America’s Oldest College Newspaper? A History of The Dartmouth

One writer looks into the history of The Dartmouth, its predecessors and the controversy surrounding its founding date.

by Eliza Dunn | 8/30/23 3:15am

by Cricket Cannell / The Dartmouth

This article is featured in the 2023 Freshman special issue

When I sat down in Rauner Special Collections Library to research The Dartmouth and its origin story, I didn’t know where to start. I opened the first vertical file in my pile — spanning only the first 50 years of the publication’s history — to find a treasure trove of information, a paper trail tracing back to The Dartmouth’s earliest days. The file contained the newspaper’s first articles, persuasive subscription requests (“The Dartmouth is the magic carpet that carries you back to your undergraduate days”), staff banquet invites, mastheads and even scathing reviews — an 1842 edition of the “Iris Literary Repository” wrote that “from present indications, we are led to think it rather doubtful about its surviving another year; it is a mystery to us how it has kept above board as long as it has.” Intent on painting a thorough picture of The Dartmouth’s origins, I started sifting through the layers of history in front of me, searching for a storyline running through the seemingly endless pages in the files.

As I read, I started piecing together the general life story of The Dartmouth. Despite the “Iris Literary Repository’s” lack of faith, the newspaper did, in fact, survive another year, and another 181 years after that. The vertical files on the table in front of me housed the physical evidence of this long history, leading all the way up to the newspaper’s still-extant presence on campus — a testament to its ability to stand the test of time and its deep-rootedness in Dartmouth’s history. Even today, hundreds of years later, The Dartmouth takes a clear sense of pride in its past, particularly its origins: The paper’s print edition, website and all other marketing materials declare it to be “America’s Oldest College Newspaper. Founded in 1799.” But as I continued reading through the Rauner files, it became increasingly clear that the origins and history of The Dartmouth are more complicated than they seem. 

Assuming a founding date of 1799 positions The Dartmouth as a direct descendant of the Dartmouth Gazette. The Dartmouth Gazette first emerged as a small folio of Hanover news. According to Christopher Johnson’s “The Dartmouth, America’s Oldest College Newspaper: 1799-1999,” the Gazette had a much more personal focus, printing mainly correspondence between the printers, who were mainly Hanover residents, and their friends in New York or Philadelphia. Dartmouth was merely a feature in the pages of the Gazette, in pieces such as a “long and tediously written discussion of New Hampshire’s school laws, and a report of Dartmouth’s commencement activities from … 1799,” Johnson wrote in his book. While Dartmouth students did publish in the Dartmouth Gazette, their contributions were rare and irregular — one notable contribution, however, was a poem signed by “Icarus,” a pen name for Daniel Webster, who went on to become a notable senator for Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Despite contributions from Webster and other students, the Dartmouth Gazette ultimately was not “a student paper, or even a paper directed at students for their consumption,” Johnson wrote. 

In 1820, the Dartmouth Gazette was succeeded by the Dartmouth Herald, a small weekly magazine of news and other original contributions, some of which were written by Dartmouth students. The publication was short-lived, however, and did not gain a substantial enough  readership to establish a secure foothold on the Dartmouth campus as a campus newspaper. Therefore, it was not until 1839 — forty years after its purported founding date — that the first official issue of The Dartmouth was published. The publication arose from humble beginnings: as Leon Burr Richardson describes in “The History of Dartmouth College,” it was a small “literary periodical edited by six members of the senior class,” composed of pieces of an academic nature but geared towards a popular reader. The first issues were far from The Dartmouth we know today, and were instead an “eclectic mix of poetry, fiction, term papers and expostulations on a range of topics from the joys of literature to the history of infant nations,” Johnson describes. As I flipped through the archived issues from that first year of The Dartmouth, I found articles titled “An Inheritance in History — A Rudiment of Greatness,” “Freedom of Thought” and “Pleasures of Literary Pursuits,” among others — not quite what the contemporary reader might find in The Dartmouth today. 

The first years of The Dartmouth — or what would, slowly, over many years, become what we know as The Dartmouth — were turbulent. The first editors envisioned the magazine as a temporary pursuit, and “having no delusions of permanence, declared their work complete after the first year,” Johnson wrote. As subsequent editorial boards with little experience or formal training in publishing or editing took control, the newspaper struggled to find its footing as a regular publication. Issues arose with printers, with printing offensive language regarding Native Americans and with a conundrum that newspapers today still dread: “This month has not been prolific in College news,” the April 1840 issue stated. 

