Sylvanus Thayer: Sylvanus Thayer was born in Braintree, Massachusetts, June 9, 1785, the fifth of seven children. His mother, Dorcas, and father, Nathaniel, a sturdy New England farmer whose family had been there for generations, had little money, so they sent their brilliant son to live with his uncle Azariah Faxon and attend school in Washington, New Hampshire. Sylvanus earned his way by helping in his uncle’s store, where, fortuitously, he met General Benjamin Pierce, father of future President Franklin Pierce. Both General Pierce and Sylvanus’ Uncle Azaria, who had fought in the Revolutionary War, fed Sylvanus’ growing fascination with military matters, including the dazzling campaigns of Napoleon Bonaparte.
At 16, Sylvanus was teaching school in Washington and preparing for college. What he wanted was a technical education that would prepare him to be an engineer, but at the time no such institution existed in this country. So he pursued the next-best thing: a college that offered advanced mathematics as well as a classical education. In 1803 he entered 34-year-old Dartmouth College.
He quickly distinguished himself on the Hanover Plain as a top student and man of high ideals. He was invited to join United Fraternity, one of Dartmouth’s two literary societies, which only opened its ranks to students who displayed “respectability of talents and acquirements, and a fair moral character.” His interest in world affairs and his passion for Napoleon stood out, too. He was well-known for being the only student on campus to subscribe to the National Intelligencer, a Washington, D.C., paper that covered foreign events, including the latest news of Napoleon’s exploits.
Dartmouth left its mark on Thayer. The College’s small classes, daily recitations, and prescribed curriculum — including the humanities — influenced his ideas of what education ought to be. Thayer was exposed to the formal bearing and austere educational leadership of Dartmouth President John Wheelock, a former military officer — and son of College founder Eleazar Wheelock. And like thousands of Dartmouth students who came after him, Thayer developed lifelong friendships with his classmates, including his best friend and roommate George Ticknor, who went on to become a leader in American liberal arts education.
One day in 1807 Thayer received two letters, one telling him he was valedictorian of his class; the other saying his old friend General Pierce had persuaded President James Madison to appoint Thayer to be a cadet at the five-year-old United States Military Academy.
Sylvanus Thayer, 22, never gave his valedictory speech. Instead, with his Dartmouth degree and Phi Beta Kappa key, he left for West Point. Ticknor thought his friend was relieved to forfeit the valedictory address. “He was always modest and shy and would have had difficulty facing an audience composed mostly of ladies,” Ticknor explained.
Arriving at West Point, Thayer was surprised at the laxness of the academy. There was no fixed curriculum. Cadets were graduated whenever the professors felt they were ready. Some cadets had been there since the academy opened in 1802. With his classical Dartmouth education, aptitude in math, and natural diligence, Cadet Thayer was graduated in one year.
During the War of 1812, Thayer, a second lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers, planned and directed the defense of Norfolk, Virginia. Though the British captured many of our coastal fortifications, they were unable to take this one. For this achievement, Thayer was made brevet major. (Brevet means an officer receives higher rank without higher pay. No wonder it’s obsolete.)
Despite America’s victory, President Madison and Secretary of War James Monroe were alarmed at the educational deficiencies of the Army’s officer corps. When Major Thayer expressed interest in spending time abroad expanding his knowledge of military and technical studies, Madison and Monroe provided him with $5,000 to buy books, maps, and “other learning materials” for the nation’s struggling young military academy.
Thayer arrived in Europe on June 12, 1815, just three weeks after his hero Napoleon, whom he hoped to see, lost the Battle of Waterloo. Thayer spent two years studying at the French West Point, École Polytechnique, and traveling through Europe collecting military texts. His old Dartmouth friend George Tickner was also in Europe at the time, studying German educational systems for Harvard. Tickner was impressed with German liberalism and freedom. Thayer was impressed with École Polytechnique’s strict discipline and academic requirements. This led to lively arguments, the kind that cement relationships.
In 1817 President Monroe ordered Thayer to return to West Point to take over as Superintendent to bring order out of the academy’s chaos. Thayer began by weeding out loafers, establishing standards for admission, applying military discipline, creating a student-enforced honor system, and developing a rigorous curriculum centered on engineering. Drawing on his Dartmouth education, studies at Ecole Polytechnique, experience in the Corps of Engineers, and discussions with George Ticknor, Thayer insisted that America’s military engineers be educated in the sciences and the humanities. Between 1817 and 1833 he turned West Point into the world’s finest military academy and the country’s first college of engineering. Carried by West Point graduates to other colleges and universities, Thayer’s curriculum became the springboard for technological instruction throughout the country.
