Henry Rutgers: Lost in New Jersey

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Oh the indignity, to be the namesake of the largest educational institution in New Jersey and still to have your corpse misplaced for more than a century. But thus was the fate of Revolutionary War Hero, New York Legislator, Presidential Elector and magnanimous philanthropist, Colonel Henry Rutgers.

King’s and Queen’s

In addition to being the largest institution in the Garden State, Rutgers is also the eighth oldest in the US, and one of only nine “colonial colleges,” those instituted before the American Revolution. Rutgers was actually founded by ministers from the Dutch Reformed Church, receiving its charter in 1766. Said charter was signed by the last Royal Governor of New Jersey, a British loyalist named William Franklin. William, it happens, was the illegitimate son of the great (and promiscuous) Ben Franklin. (The story of their estrangement, prompted by sharp disagreement over the Revolutionary War, is itself an interesting story. But I digress . . . )

In the same year that Queen’s College was founded, Henry Rutgers graduated from King’s College (now Columbia University). Like Benjamin Franklin, the young man was a passionate champion for American independence. One decade later, he would find himself in the thick of battle, captaining American forces under General George Washington in the 1776 Battle of White Plains.

Following the war, Rutgers served as a colonel for the New York militia. And on the approach of the War of 1812, Rutgers provided consequential supervision as American forces organized for another confrontation with the British. Rutgers was an affirmed bachelor, a disposition which apparently left him with the time and freedom to pursue a remarkably diverse array of interests. This included several terms of elected service in the New York Legislature, membership in the electoral college for three presidential elections (1808, 1816, and 1820), and a seat on the New York Board of Education Regents from 1802 to 1826.

It was during this latter tenure that Rutgers attained collegiate immortality. For much of the early nineteenth Century, Queen’s College struggled to remain open. A lack of funding just after the turn of the century led to a vote that would have seen the school merging with the College of New Jersey (known today as Princeton U). The measure failed by one vote and Queen’s closed while its trustees attempted to raise funds for its revitalization. They succeeded temporarily, reopening and breaking new ground in 1808.

Saving Jersey

But economic recession followed the War of 1812 and forced the school to once more shutter its doors. In 1825, the institution had again raised the funds to reopen. They renamed the school Rutgers College, claiming on public record that this was to honor the great Revolutionary War hero for his service and his strong Christian values. Off the record, this was probably done to curry favor with a man who had become quite the generous philanthropist, contributing parts of his considerable Manhattan real estate holdings to churches, charities and schools.

If this was the intent, it was a successful one. A year after it reopened, Rutgers received a $5,000 bond and a fancy bell from the good colonel. There is some speculation that the trustees also anticipated receiving another infusion of cash once the aged benefactor passed on. Alas, when Henry died just four years later at the age of eighty-four, he made no mention of Rutgers College in his will.

Nonetheless, all evidence suggests that the institution — which spans three major campuses across the state of New Jersey and serves more than sixty-seven thousand undergrad and grad students — managed to find its way to solid financial ground. As for the ground that Henry Rutgers occupied, the history is somewhat more convoluted.

A Grave Error

Originally interred at the Reformed Church cemetery on Nassau Street in Manhattan, the now-deceased real estate magnate was himself the victim of rapid development. Changes to the landscape of New York rendered his final resting place not-so-final. In 1858, he was part of a cemetery-wide relocation to the Middle Church in Lafayette Place, and just seven years later, to the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

Then, somehow, anybody who knew where old Henry was just sort of forgot to write it down or tell others. His location was unmarked and forgotten. Somehow, a rumor made its way to the surface purporting that his body was somewhere in a Dutch Reformed churchyard in Belleville, New Jersey. So convinced were locals of his presence there that the road alongside this graveyard is named Rutgers Street.

Finally, in 2008, Civil War research volunteers unearthed burial records for Green-Wood and determined that he was interred in an unmarked grave in an underground vault since 1865. Henry’s actual final resting place was honored with a bronze marker after nearly a century-and-a-half of obscurity.

Of course, as obscurity goes, having the State University of New Jersey named after you is not too shabby.

Part of the Legends of College History Series

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Campus Characters: Legends of College History

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