Very early in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the leaders wrote and spoke of the need for a college to educate the future leaders of the colony. It was imperative that they have good training to help grow this God fearing colony that in Governor Winthrop's words, would be God's," City on the Hill".
Schooling in Salem originally took place at home and at Church. Most of the town's leadership had been well educated in England before emigrating to Salem and knew the importance of training not just in reading and writing but in theology so that future clergy would be available. They saw the role of grammar schools as preparatory for college and leadership roles. Before starting one of the earliest free education systems, they began advocating for the Colony's establishment of a College.
Salem leaders such as Rev. Hugh Peters of the First Church who worked with the newly formed colonial government on education matters, agreed to "take order for a colledge". They set out to identify a suitable place for a college to be established. At this time the General Court at Salem was in the process of granting lands to colonists.
In November of 1635, The Court granted Thomas Scruggs of Salem a farm of 300 acres on the border of Salem, Marblehead and Swampscott just beyond Forest River. Scruggs, in viewing the land and its some 30 acres of flat meadow that overlooked the harbor and river, thought it ideal for the college. When he brought this proposal back to the Court they appointed six men to examine the land and come to an agreement if it was suitable. The six were: Thomas Scruggs, Roger Conant, (of the Court), Thomas Woodberry, Captain Traske, Townsend Bishop and Peter Palfry.
The group examined the land and found it ideal for the college and proposed that Scruggs' grant be taken "lest it should hinder the building of a college which would be mens' loss." A counter proposal that substituted a smaller farm in Wenham was granted to Scruggs.
The meadow that overlooked the bay that was later called Marblehead Farms would be the site of the Mass. Bay Colony's first college. This area today encompasses the land beyond Forest River along Loring Avenue toward Leggs Hill where Salem, Marblehead and Swampscott border one other.
Robert Rantoul, in an address as President of the Essex Institute in 1898, intimated that the college would have been named Scruggs College because of Thomas Scruggs identifying and generously giving up this land.
From 1628 to 1632, Salem was the capitol of the Mass Bay Colony and relished that leadership role. With the arrival of Winthrop and his subsequent founding of Boston and its designation as the capitol, Salem residents were disappointed and hoped Salem would become the capitol again. They thought it was very possible Salem would once more be the capitol if there was a change in leadership and the General Court agreed.
That hope, as well as attempts, persisted into colonial times. This competiveness with Boston affected attitudes of people in both towns.
After protracted negotiations with Salem representatives in 1636, the General Court along with Governor Winthrop designated Newetowne (later Cambridge) as the site of the college.
Salem's strong advocacy fell on deaf ears which was probably partly due to the Court's anger toward Salem for its continued support of Roger Williams, who was considered heretical in his religiously tolerant views. When the Court tried to arrest him for heresy and send him to England for trial, he escaped the colony and founded Providence Plantation with fellow dissidents.
With the bequest of John Harvard's library to the Colony, the college was later named after Harvard, a Charlestown minister. Salem, for its part, continued to offer support, including monetary appropriations, to the college and sent many of its sons to Harvard. What few records that remain of early graduates show a large number of Salem graduates attesting to Salem early and strong support.