Henry Axtell (1773-1829)
A founder of Hobart and William Smith Colleges
Geneva, New York
Rev. Henry Axtell
Portrait scanned from "Hobart and William Smith:
The History of Two Colleges" by Warren Hunting Smith
Henry Axtell (6-39) of Mendham, NJ, was the son of Henry "The Old Major" Axtell (5-20) and Phoebe (Condict) (Day) Axtell. In 1796, he graduated from Princeton and became the first Axtell to get a college degree. He started an academy in Mendham that year. Then he moved to Geneva, NY, at the north end of Seneca Lake, halfway between Rochester and Syracuse. There he became one of the founders of Hobart College.
Both the 1886 Axtell Record and 1945 Axtell Genealogy get some details wrong and actually understate his importance--a rare twist in a published family history. The Axtell Record says,
After successfully conducting the academy for 10 or 11 years, he concluded to seek a wider field for his labors, and removed to Geneva, Ontario Co., N.Y., in 1806 or 7. At that time the central part of the State of New York was a new region known as "The Lake Country," and was attracting much attention in that part of N.J., many families removing from Morris. Co. to different localities in that section. At Geneva he established an institution of learning, which was afterwards known as "Geneva College." In 1812 he was ordained to preach to a Presbyterian congregation, which he did with so much success and acceptability that they built for him a handsome church. Princeton College conferred upon him the degree of Doctor of Divinity about the same time. In personal appearance he was six feet in height, spare in flesh, of a dark complexion, black, curly hair and large black eyes. He died at Geneva after a short illness on the 11th of Feb., 1829, aged 56 years.
In "Hobart and William Smith: The History of Two Colleges" (by Warren Hunting Smith, published by Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Geneva, NY, 1972), it's clear that Geneva Academy was already established when Henry arrived in "1806 or 7" (according to the Axtell Record) or "about 1804" (according to the College history). He was, however, the first known principal of the school and a founding trustee when the Academy finally got its charter from the State Board of Regents in 1813. Further, he was a founding trustee of Geneva College when the charter was expanded in 1825. That is, he was the leader that saw the single school building grow from an unchartered academy to a chartered college. Geneva College was renamed Hobart College in 1851 after Episcopalian Bishop John Hobart. In 1906, William Smith College was founded as a "coordinate" (as opposed to "coeducational") "girls' college."
1825 was also the year the Erie Canal opened. Geneva, at the north end of Seneca Lake, was on the Genesee Turnpike, an important road leading to westward expansion. The Canal bypassed Geneva, as did the railroads later, and Geneva never became a major center of commerce.
You can find out more at the Colleges' website, www.hws.edu. You'll find out about Elizabeth Blackwell there, the first women to get a medical degree in America. She graduated from Geneva Medical College in 1849.
Thanks to John Norvell, Alumni Director, for some of the above information via email. The College History sources note; "The best account of Geneva Academy is in Lewis C. Aldrich and George S. Conover, History of Ontario County, Syracuse, NY, 1893, pp. 282-7. .... Axtell's life, with reminiscences of him, is in William B. Sprague, Annals of the American Pulpit, 1857-1869, iv. 453-7.
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Page last revised 12 Dec 2000 by Dan Axtell