1847-1860: Foundation and Early Expansion

On the first of June in 1847, three intrepid men gathered in a New York home with grand purpose in mind: the constitution of a new Greek-letter secret society. Their names were John Bradt Yates Sommers, William Henry Dayton, and John Moon Skillman; the fraternity they founded that day is Zeta Psi.


Delta Chapter at Rutgers


Phi Chapter at NYU

They met at Br Yates’ stately manse at 82 Madison Avenue. Then students in the class of 1849 at New York University (itself a young campus, having only been founded in 1831), the three men formed the core of the first chapter, to be known as Phi, the mother chapter.1 The spread of social fraternities was only just beginning to pick up speed in the mid-nineteenth century, and Zeta Psi, auguring its illustrious future of forging new territory, was at the forefront. The first fraternity of any kind had been founded in 1776 as Phi Beta Kappa, but it was essentially a literary society (and one day would become an honors society).2 It would not be until 24 December 1824 that the first ostensibly social fraternity, Chi Phi, was founded at Princeton University. But it quickly expired, and Kappa Alpha retains the honor of the earliest extant fraternity, founded a year later on 26 November 1825 at Union College. The subsequent foundation of Sigma Phi (4 March) and Delta Phi (17 November) in 1827 completed the heralded “Union Triad” and secured for that university the title “Mother of Fraternities.”3

Sigma Phi’s expansion to a second campus at Hamilton College in 1831 began a broader expansion of Greek societies, with Alpha Delta Phi also at Hamilton on 29 October 1832, Psi Upsilon at Union on 24 November 1833, Delta Upsilon at Williams College on 4 November 1834, Beta Theta Pi at Miami University on 8 August 1839, Chi Psi on 20 May 1841 at Union, Delta Kappa Epsilon on 22 June 1844 and Alpha Sigma Phi on 6 December 1845 at Yale, and Delta Psi at Columbia on 17 January 1847. Thus on 1 June 1847, Zeta Psi was the fourteenth Greek society of any kind founded, and joined Delta Psi at an urban university, capitalizing on the unique resources available in the New York metropolis rather than the confrerity borne of necessity at the rural colleges at which Greek life had theretofore prospered.4 Zeta Psi’s foundation thus represented a bold new direction in fraternal expansion.5 Moreover, Zeta Psi remains the eleventh national fraternity founded, per the authoritative Baird’s Manual of College Fraternities, noting that several of its antecedents either expired soon after founding or never exceeded their original chapter.

Sadly, Zeta Psi’s founding triumvirate of Brs Sommers, Dayton and Skillman were not to be together long in New York. Br Dayton was stricken with poor health and diagnosed with tuberculosis. On advice of physicians, who followed the common wisdom of the time advising warm climates6, he departed New York shortly after the fraternity’s foundation for more temperate climes. He retired to the University of North Carolina, where the warm weather was expected to improve his humors, intending to begin a chapter there. But the move was inauspicious: Dayton died within the year, and the University of North Carolina was without a chapter of Zeta Psi for over a decade. The Phi chapter commemorated his passing when news arrived, and Br Sommers, as part of a eulogy delivered on 23 May 1848, described Br Dayton thusly: “His willingness to labor for others, his uniformity of charity and disposition, meek lustre of a piety that neither blazoned ostentatiously at one time nor wavered and sunk at another, but shone serenely and steadily on, make him deservedly the favorite of all who knew him.”7

Lithograph of Br John B Y Sommers, ca. 1851

Lithograph of Br John B Y Sommers, ca. 1851

Meanwhile, Br Sommers, the son of the Rev Dr Charles B Sommers and Sarah Skelding, had been the originator of the idea for a new fraternity, and would remain a leader and model to the organization he had helped create, becoming president at the national conventions in 1850 and 1851. No stranger to secret societies, he had been inducted into the Masonic Order a the Arcturus Lounge in New York City, and would become a Past Master before his untimely passing in 1863, after a long and wasting illness.8 He was much praised by both Masons and Zetes, and his funeral and interment at the elegant Green-wood Cemetery in Brooklyn was extravagantly attended.9 The Masonic Grand Master of New York eulogized, “His fine intellect, his scholarly achievements, his professional ability, his courteous manners, and his zeal in every cause for intellectual and social advancement were elements of his character which endeared him to all who knew him…”; meanwhile, the Phi chapter instructed that the following obituary be sent to the several chapters then extant:

“The whole Fraternity of Zeta Psi is called upon to mourn the untimely decease of Br J B Yates Sommers, the honored and respected founder of our Order, which he committed to love and adore to the day of his death. His own generous disposition and the debt of gratitude we owe him as one of those who instituted the pure and noble principles of Zeta Psi have made his memory sacred to the heart of every brother.