In the early 19th century, a college head did it all — appointing trustees and faculty, deciding on courses of study. Thayer also was treasurer, disciplinarian, even director of architectural projects. The Superintendent’s quarters he built in 1820 attest to his sense of beauty and keen foresight. Still in use today, the capacious rooms, with fireplaces for heating, are large enough for Superintendents and their families yet to come.
Thayer himself was a kind of military monk. He lived in solitude, attended only by an orderly. He was famous for punctuality, arriving at his office on the strike of the bell and at parties on the precise moment of the invitation. He was equally stringent with the cadets, who received demerits for every instance of tardiness. Nevertheless, the cadets admired him extravagantly.
Thayer had an uncanny memory and knew every cadet by name. He took an interest in each one and amazed them with his knowledge of their activities. Thayer’s desk helped in this regard. Large and high in front, the back was built with pigeon holes where Thayer filed each cadet’s weekly grades, financial standings, and demerits. When cadets reported to the Superintendent, they were surprised to find their every flaw on the tip of his tongue. Because they could not see behind the partition, they would leave convinced that he knew everything about them. (I say that a man who could dream up such a clever desk must have had a sense of humor.)
During the 16 years Thayer was Superintendent of West Point, he earned the respect and admiration of the cadets, sometimes by being unpredictable. One night the “Supe” ferried across the Hudson to attend a party in Garrison. He was shocked to run into one of his cadets, off-limits. Thayer conversed pleasantly with the illegal visitor. The stunned sinner knew he would be severely punished. Instead, it was the commandant of cadets who received a severe rebuke for permitting such an infraction to occur. The story spread among the cadets like wildfire, increasing their awe of the Superintendent.
He also earned their respect by running West Point as a meritocracy, a revolutionary idea in education at the time. Thayer insisted that privileged students should never be accepted over more talented plebeians. He made continuance at the academy conditional on performance. He dismissed cadets who failed academically or breached the academy’s rules. And he avoided favoritism of any sort. When his nephew was admitted to the academy, Thayer called him in to his office. “Sir, your relationship to me is known and I am liable to be suspected of partiality to a relative,” Thayer informed him, “therefore, I have prepared your resignation, which you are to sign now. If at any time you commit a serious offense, this resignation will be published by the adjutant at evening parade and you will cease to be a member of the Corps of cadets.”
The most famous of the Superintendent’s student failures was a cadet named Edgar Allen Poe. Orphaned young, a poet, dreamer, gambler, drinker, Cadet Poe was the worst possible misfit. However, the strict Superintendent granted Poe permission to publish a collection of poems and deducted the 75-cent price from each cadet’s pay. Poe lasted seven months before being court-martialed for failure to attend classes, disobedience of orders, and gross neglect of duty. The only good thing the poet ever had to say about West Point was to express admiration for Thayer.
Superintendent Thayer had always demanded a free hand in discharging cadets he believed unsuited to the ideals he had established. When Andrew Jackson became President, everything changed. Thayer would dismiss a man for good reason; then Jackson, for political reasons, would return him by presidential order. Finally, not wanting Jackson’s apparent personal animosity toward him to wreak further havoc on the military academy, Thayer resigned as Superintendent. Stunned, every cadet and professor shook his hand in farewell. Then the man who had educated 711 “sons” boarded a boat on the Hudson and quietly took his leave. He never returned.
Sylvanus Thayer returned to active duty in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers constructing harbor defenses for New England. During the next 30 years his educational and organizational expertise was tapped by several institutions, including Harvard and the University of Virginia. Harvard, Dartmouth, and other colleges awarded him honorary degrees. By 1860 his influence had spread throughout the nation. Seventy-eight West Point graduates were on the faculties of the country’s 203 colleges, 40 as math professors and 16 as professors of civil engineering.
When failing health finally induced Thayer to retire from active service in 1863, at the rank of brevet of brigadier general, he returned to his home in Braintree. There he drew up plans for a new addition to education at Dartmouth.
