Tips on Researching pre-20th C. Yalies

On Wednesday morning, April 10th, Yale alumnus David Richards (1967 B.A., 1972 J.D.) made a presentation to Manuscripts and Archives staff on research he’s been conducting into the impact of Senior (aka secret) societies on Yale’s administration and governance. He offered some very useful tips for researching Yale students and student life for the period before the growth of student publications at Yale during the last quarter of the 19th century. Links from items discussed below to freely available digital copies in Google Books are provided when they exist.

  1. Read Four Years at Yale (New Haven: Charles C. Chatfield & Co., 1871) by Lyman Hotchkiss Bagg (1869 B.A.). According to Richards this is the most comprehensive record of the annual cycle of student life at Yale in the mid-19th century.
  2. Browse the lists of members in fraternity catalogs for Phi Beta Kappa (1898 catalog link provided), and the Yale Junior fraternities¬†Alpha Delta Phi (1909 catalog link provided), Psi Upsilon (1902 catalog link provided), and Delta Kappa Epsilon (1910 catalog link provided), many editions of which have been digitized and are available in Google Books. These contain a surprising amount of data about individual students and cover significant percentages of Yale classes, especially during the 19th-century time period. For example, according to Richards’ calculations, out of the 110 members of the Yale College Class of 1853, information about 74 students can be found in the three Junior fraternity catalogs.
  3. Explore Anson Phelps Stokes’¬†Memorials of Eminent Yale Men: A Biographical Study of Student Life and University Influences During the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1914). These biographies of the more famous co-graduates of a particular class provide a good flavor of student life during the time period and glimpses of other members of the class. Other single-subject biographies can serve the same purpose in establishing context for understanding the life of a student in a specific Yale College class or era, for example, John A. Garver’s John William Sterling, Class of 1864, Yale College: A Biographical Sketch (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1929).

In our alumni-related reference work in Manuscripts and Archives we rely heavily on student publications and class books, which did not come into routine existence until late in the 19th century. Richards’ research reminds us all of the potential of other resources for researching Yalies of an earlier era.

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