“While bowing in humble submission to decree of infinite love and wisdom, we deeply mourn the sad Providence which has deprived us of this revered patriarch of our Fraternity. While grieving for our own loss we tender our heartfelt to that other circle to which our departed Brother was bound by the fondest of earthly ties. As a faint expression of our deep regret we will observe the ritual of mourning, drape our hall and shroud our badges in the usual manner, and request our sister chapters to unite with us in this tribute of respect.”

Br Skillman was a great boon to Sommers in those early days of the brotherhood. He served as the first phi of the Phi chapter, and was instrumental in much of the fraternity’s early expansions. He would outlive both of his fellows in the grand conception of Zeta Psi, though not for long. With the outbreak of the Civil War, he would enlist in the Union Army, serving as a naval pay clerk aboard the USS Potomac, then the USS Bohio, and finally on the ill-fated USS Meteor, on which vessel he would perish in Mobile Bay on 13 June 1865, just over eighteen years since Zeta Psi had begun.10 Like Br Sommers, we would be interred at the famed Green-wood Cemetery.

The Phi chapter at NYU had prospered under the stewardship of Skillman, Sommers and his successors, having graduated its first member in 1848 with George S Woodhull (Φ 1848).11 The second chapter was established as Zeta at Williams College in Massachusetts, but it was to be short-lived: in 1852, the faculty of the university voted to proscribe fraternal organizations from campus; it would not be revived for some three decades, at which time the wide spread of Greek societies had overcome administrative resistance.12 The Delta chapter was founded at Rutgers University later that year, and remains the most longevital continuously active chapter of the fraternity (the Phi chapter was briefly inactive in the 1970s).13

Three chapters followed in 1850: Omicron Epsilon at Princeton University, Sigma at the University of Pennsylvania, and Chi at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. The first two are still active, as was the Chi Chapter until 1988. But in the early 1980s, Colby College prohibited fraternities on campus, despite the long and storied tradition they had enjoyed there.14 By 1988, ejected from campus and banned from any formal rush, the chapter quietly expired after over 130 years of existence. Problems beset a few other early chapters as well. The first Alpha chapter was founded in 1852 at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. But immediate resistance from the administration quashed the fledgling chapter, and it fell inactive in 1856 and became deceased in 1872, allowing its illustrious letter to be used for the later chapter to be founded at Columbia in 1879.15

But expansion proceeded apace throughout the 1850s at a rapid pace befitting an emerging society: Epsilon was chartered at Brown and Rho Epsilon at Harvard in 1852; Psi Epsilon at Dartmouth in 1853; Kappa at Tufts in 1855; Theta at Union College in 1856; Tau at Lafayette in 1857; Xi at University of Michigan in 1858. Also in 1858, on 16 January, the Upsilon chapter was finally founded at the University of Northern Carolina, fulfilling the purpose of Br Dayton in his last journey south. And in that year an abortive attempt was made to colonize Amherst College with the Pi chapter, which would be rechartered at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1865 as the war among the several states wound down.

1 “Mother chapter” is most commonly used, as here and in official Zeta Psi parlance, to refer to the original chapter of a fraternity. Some chapters, and a few fraternities, follow a minority usage where the phrase refers to the chapter which supervised a new chapter’s founding members’ initiation. While in the principal usage all chapters in a given fraternity have a single mother chapter (e.g., the Alpha Chapter’s mother chapter is still Phi), in the secondary usage, each chapter has its individual mother chapter (e.g., the Alpha Chapter’s mother chapter in this second sense would be Delta, since that chapter presided over its rechartering). Q.v. note 1.13 infra on the twentieth-century controversy regarding the Zeta Psi mother chapter.

2 Phi Beta Kappa pioneered many of the characteristic elements of Greek secret societies, viz “an oath of secrecy, a badge, mottoes in Latin and Greek, a code of laws, and an elaborate initiation ritual”; but the oath of secrecy had been discarded as early as 1831 after the the national opted ot pursue the route of a public honors society, and the organization has moved steadily away from the paradigmatic social fraternity since, though it remains by far the most widespread of any Greek organization. A brief synopsis of their history may be found on their website.

3 Phi Gamma Delta’s treatment of early fraternal evolution, particularly the development of organizations at Union College, is reasonably well-presented. Also see Lambda Chi’s treatment and that of Delta Phi, one of the Union Triad members. Ironically, Union College itself gives only brief mention to its heritage, apparently since its commitment to Greek life has waned over the centuries.

4 In the first half of the 1800s all of the colleges theretofore colonized by Greeks were small towns at best, by the standards of the day. Even today, these towns remain fairly small. Schenectady, NY (site of Union College) has a population of 60,000; Clinton, NY (Hamilton) has 2000; and Oxford, OH (Miami U) has 22,000; though Yale’s hometown in New haven has become Connecticut’s second city with 125,000 persons. Still, all were rural areas for long after they were colonized by Greeks, and none even remotely compared (or now compares, for that matter) to the size of New York City, whose population in 1847 was nearly 700,000 people, and whose metropolitan area now comprises over 20 million. Zeta Psi’s institution in the second largest city in the nation, far removed from the cloistered and academic environs where its antecedents had begun, was part of a watershed in the evolution of Greek life in America. It was only appropriate that New York be the first true city so colonized, and that two organizations which were to prove so successful in future decades would arrive within months of one another.