Thayer wanted to establish a civilian school to train engineers, desperately needed in our young country. On April 4, 1867, he wrote to Dartmouth President Rev. Asa Smith: “I hope to be prepared to place in the hands of trustees thirty thousand dollars* … to be applied to the establishment and maintenance of a Department or School of Architecture and Civil Engineering connected with Dartmouth College, the institution in which I was educated and in the prosperity of which as my Alma Mater I feel the deepest interest.”
President Smith and Dartmouth’s trustees welcomed the proposal, and Thayer proceeded with his plans for a mainly postgraduate engineering program. One of his greatest challenges was finding the right man to lead the new school. Naturally, he turned to a West Point graduate — Dennis Mahan — for help. Mahan, who taught civil and military engineering at the Academy, suggested several qualified Army officers, but none could be persuaded to resign his commission for the smaller salary Thayer’s nascent school could offer. Finally in 1870, Mahan suggested a young officer just two years out of West Point: Lieutenant Robert Fletcher. “He is a pious and pure man, one who would harmonize, on all points, with the society at Dartmouth,” Mahan wrote Thayer. After meeting Fletcher, Thayer wrote a note of approval to President Smith: “I have sounded him on all points to the best of my ability, resulting in the conviction that he will prove himself to be ‘the right man in the right place.’ His disposition, morals, principles, & intellectual powers seem to me all we could wish.”
DARTMOUTH ENGINEERS: Members of Thayer School's classes of 1894 and 1895 work alongside Dean Robert Fletcher, left. Courtesy of Dartmouth College Archives.
Steeped in the education system Thayer had established at West Point, Fletcher understood perfectly the curricular goals and standards Thayer set for his school of civil engineering. The two conferred constantly on the evolving program of study. They developed a preparatory program for prospective students and persuaded President Smith to allow Dartmouth undergraduates to forego German so they would have time to study the advanced mathematics they would need to pass Thayer School’s stringent entrance examinations. In 1871 Thayer School admitted its first three students. The sole professor, Fletcher taught every course, a load that should have been shared by three or four instructors. For the next 47 years Fletcher directed Thayer School with the care, devotion, and fortitude worthy of its founder.
On September 7, 1872, General Thayer died at age 87. He was buried in Old North Braintree Cemetery, near his father’s grave. President Smith and other illustrious men came for his funeral. Braintree had never seen anything like it: the parade from the church to the cemetery, the somber martial music, the honorary guard firing a salute over the grave. A local boy had brought world renown to their small New England village. Thayer gave the town a generous legacy, too: funds to build a Thayer Public Library and Thayer Academy, a secondary school on the grounds of his own home. Thayer wanted the school to “offer to youth the opportunity to rise, through the pursuit of duty, industry, and honor, from small beginnings to honorable achievements.” Once again he was creating a meritocracy, this time one that was coeducational from the beginning.
Over the years Sylvanus Thayer has continued to be part of my life. In the late 1960s my husband, Tom, and I took our children to see the Hall of Fame for Great Americans at New York University. The curving colonnade overlooking the Hudson contained bronze busts of winning candidates. At the time only 93 Americans had been selected for this huge honor. And there, in the Hall of Fame, was my old friend. The handsome bronze bust carried the words: “Sylvanus Thayer, 1785–1872, Duty, Honor, Country.” Years later, after Tom and I moved to Hanover, I walked past Dartmouth’s engineering school; suddenly I stopped short. There, carved in stone on the front of Cummings Hall was a quote from Sylvanus stating the purpose of the school: “To prepare the most capable and faithful for the most responsible positions and the most difficult service.” As I read those words — the civilian equivalent of Duty, Honor, Country — I felt I was back at West Point.
Immersed in Sylvanus Thayer lore for this article, I decided to make a pilgrimage to his grave. I envisioned myself putting flowers on his grave and offering a prayer of thanks to him. When I consulted the Internet for directions to Braintree, I got a shock. Sylvanus Thayer had moved. In 1877, five years after his death, he was disinterred and reburied in the West Point Cemetery (where my brother Red now lies). I took a virtual tour of the cemetery. The General’s tombstone is a disappointing oblong block of marble.
I prefer his statue.
— Nardi Reeder Campion’s eighth book, a memoir, Everyday Matters: A Love Story, has just been published by University Press of New England.
* Thayer increased the $30,000 to $40,000 in his July 4, 1867 instrument of gift. By 1871, he had given $70,000 to establish the Thayer School.
