1864-1900: Breaking New Ground

The nation was still young indeed even after the end of the Civil War, which served as a sort of bloody adolescence. California had only recently become a State in the years preceding the hostilities, committing to the side of the victorious Union and contributing its men, though the conflict took place mainly across the continent, thousands of miles away. It was to California that myriad bold young men had ventured in mid-century, in search of the dream of gold and sunshine. In the wake of the Civil War, the largely untouched West Coast beckoned, and its population continued to swell. Responding to the popular demand, in 1868 the state founded the first campus of the one-day manifold University of California, situated in the rolling hills to the east of the San Francisco Bay, in a place called Berkeley. With higher education there a blank slate, it was only fitting that to California the fraternities should next have moved.

Original Iota chapter house

Original Iota chapter house

And as in many initiatives, Zeta Psi was first: less than two years after the new university’s foundation, in 1870, it chartered the Iota chapter at the Berkeley campus of the University of California and became the first fraternity on the West Coast—indeed, the first fraternity to establish a chapter west of the Mississippi.2 The coup de grace was the result of a concerted and clandestine effort of the Grand Chapter and the various local chapters to attain this high honor, securing a palatial house for their newest chapter in the very center of the new neighborhood appearing around the campus.3 But while new colleges were multiplying quickly in the southern reaches of the state, few prospered in the north, and the fledgling Iota chapter would not be joined for over two decades by Zeta Psi’s next West Coast addition— but this was more due to the paucity of venues for higher education in northern California in the late eighteenth century than any indolence on the part of Zeta Psi and the burgeoning Iota Chapter.4 The Mu chapter was chartered at Stanford in 1892, less than a single year after the university’s foundation.5 Yet it would not be until well into the twentieth century that Zeta Psi would make its first inroads into Los Angeles.

Zeta Psi made more rapid progress on other fronts. With the accolades of its achievement at Berkeley still ringing, Zeta Psi looked to other horizons to challenge the boundaries of Greek life. The next border to be crossed was a border in truth as well as rhetoric: a central debate of the day, raging on for decades, was whether Canada’s burgeoning cities were a suitable ground for reputable fraternities.6 Zeta Psi, ever mindful of forging new ground, was among the first to answer in the affirmative. The Grand Chapter, assembled (aptly) for its pearl anniversary in 1877, opted to press northward into Canada. The brothers of the Xi chapter at the University of Michigan took point on the operation by virtue of their proximity to Toronto, Canada’s first city and the obvious choice for Zeta Psi’s endeavors.7 After a few short years secretly recruiting members for a new chapter, Xi was able to declare success, and in 1879 the Theta Xi chapter (named in honor of the Xi chapter that had been so integral in its foundation) at the University of Toronto was granted a charter, making Zeta Psi the first international fraternity.8 Since then, Zeta Psi has actively bolstered its Canadian presence, commissioning a director solely for Canadian chapter development and amassing a long list of successful chapters there.9

Also in late 1879—an auspicious year for Zeta Psi indeed—on December 12, the Columbia University chapter of Zeta Psi was chartered, taking its name of Alpha from the ill-fated deceased Dickinson College chapter.10 The Alpha chapter also marked the seventh Ivy League school to be brought into the circle of Zeta Psi. Exactly one decade later, in 1889, Zeta Psi achieved another portentous honor, with the establishment of the Eta chapter at Yale.11 Its chartering made Zeta Psi the first fraternity to establish chapters at all eight Ivy League schools, and the only to do so at all eight simultaneously, earning it the moniker “The Ivy League Fraternity.”12 Unfortunately, the fraternity would only hold this unique latter distinction for four years, until the Omicron Epsilon chapter at Princeton fell inactive in 1893, a victim to rapidly increasingly pressure being brought to bear by the college administration against secret societies.13

Even beyond these singular distinctions, the end of the nineteenth century was fecund ground for Zeta Psi. The brotherhood took root at no fewer than fourteen colleges in those latter days: Pi had been founded at Rochester Polytechnic Institute in 1865; Lambda at Bowdoin in 1867; Beta at the University of Virginia in 1868; Psi at Cornell University in 1868; Iota at Berkeley in 1870; Gamma first at the US Naval Academy in 1874, and then at Syracuse in 1875; Theta Xi at the University of Toronto in 1879; Alpha at Columbia University in 1879; Alpha Psi at McGill University in 1883; Nu at Case Western Reserve University in 1884;14 Eta at Yale University in 1889; Mu at Stanford University in 1892; and Alpha Beta at the University of Minnesota in 1899. The Gamma chapter at the Naval Academy took its name from the deceased GMI chapter, but the federal government quickly moved to ban fraternities in not only the Naval Academy, but at all its military schools, feeling them to undermine the unity and equality it held paramount.15 Not wishing to allow the illustrious letter to disappear once more, the Grand Chapter made the decision to grant the name to the next chapter chartered, at Syracuse.

