Renewed Interest in Harvard’s First Wampanoag Students

By Anna J. Cook

The Boston Globe recently ran an article about Harvard student Tiffany Smalley (class of 2011), the first member of the Wampanoag tribe to graduate from Harvard since 1665. Smalley’s graduation, has drawn renewed attention to her predecessors Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck and Joel Iacommes, who attended Harvard in the 1660s. Cheeshahteaumuck graduated in 1665, while Iacommes died in a shipwreck shortly before receiving his degree. Today, Iacommes will be awarded a posthumous degree, after a delay of 346 years.

Little is known about either of these men. According to the entry for Cheeshahteaumuck in volume 2 of Sibley’s Harvard Graduates, both men were from Martha’s Vineyard and were likely converts to Christianity. Daniel Gookin of the Society in London for Propagating the Gospel, which sponsored the education of Wampanoag students, wrote of Cheeshahteaumuck and Iacommes:

I remember but only two of them all [the Wampanoag students], that lived in the college at Cambridge; the one named Joel [son of Hiacommes], the other, Caleb … These two were hopeful young men, especially Joel, being so ripe in learning, that he should, within a few months, have taken his first degree of bachelor of art in college … He was a good scholar and a pious man, as I judge. I knew him well; for he lived and was taught in the same town where I dwell. I observed him for several years, after he was grown to years of discretion, to be not only a diligent student, but an attentive hearer of God’s word; diligently writing the sermons, and frequenting lectures; grave and sober in his conversation.

About Cheeshahteaumuck, who survived until graduation, Sibley’s can offer little more insight. He succumbed in 1666 to consumption, an illness that was apparently common among the Wampanoag who had been sent from home to study. He must have been sickly even during his tenure as a student, as he was sent to a doctor soon after graduation and died within the year.

Hopefully there will be fewer than 346 years between Smalley’s graduation and the next matriculation at Harvard of a Wampanoag student.