5 For a broader and more detailed discussion of the early evolution and progress of Greek organization in North America, many sources are available. Cf. Wikipedia’s article on the subject for a thorough and unbiased treatment.

6 The conception of humors as influencing the physical health was widespread in the mid-nineteenth century, and there was considerable anecdotal and even scholarly evidence that spa treatments and felicitous climate could work great improvements. Cf., eg, The People’s Health: A Memoir of Public Health and Its Evolution at Harvard, ch. 2.

7 This and the subsequent quotes in this section come from Zeta Psi’s discussion of its founders.

8 The Arcturus Lodge of the Masonic Order in New York was among the most prestigious in the nation, owing largely to the largess and influence which the large conurbation afforded the lodge. The office of Past Master is of the Fifth Degree in the Order, occupying a position roughly akin to a deacon in the Roman Catholic Church, the penultimate position before being ordained as a Master of the Lodge (in the Masonic Order) or as a priest (in the Church).

9 Green-wood Cemetery remains the most prestigious burying ground in the Five Boroughs, and therefore among the most eminent in the nation. It was founded in 1838 as only the first rural cemetery, and designed by Frederick Law Olmstead with the same innovative naturalistic landscaping that characterized his work as architect of Central Park. In 1860, the New York Times would report that “it is the ambition of the New Yorker to live upon the Fifth Avenue, to take his airings in the [Central] Park, and to sleep with his fathers in GreenWood.” Beyond two of Zeta Psi’s three founders, the necropolis is the final resting place of such luminaries as Leonard Bernstein, Samuel Morse, Horace Greeley, and “Boss” Tweed.

10 For the curriculum vitæ of Br Skillman’s three ships, cf. the US Naval Historical Center’s articles on the USS Potomac, Bohio, and Meteor.

11 Br Woodhull was the youngest scion of a long-standing political dynasty of the New York area. His grandfather Caleb Smith Woodhull was mayor of New York from 1849 to 1851, his first cousin (thrice removed) had been U.S. Representative from New York from 1813 to 1815, and his great-great-grandfather had been a New York State Senator during the revolutionary era from 1779 to 1781.

12 The Zeta Chapter at Williams enjoyed a storied history for a century after its reactivation in 1881, but would ultimately perish when faculty resistance again rose against it. Q.v. § 6 infra, particularly Note 6.X.

13 With the Phi’s lapse in 1971, the Delta chapter at Rutgers thus became the earliest continuously extant Zeta Psi chapter. Accordingly, at the International Convention of 1972, specially celebrating Zeta Psi’s quasquicentennial (the 125th anniversary of its foundation), the Delta delegates petitioned the Grand Chapter to recognize the Delta as the mother chapter of the fraternity (q.v. Note 1.1 supra). (The thirty-year lapse of the Zeta chapter from 1852 to 1881, according to the Delta delegates, disqualified it from preempting the Delta; q.v. Note 1.12 supra.) The Grand Chapter demurred, holding after considerably controversy and debate that the title of mother chapter must remain with the first chapter established so long as it remains inactive. Only should Phi become deceased by revocation of its charter or through dissolution of its patron university would title would pass to Delta. Disgruntled, the Delta delegates returned home, but the issue was happily rendered moot a few short years later when the Phi was reactivated.

14 Then-president William Cotter spearheaded the surreptitious campaign to eject Greek societies from campus after witnessing an accidental fire at a frat house shortly after taking office and learning, in his words, “that their role on campus was so huge and that the passions ran so high.” Colby itself admits that “fraternities had been an important part of Colby’s history and were essential to the college experience in earlier times,” but avers vaguely that they had somehow changed by the 1970s. Cotter, spiting those passions and legacy, Cotter planned with the Board of Trustees for several years to execute a perfect fait accompli and excise the system in one fell swoop, employing a “rare secret ballot” on the final resolution banning fraternities in early 1984. Riots and then lawsuits followed the announcement, with Cotter recalling that “it was pretty tense.” But in the end, the college’s prerogative stood. Colby College’s own account of the campaign may be found in the Summer 2000 edition of the college magazine.

15 The Dickinson administration went so far as to incinerate all of the Zeta Psi regalia, records, and rituals after learning of the new Greek society on its campus—though the ritual items may have been destroyed by the chapter to save them from confiscation and compromise by the university authorities. Its members were all forced under duress to sign pledges abjuring the fraternity, though they likely persisted through 1856 when the last members graduated. The degree of enmity from Dickinson remains unparallelled in Zeta Psi’s history of expansion. Dickinson’s brief entry on Zeta Psi in its historical chronicles remains its only record of the fraternity’s existence there.

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