Original Xi chapter house

Original Xi chapter house

Many of these chapters, like the Iota and Theta Xi were the first fraternities at their schools, comporting with Zeta Psi’s commitment to turning up new soil: Pi, Lambda, Psi, Alpha Psi, Nu and Alpha Beta were all such pioneers, adding to those it had founded in its first decades.16 Zeta Psi was also at the forefront of the emerging trend among Greek societies to build and maintain specially appointed houses for fraternity business. The modern observer might assume that the fraternity house—then known as “chapter houses” or “tombs” after the Yale jargon—has always been a staple of Greek life, they really only exploded in the late nineteenth century.17 Zeta Psi, having secured a beautiful estate for the Iota chapter, similarly constructed houses for at the Upsilon, Alpha and Xi chapters, among others.

The bold expansion inspired new concerns. With the fraternity’s semicentennial approaching in 1897 and the turn of the twentieth century around the corner, it was thought that a record ought be made of the Zetes who had passed into the circle, now that the fraternity was outgrowing its infancy and youth and thousands of elder brothers dotted the continent. Br Israel C Piperson (Φ 1865) was elected in 1887 and 1888 as Phi Alpha, and made this pursuit his singular goal, serving as the fraternity’s “first and foremost historian.” He spearheaded the compilation of the Semicentennial Biographical Catalogue in 1900, which set down over five thousand precentennial Zetes with detailed biographical entries on the achievements of each. It was an innovative, and to all reports, extremely successful, effort at bringing together a far-flung brotherhood18—but it only served to whet the appetite of a fraternity hungry for a new mode of existence.

2 The Iota chapter would be unchallenged at Berkeley until 11 February 1875, when the Lambda chapter of Chi Phi was chartered there as the second fraternity on the West Coast.

3 Recently, archaeologists at UC Berkeley completed an excavation of the original Iota chapter house behind 2251 College Avenue, which the chapter occupied until the 1950s, when they moved off-campus. (The dig was considerably aided by the fact that the Cal archeology department is now located at that very location.) Some of the artifacts dated back as early as 1870, when the fraternity first arrived, and demonstrated a rich history of fraternal life between 1870 and 1920. Zeta Psi IHQ, Berkeley’s public affairs office, and Berkeley’s local paper, the Berkleyan, have articles on the items found in the excavation, and the archaeological team has published a full record of their work.

4 After UC Berkeley’s establishment in 1868, progress in establishing further venues for academics was erratic. In the north, opportunities were relatively limited: Mills College had been founded in 1852, but limited its enrollment to women; and Hastings College of the Law was founded in 1878. Of course, neither was suitable for fraternal colonization. Stanford’s foundation in 1891 was the first undergraduate institution of serious enrollment and merit in the Bay Area since Berkeley’s tweo decades before. In the south, by contrast, academic institutions mushroomed: Occidental College was founded as a Presbyterian seminary in 1887, but only became independent in 1910; the University of Southern California was founded in 1880; Pomona College, later to be absorbed in the Claremont College consortium, was nominally founded in 1887, but it would not graduate a class (of eleven persons) until 1894; the California Institute of Technology was founded in 1891 as Throop University, changing its name in 1920.

5 Stanford began its first classes in the autumn of 1891. Despite their alacrity in moving to the new college across the bay, Zeta Psi was not the first fraternity at Stanford. It was beaten to that privilege by only a few months by Sigma Nu, which had a student in the inaugural freshmen class dedicated to bringing his brotherhood west who effected a chartering in November of 1891, and by Phi Kappa Psi, chartered there in December; Zeta Psi would not arrive until the spring. Washington & Lee University’s Sigma Nu chapter provides a brief history of Sigma Nu at Stanford, while Wikipedia has a record of Phi Kappa Psi’s.

6 Many years were consumed by Zeta Psi, among others, debating what to present punditry would seem the obvious move north into Canada. But very few universities of the nineteenth century in Canada had the same tenure or breadth as their prestigious American brethren, and there was considerable elitism militating against expansion. Psi Upsilon’s process of debate is exemplary: their official history notes that no less than “twenty consecutive Conventions revolved around the single issue of whether [their] Fraternity should expand to Canada” before chartering chapters at Toronto in 1920 and McGill in 1928.

