Archived letters give student
a window to Norwich’s earliest days © Dec. 23, 2010, Norwich University Office of Communications

Daniel Corcoran examines the letters of Samuel Leonard Pitkin in Norwich's archives.

photo by Jennifer LangilleDaniel Corcoran examines the letters of Samuel Leonard Pitkin in Norwich’s archives.

The earliest crop of students to enter Norwich University nearly 200 years ago would not have declared a major. They would have studied military tactics, rhetoric, algebra and Latin, and heard many of their lessons directly from Capt. Alden Partridge, the man who founded the University upon his innovative theories of education.

Early students would have attended for just three years, according to Daniel Corcoran, a freshman who stumbled upon an unexpected lesson about Norwich’s infancy while researching an English paper. At the time, there was no ROTC—a college education and membership in the “right” social class would have been enough to ensure an officer’s position in the military, he said. There were no female or civilian students.

Chris Pashley at his May 2010  graduation.

  A portrait of S.L. Pitkin

Despite the differences, Corcoran believes that much is the same for modern students leading Norwich’s military lifestyle. Cadets still must rise early and adhere to a life of hard work, close attention to detail, camaraderie and discipline.

“It’s essentially the same,” said Corcoran, a member of the Corps of Cadets who plans to join the Marines after graduation. “What Capt. Partridge laid down, essentially, lives on.”

He learned much of this from the letters of Samuel Leonard Pitkin, a young man who entered Norwich—then called the American Literary, Scientific and Military Academy and located about 50 miles away from the present campus in Northfield, Vt.—just one year after it was founded in 1819.

In these documents, Corcoran found a window on the University’s beginnings.

“The Lectures we receive evry [sic] morning from Capt. Partridge in Moral, military and other subjects, I trust we all duly appreciate,” Pitkin wrote to his father in 1822. “His whole attention appears to be directed to our improvement, endeavoring to encourage and instill in our minds evry manly virtue.”

This early student, Corcoran realized, grew up right next to his own hometown in Manchester, Conn. He came across the documents while searching in the University archives for a topic to illustrate something about Norwich, the country’s oldest private military college and eventual birthplace of ROTC.

“I guess I wanted to do something about early life in the Corps of Cadets,” he said. “I wanted to find out why the University changed hands.”

What he found were a dozen aged and dog-eared letters with typewritten transcriptions from Pitkin to his family that detailed much of his life in college. Pitkin, who later became a successful businessman and adjutant general for the Connecticut State Militia, communicated through formal language and sketches. Corcoran found he was drawn in and came to relate to what Pitkin wrote, likening it to accessing someone’s personal email account.

“It was really intensely personal to get into this guy’s life,” said Corcoran, an English major.

A highlight of the Pitkin letters, according to assistant archivist Gail Wiese, is a sketch of the statehouse in Concord, N.H., Pitkin used to illustrate a walking excursion for his mother. This makes the collection stand out from other letters and journals that Norwich has in its archives.

“That’s something that’s very unique,” she said. “You can see how much work he put into that sketch.”

The letters were discovered in a stamp dealer’s shop in Bristol, Conn., in 1978 by a member of Norwich’s Class of 1974, she added. The alum bought the collection and donated it to the school.

The letters have been featured in Norwich’s Sullivan Museum and alumni publication articles, said Wiese. They try to create an awareness of the history of Norwich, and get pieces of the collection, including primary documents like these, into students’ hands.

“If they’re sitting behind a glass case somewhere, they’re not doing anyone a lot of good,” she said.

Patti Ferreira, the English professor who assigned the report to Corcoran, believes students gain new perspective when they discover historical stories they can relate to their own experience. In Corcoran's situation—a cadet in the middle of his introductory “Rook” year living away from home for the first time—it might be helpful learning that the Norwich experience remains fundamentally unchanged.

“I think it gave him a lot of comfort to know there was someone from his hometown at Norwich who was experiencing the kind of emotions he was feeling,” said Ferreira.

Corcoran said he appreciated being able to work with primary resources instead of books, and feels it made the material feel more immediate and interesting.

“It was really the first time that researching an assignment was enjoyable,” he said.