The Dartmouth Factor: Ecole Polytechnique was not Thayer’s only educational model
ALMA MATERS: After the rigorous education Thayer received at Dartmouth (left, circa 1803), he gave West Point (right, circa 1835) similar educational elements. Dartmouth by George Ticknor, courtesy of Dartmouth College Archives. View of West Point by Thomas Chambers, Courtesy of West Point Museum and Smithsonian Institution.
Many historians point to Sylvanus Thayer’s two-year study of French military schools as the inspiration for his instrumental changes to instruction and administration at West Point, including rigid entrance standards and daily graded recitations. But his decision to round out the curriculum with courses in advanced mathematics and humanities may have been influenced by his own alma mater, Dartmouth.
By 1803, when Thayer entered the College, Dartmouth had established itself as an institution with a rigorous four-year liberal arts education. The class day began at 5 o’clock in the morning and ran until 6 o’clock in the evening. There were three classes per day, with breaks for meals, study periods, and prayers. Recitation was the most widely used form of instruction. Instructors asked questions about the assigned reading and students recited what they remembered. With no pre-selected courses of study or majors, all students received a comprehensive education, taking classes in a wide range of subjects. For the first three years, students focused on the Classics: from Greek they learned about art, literature, and science, and from Latin they learned about law. Grammar, logic, and geography were also a part of their studies. In their fourth year, students took courses in metaphysics, theology, natural philosophy, and French, the language in which most scientific texts were published.
Thayer chose Dartmouth in large part because it offered several courses in higher mathematics that were not yet available at other colleges, even Harvard. At Dartmouth Thayer was able to study algebra, trigonometry, and calculus. When he graduated in 1807, as class valedictorian, Thayer was the consummate scholar. He excelled not only in the scientific subjects that would lead to his military calling, but in the humanities as well. His accomplishments demonstrated a belief that a complete education would show him how best to serve his country.
This high regard for a liberal arts education followed him through his successful careers as mathematics professor, soldier, engineer, and ultimately as academic administrator and benefactor. During his 16 years as superintendent of West Point, he encouraged his students to master French so they could translate the foreign texts, giving this country its first books on engineering. Students also studied history, art, moral philosophy, law, and geography to give context to their campaign planning and building projects.
As founder of Thayer School, Thayer wrote out requirements for admission that again emphasized the importance of grammar, geography, and history, along with the requisite background in mathematics and science. He understood that a good education was more than a study of discrete subjects. The ideal curriculum mixed philosophy and theory with skills and practical application. By challenging students to understand the necessary interaction between the two, he hoped “to prepare the most capable and faithful for the most responsible positions and the most difficult service.”
— Genevieve Chan
A Man for All Times: The Life of Sylvanus Thayer
Born June 9 in Braintree, Massachusetts.
Moves to Washington, New Hampshire, to live with and work for his uncle Azariah Faxon, a veteran of the American Revolution.
Develops interest in military campaigns of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Teaches at Washington District School.
Enters Dartmouth College. Studies the classics and higher mathematics. Develops lifelong friendship with George Ticknor, future distinguished author and Harvard educator.
Named valedictorian, but departs before Commencement to take up appointment to United States Military Academy (USMA) at West Point.
Graduates from USMA as second lieutenant in U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Teaches mathematics at West Point.
Awarded Master of Arts degree by Dartmouth College.
Fights in War of 1812.
Awarded Brevet Major (promotion without pay increase) for design and erection of Norfolk Harbor.
Travels to Europe to study military operations, works, and schools, particularly France’s École Polytechnique.
Appointed Superintendent of West Point by President James Monroe. Within first two years, establishes discipline, standards, and nation’s first engineering curriculum and technical library.
Professor George Ticknor, classmate and friend from Dartmouth, requests Thayer’s advice on revamping curriculum at Harvard College.
Awarded Brevet of Lieutenant Colonel.
Awarded Master of Arts degree by Harvard College.
President Monroe consults Thayer on administration of the University of Virginia.
Resigns superintendency to prevent President Andrew Jackson’s rivalry with him from eroding USMA’s standards.
Constructs Boston harbor defenses. Forts Warren and Independence are models of engineering skill, economy, and construction.
President Martin Van Buren’s secretary of war invites Thayer to resume charge of USMA. Thayer declines.
Awarded LL. D. by Dartmouth College.
Awarded LL. D. by Harvard College.
Thayer’s influence on education felt nationally through the success of his cadets: Seventy-eight USMA graduates teach at the nation’s 203 colleges.
Retires from active duty and returns to family home in Braintree.
Donates $40,000 (increased to $70,000 by 1971) to the Trustees of Dartmouth College “for the purpose of establishing … a School or Department of Architecture and Civil Engineering.” Outlines a rigorous curriculum for a mainly post-graduate education in civil engineering.
Thayer School of Civil Engineering opens its doors, with Robert Fletcher as sole professor, a Board of Overseers, a program of admission requirements, a curriculum, an endowment, a drawing room, a recitation room, and three students.
Dies September 7 in Braintree.
Thayer Academy, a coed secondary school, established in Braintree from funds bequeathed by Thayer.
Thayer’s remains reinterred at West Point.
Thayer statue unveiled at West Point.
West Point presents first annual Sylvanus Thayer Award to recognize outstanding citizens. Future recipients include Bob Hope and astronaut Neil Armstrong.
Thayer elected to New York University’s Hall of Fame for Great Americans as the ”Father of Technology in the United States.”
Thayer School of Engineering celebrates centennial with publication of school’s history and Thayer’s school-related correspondence.
U.S. Postal Service issues nine-cent Sylvanus Thayer stamp. Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis declares June 9 Sylvanus Thayer Day.
Furthering Thayer’s goals, expansion of Thayer School of Engineering begins.
Twins, Bayard and John Eliot Thayer: Bayard Thayer (b. April 3, 1862) the twin of John Eliot (fifth son and seventh child of Nathaniel Jr.), was a trustee of the Nathaniel Thayer II estate, but was not active in business (Safford box, "Bayard Thayer" 6). He spent most of his time enjoying hobbies or beautifying his gigantic estate. Outdoor sports and travel were his primary hobbies. Of his extensive travels he made a noteworthy statement,
11I have found good among every people, and even where there was much to condemn, there was much to admire. I have never returned from a journey without an increased respect for the countries I have visited, and a greater regard for my own land." ("Bayard Thayer" 6).
His sporting hobbies included horse breeding and racing, dog breeding and showing, yachting, and hunting. Each year he liberated thousands of ring-necked pheasants (a relatively unknown bird at the time) on his estate on George Hill, which he opened to fellow hunters (Dexter).. The bird is now throughout New England. He was half-owner of Maplehurst stock farm, and Hillside Kennels, both of which were renowned for their quality ("Fiftieth..."). He had three yachts, one of which the Golden Galleon trophy, another won 31 races ("Bayard Thayer").
Bayard married Ruth Simpkins in 1896, by whom he had four children, Nathaniel (who served as interpreter to the French Consul at Harvard University during W.W.I before dying of leukemia), Constance van Rensselear; Ruth, and Mabel Bayard ("Grandma's Attic"). Of the daughters, only Constance stayed in town, after marrying William Dexter. Her son Nathaniel Dexter is one of two Thayers left in town. Bayard died suddenly in 1916 of heart disease upon returning from a hunting trip to North Carolina. It was said of him:
He was a man of the noblest quality and extraordinary combination of ability, intellectual power, an unforgettable originality and individuality, with a depth of humor and the highest ideals." ("Bayard Thayer" 8)
John Eliot Thayer I (b. April 3, 1862), fourth son and sixth child of Nathaniel II, was a prominent citizen, generous benefactor, notable scholar, and founder or-officer of organizations of all types. He was vice-president of the Audubon Society, and American Academy of Arts and Sciences, founder and president of the Worcester Agricultural Society, and Clinton Driving Track
I Association, as well as founder or president of the Myopia Hunt Club, the Trotting Horse Breeders Association, and other horse and hunting clubs ("John
Eliot..." 9, 12, Weis 30). He was also a generous contributor to numerous causes. For instance, at his graduation from Harvard he gave $15,000, which made the Harvard Journal of Economics possible (to my knowledge not still published) (4). He gave a nurses home to Massachusetts General Hospital.
Fred Delano, a clubmate said, "I have known many men who were quietly generous, but never have met one who was so openly and frankly generous as John Thayer". He was loved for his directness; simplicity, good humor, and friendliness (Hatstat). Upon his death, it was said of him by the Lancaster Library Trustees "Respected by all, loved by all, mourned by all. He will not be forgotten." (Annual Report of the Officers, 1933). He had been a library trustee for 45 years (Hatstat).
John married Evelyn Duncan Forbes· in 1886 and had five children: Evelyn, Nora Forbes, Natalie, Duncan Forbes, and John Eliot, Jr., all born between 1887 and 1900. The three daughters, following the family trend, left Lancaster once married. The two brothers stayed and nurtured their estates.
Older Clinton residents remember him for organizing the best fairs in Massachusetts. Under his supervision a Clinton Horse Driving Track was built, whic hosted Clinton fairs for 25 years ("John Eliot..." 9). The Fair was Thayer quality, with plant and animal shows, hot air balloons, parachuting, horse races, and horse tricks, and wild animal shows (Clinton Fair box). There was even a bicyclist who sped down a steep ramp, jumped a forty foot span and landed on another ramp (Fair box). The Fair's popularity declined once John Eliot stopped directing it, and ceased altogether in the second decade of this century (Fair box).
John took great time and care with his hobbies, and accepted only the best.
He loved breeding dogs and horses, hobbies and financial ventures he shared with his brother Bayard. In Hillside Kennels behind his house he and his brother Bayard bred bulldogs, Scotch Terriers, and Scotch Deerhounds ("John Eliot... 11 8). .He had several hundred ribbons won at dog shows ("Thayers Love..."). On his stock farm, Maplehurst, he bred horses with his 11Baron Wilkes," the world's best trotter at the time. They bred many record-breaking offspring from such noble lineage ("Baron Wilkes").
John's greatest expertise was in ornithology, the study of birds;
Besides his 20,000 volume ornithological library, he had live birds (including a California Condor, eagles, and owls), numerous Audubon paintings, and the most complete bird collection, of the best quality, in the world ("Col. Thayer...", "Thayers Love...11 , Ellis 10-11). He became interested in birds while trying to interest his son in wildlife. His fascination eventually led him all over the world studying and collecting birds, eggs, and nests ("John Eliot..." 10). He collected thousands of the birds in his collection himself ("Col. Thayer..."). Soon his collection featured every bird species known in North America and people soon came from throughout the U.S., Canada, and abroad to see his collection. In 1903 he built a bird museum on Main Street to accommodate and display his. collection. It was designed by Raphael Gaustav, who also designed the Boston Public Library, and the Cathedral of Saint John the D1•.• v1n' e ("Mabel
Bartlett..."). In 1931 the majority of the collection went to the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology; it contained 28,000 stuffed birds, 15,000 eggs and nests, including ten Great Auk eggs, one sixth of the total worldwide. The rest of the collection went to selected elementary schools
In the latter part of his life John's affluence waned, He sank capital into helping his banker sons pull through the Depression, but to no avail (18). His son Duncan (b. Feb. 14, 1900) failed to perpetuate the family fortune because of the Depression, and after his father’s death in 1933 his resources dwindled due to business failures, an unprofitable 400 head sheep farm (made by converting his father's private horse barns by the house to accommodate sheep), and unprofitable apple cultivation (Priscilla Thayer interview).
John Eliot,Jr. (b. Aug 19, 1887) was a Boston businessman, United States Senator for this
district, and president of the Clinton Trust Company, as well as trustee of the Clinton Savings Bank (Safford box, Wood interview, Crane 598,592).He married Katherine Warren, with whom he had four children, and lived at Maplehurst following its closing as a breeding farm. After their divorce, Katherine carried on the running of the farm herself until her death (Kilbourn, Hosmer, Taylor). Their son is the only male Lancaster Thayer descendent with the Thayer name. He is John Eliot Thayer III (b. 1923) of Dedham (Weis file).
Nathaniel Thayer II, and Nathaniel Thayer III: Nathaniel Jr. was born in 1808 the fourth son and seventh child of the minister. By 1837, at the age of 29, Nathaniel II had worked through his clerk apprenticeship to become partner in a firm engaged in West Indian trade. Three years later, in 1840, he and his brother formed John E. Thayer & Brother, a firm involved in stock and bond buying and selling. At John's death in 1857 Nathaniel became primary I , director (D mas 409). He greatly increased his fortunes during the post-Civil War expansion (409). His wealth became legendary due to transcontinental railroad ventures linking the American Midwest and the Pacific.