7 Toronto was among the first settlements in the interior of Canada, with its felicitious harbor on Lake Ontario; it was second only to Montreal in economic significance. The University of Toronto had been founded in 1827, and in 1849 became a nondenominational center for academics (cf. an architectural history of the early university), following the trend set over the previous century by early American colleges. (The only Canadian competitor in repute, Montreal’s McGill University, remained religiously inclined for considerably longer, and less organized after the model of American institutions). It was Toronto’s shift to secular education that recommended the University of Toronto to fraternities to the south, and sparked the intense debate over whether Canada was now receptive to expansion. Q.v. Note 3.06 supra. Toronto would be the first Canadian chapter of most international fraternities, viz, inter alia, Delta Kappa Epsilon, Psi Upsilon, Alpha Delta Phi, Beta Theta Pi, Sigma Nu, Alpha Gamma Delta, and Lambda Chi Alpha.

8 As at its pioneering foray to the Pacific (q.v. Note 3.02 supra), Zeta Psi was without competition for some time after its installation on campus. The second fraternity to reach Toronto and become international was Alpha Delta Phi, which would not arrive for almost fifteen years, in 1893.

9 Zeta Psi has always been at the forefront in Canada, chartering the first fraternity at virtually every major university colonized before the late twentieth century. A fairly up to date list of current chapters, famous Canadian Zetes, and other info can be found at Canadians Go Greek.

10 Regarding the fate of the original Alpha chapter, q.v. Note 1.15 supra; regarding the general practice of reusing deceased chapters’ names, q.v. Note 2.10 supra

11 Nineteenth century secret societies utterly dominated social life at Yale, and enjoyed broad independence and ambit to operate from the administration. Yale Alumni Magazine’s March 2001 edition wrote that “by 1889, when Zeta Psi established a Yale chapter, fraternities controlled campus politics, and students had developed a Byzantine system of freshman and sophomore fraternities that acted as feeders to the junior frats; the faculty abolished these [the freshmen and junior frats] in 1900.” Zeta Psi remains the youngest of the four elite “Old Guard” fraternities at the school, along with Alpha Delta Phi, Delta Kappa Epsilon, and Beta Theta Pi, per documents from the Yale Archives.

12 The only other fraternity to establish chapters at all of the Ivies was Delta Kappa Epsilon. By the time of its chartering at Penn (the last of the Ancient Eight) in 1899, Zeta Psi had been represented at all for a decade. Moreover, Deke never achieved chapters at all eight simultaneously: the Princeton chapter lapsed in 1857, and their Harvard chapter’s charter was revoked in 1891 for its members’ membership in other Greek organizations. Their MIT chapter provides a well-annotated roll of Deke chapters. Psi Upsilon, as evidenced by their official chapter roll, came next closest with seven of the eight, but never chartered a chapter at Princeton (nor did they charter their seventh at Penn until 1891). Only the very earliest fraternities even came this close, a testimony to the early expansion efforts of Zeta Psi, Delta Kappa Epsilon, and Psi Upsilon. By the latter days of the nineteenth century, the hierarchy of secret societies at Harvard and Yale had become ossified and new entrants could not break in, and the faculty at Princeton had effectively proscribed all Greek organizations on its campus.

13 Princeton was not alone in its antagonism to fraternities, but it was unusually successful among major institutions in disbarring them from operations. Its success is largely owing to its promulgation of the alternative model of eating clubs now followed at Harvard and Yale as well. Cf., e.g.,, Dartmouth’s architectural archives discussing epidemic university antipathy to secret societies.

14 The Nu provides an extremely detailed history of their foundation at what was then known as the Case School of Applied Science, where they were the first fraternity on campus. In 1967, Case merged with the Western Reserve University to form modern Case Western Reserve University. Various other fraternities have claim to first Greek society on the Western Reserve campus, but the Nu is certainly unrivaled in its founding.

15 The ban, inspired by Zeta Psi’s colonization of the USNA, would extend only to the federal military academies; cf. the West Point Public Affairs office’s comments on the subject. State-level academies remained and still remain largely free to allow Greek life, and have been the mother of several widespread brotherhoods, e.g., the foundations of Sigma Nu’s and Alpha Tau Omega at the Virginia Military Institute.

16 Q.v. Note 3.14 supra regarding the Nu’s primogeniture. The Psi and Alpha Psi chapters were particularly prestigious on their campus, attracting the most elite of students and providing student leaders and national luminaries through the years. Both, the Psi and the Alpha Psi, appropriately, have extensive histories available for those interested in their laurels.

17 Cf. contemporary accounts of the rise of chapter houses at Dartmouth and at Yale.

18 The concept of a membership catalogue was not novel, however; the first fraternity to so publish one was Psi Upsilon in 1842, and several others would follow in the nineteenth century. Zeta Psi’ catalogue was nonetheless unprecedented in its detailed biographies and completeness of its membership records, particularly for a brotherhood already grown so large.

%d bloggers like this: