has come together like an intricate puzzle, through different historical research studies and creative projects such as Geraldine Brooks’s new novel Caleb’s Crossing. It is exciting not only to see this history unearthed, rendered, and celebrated, but also envisioned artfully and likely accurately. As we come to the close of the 360th anniversary of the Harvard Charter (which declared in 1650 the institution’s commitment to the “education of English and Indian youth”), Caleb’s Crossing is incredibly timely – a significant contribution to honoring his life and accomplishments.

For me, Caleb’s story is deeply inspirational. It’s part of my permanent personal connection to Harvard, and I am grateful for his past presence here. This interconnection through space and time has helped me feel comfortably at home at Harvard. In helping commemorate his accomplishments, I want to acknowledge and raise awareness of the extraordinary challenges he and other native students faced at the Harvard Indian College and the Cambridge-
area preparatory schools during the seventeenth century.

As I near graduation, I contemplate the possibilities beyond these walls, and consider how I can use what I’ve learned here to help serve my community in the future. I feel Caleb might have had similar thoughts nearing commencement, and I imagine that the pressure to return home to the Island was similarly well-received by him. As a political science major with a focus on American Indian public policy and tribal governance, I want to bring home new ideas about how tribal leaders can better our community and improve the lives of our citizens. In the future, I aim to bring an enriched understanding of our histories, an open-minded perspective of how tribal governments can work, and the enthusiasm needed to listen to, support, and help lead a strong community.

As the first member of the Island’s Wampanoag community to graduate from Harvard College since Caleb did 346 years ago, I hope to honor him by helping accomplish in our community what he was unfortunately never able to do, as he died – presumably from tuberculosis – shortly after he graduated.

We will probably never actually know or understand what Caleb, or any of Cambridge’s seventeenth-century Indian students, went through or felt like in their journeys into such a different world from their own. Only one piece of personal writing by Caleb survives in the present day – and very few writings from his fellow Native American students. I am thankful that individuals such as Geraldine Brooks have come forward to research, commemorate, and share this history in a new and illuminating way.