Nathaniel II married Cornelia van Rensselear and had seven children, of which Stephen van Rensselear Thayer never built a Lancaster home for him and his wife Alice Robeson, as he died less than one year after his wedding (Weis 23). Cornelia married J. Hampden Robb of New York and moved to live with him. Harriet was wed to Forrester Andrew, then governor of Massachusetts (Weis 23). The other four children, Nathaniel II, Eugene V.R., John Eliot, and Bayard, stayed in Lancaster and will be discussed later.
A distinguishing feature of Nathaniel Thayer II's personality was his generosity, a quality shared by his children. When his brother John died, he realized that money hoarded is of no lasting value. That realization prompted his memorable statement:
" A power of money bas come into my hands , and I mean that it shall give me happiness, if it be in the power of money to yield it. That it may do so, I realize that I must share it and do some good with it." (Ellis 25).
His greatest single contributions were to Harvard University, with smaller, but still liberal, donations going to churches (eg. $75,000 to First Church of Boston (Weis 22)), libraries, hospitals, and individuals (Dumas 409).
At Harvard he paid for the building of a botanic garden, dining hall, herbarium, and dormitory, contributions worth at least $250,000 at the time (Ellis 30-40, Dumas 409). He made a novel donation to the zoology department in the form of a blank check to finance a biological expedition to Brazil by Lewis Agassiz in order to stock the zoological museum (Weis 22). To Lancaster he offered $5,000 for the upkeep of the library as well as authorizing the building committee to "expend all that was necessary to make the memorial hall worthy of its object." (Marvin 555) (The library was a memorial to Civil War veterans.) The town raised $10,000 for the project, and he made up the difference of $20,000 (554-5). He also gave $5,000 for books, and $3,000 for maintenance of the cemeteries (555).
Despite, or perhaps because of, all his charitable contributions, he died on March 7, 1883 the richest man to ever have lived in Massachusetts until that till)e (Tymeson 83, Safford box). He was worth $16,076,822 ("A Great Estate").
It is interesting to contrast that with his father's annual salary of $525 (St. Ivanyi Founding 71). Nathaniel's investment house was continued after his death by his daughter Cornelia and his four Lancaster-dwelling sons under the name N. Thayer and Brother of Boston and New York (Safford box).
Following his father's example, Nathaniel Thayer III (b. June 13, 1851), second son and third child of Nathaniel Thayer II, became an outstanding businessman. He was actively identified with American Bell Telephone, American Telephone and Telegraph, U.S. Steel, Old Colony Steamboat, Old Colony Railroad, Eastern Railway, and many other companies, especially railroads (Weis folder). He was very successful; his estate at the time of his death on March 21, 1911, was tallied at $5,3 6,560 ( 11Thayer Millions..."). With his wealth came social status; he became influential and well known among the high society of Boston, New York, and Newport. He entertained Vanderbilts, Bigelows, Forbes, and other families of distinction, having married into one (Homestead Guestbook). He wedded Cornelia S. Barroll, a "Baltimore Belle", in 1881. Before her death. (date unavailable) she bore three daughters: Cornelia van Rensselear(b.?), Anna Morton(b.May 28,1883), and Sarah Barroll Thayer(b.Feb. 18,1885). All three daughters married into families with good names, and relocated.
Sarah Barroll wedded a Winthrop in 1911 and moved to New York Cornelia married Count Carl von Moltke, a Danish nobleman in 1907. Anna married William Patten in 1904; they lived in Lancaster for years, but later moved to Boston. After the death of his first wife, Nathaniel remarried to Pauline Revere, a direct descendent of Paul Revere (incidentally, she had a fine collection of Revere silver) (Hosme interview, Safford box).
The second Mrs. Nathaniel Thayer III was a society lady. Lancaster historian Herbert Hosmer recalls her riding around in Pierce Arrows and Rolls Royces, holding her Pekingese, and driven by chauffeur (Hosmer interview). The same Mrs. Thayer used to take her own butter and cream (from the Thayer dairy) with her to Europe. Before her frequent visits to Europe, she used to ship over her Rolls Royce and chauffeur (Kilbourn interview).
Late in her life, she entertained Eleanor Roosevelt at the Homestead (Hosmer interview). Between 1932 and 1934 Franklin Delano Roosevelt visited his sons at the Groton Academy, and Eleanor stopped off at the Thayer place for tea (Hosmer interview).