Wells College History
The rich and enthralling history of Wells College begins in the mid-nineteenth century with the dreams and ambition of Henry Wells—a pioneering businessman who founded the American Express Company and Wells, Fargo & Company.
Rejecting an offer to merge his institution with Ezra Cornell’s nearby fledgling college, Henry Wells insisted in a 1866 letter that his goal was “to promote a higher standard of moral and intellectual culture that has yet been obtained by the ordinary village and town institutions” more commonly available to women at the time. He described this lofty plan as “the dream of my life” and—with the support of benefactor E.B. Morgan and other prominent Finger Lakes businessmen, politicians, and educators—saw it come to fruition on the plot of land across from his still-standing villa, Glen Park. Wells Seminary, as it was originally called, was inaugurated on July 23, 1868.
In its early years, the women’s college offered instruction in language, music, history, mathematics, and science in a homey atmosphere. The original goal—to educate women who would further society’s “intellectual culture” as wives and mothers—evolved as the campus grew. More students were recruited, increasing enrollment from 34 to 170 students in the college’s first decade, and new buildings were built even in the face of adversity, as the young institute resiliently survived a campus fire that burned the original Main Building to the ground 20 years after its completion.
Wells College has since graduated many generations of curious intellectuals, humane citizens, and confident leaders—many incredibly successful, some famous, and a few infamous. Alumnae and alumni have gone onto successful careers in academia, medicine, politics, and the performing arts—each becoming leaders in their respective fields after seizing the opportunity for leadership and involvement in student organizations at Wells that still thrive today. These include The Chronicle, a literary magazine first published in 1873, and the Collegiate Association, an autonomous student government founded by the Wells women of 1897 over two decades before women were granted the right to vote. Since this early period, traditions—from the Odd-Even rivalry (dating back to the 1890s) to singing of the Alma Mater around the sycamore—have also remained a fundamental part of student life.
The college, of course, underwent many changes through its history—surviving an influenza epidemic, a devastating economic depression and two world wars. Under the leadership of 18 presidents, Wells has grown from a small seminary catering to the young women of New York to a nationally-recognized college drawing a diverse student body from many states and several countries. In 2004, after 136 years of leadership in women’s education, the college opened its doors to students of all genders. Since then, current and past Wells College students continue to bond over a shared and enduring tradition of scholarship and community.
Researched and written by Judith Lavelle ’14.