Throughout the 1840s and 50s, The Dartmouth continued to experience periods of instability. It “died several deaths, each time to rise reincarnate in another form by newer and heartier editors,” Johnson wrote. After a brief hiatus due to the Civil War, the newspaper resumed regular publication in 1867, this time searching for a new purpose that could bolster the publication’s readership and support. The vertical files at Rauner Library from this stretch of time are full of subscription requests and letters, as editors reached out to students, Hanover residents and alumni alike to secure funding for the publication. The Dartmouth steadily garnered financial and reader support throughout the 19th century, christening itself an “official weekly newspaper of the undergraduates of Dartmouth College,” Johnson writes, and beginning  its gradual evolution into the newspaper we know today. 

As the 20th century began, The Dartmouth underwent a variety of changes, beginning with publishing weekly and naming itself “the official weekly newspaper of the undergraduates of Dartmouth College.” The publication became a “weekly paper of 16 pages, giving up its character of a purely literary publication for that of a more distinctive college newspaper,” writes John Lord in “A History of Dartmouth College, 1815-1909.” Issues from this time period read like a time capsule: In one 1904 issue, an article titled “Corner-Stone Celebration” reports on the laying of the first cornerstone of Dartmouth Hall, alongside ads for “$10 Bargains in Typewriters” and “The Dartmouth Photo Rooms: Platinotype Pictures a Specialty.” 

To find out when exactly The Dartmouth started claiming its foundation date as 1799, I searched through the bound editions of the publication, scouring shelves of hard-cover books the size of a newspaper front page. I flipped through pages and pages, scanning each iteration of the nameplate for the now-familiar slogan. Finally, at the top of the issue from Monday, January 9, 1961, I found it: “America’s oldest college newspaper. Founded 1799” right underneath the nameplate on the cover page. Before this, the slogan and date of 1799 had appeared on the masthead alongside the editors’ names on the second page, but from the first 1961 issue on it appears inseparable from the title of the paper. However, the rest of the evidence from Rauner Library is clear: the first official issue of The Dartmouth was published in 1839, not 1799. Even a clipping from the New York Times in 1939 celebrates the 100-year anniversary of the “little monthly publication … which gave it its start back in November 1839.” Early issues, reviews and editorial boards seem to have no doubts in establishing The Dartmouth’s founding date as 1839. So why did the founding date change, and why have we become so attached to a date that may, in fact, be a historical inaccuracy?

As Richardson suggests, the founding date of 1799 likely emerged as “an attempt of editors … in recent years to place the foundation of the journal in times even more remote, by the assumption that it was a successor of the Dartmouth Gazette,” although “the Dartmouth Gazette was in no way a college publication.” In “College on the Hill,” Ralph Hill echoes Richardson’s thoughts: “the claim of The Dartmouth that it is the oldest college newspaper in America is based upon the tenuous assumption that it was the successor to the Gazette,” an assumption that may not have any basis in reality. However, The Dartmouth’s claim to being the oldest college newspaper in America could still be true. While the newspaper published its first issue in 1839, the early years were marked by multiple deaths and resurfacings, only to resume regular publication in 1867. The publication did not officially become a weekly newspaper until 1904, years after the Harvard Crimson was founded in 1873, a date upon which it stakes its claim as  the “nation’s oldest continuously published daily college newspaper.” The claims of both The Dartmouth and The Crimson rely on particularities — whether founding or regular publication constitute a beginning point, and what we define as the origin of a long-standing and deeply historical project such as The Dartmouth.

Wrapping up my research in Rauner, I was left with all of these questions swirling in my head. Could we still call ourselves the oldest college newspaper in America? Did that matter? And if so, why? Looking at the tangle of dates and histories that intertwine within the origin story of The Dartmouth, it becomes clear that any claims to the title of “oldest” and “first” are inherently murky. But at the same time, staking a claim into the past — particularly a distant past — seems to carry a certain import, a way of testifying to the publication’s longevity, the many histories it contains within itself and carries with it into the future. 

As we continue publishing, ushering the legacy of The Dartmouth continually into the present, it’s also important to recognize our beginnings. The question of whether or not The Dartmouth truly is the oldest college newspaper in America is complicated, and like most questions about history, will likely never have a definitive answer. What remains true either way, however, is the long legacy the paper carries with it — the many years of providing news and information to the Dartmouth community. How we conceptualize The Dartmouth today depends on how we approach its history. Just as important is how we draw on our history to build our vision of The Dartmouth now and into the future. Like so many other aspects of the Dartmouth community, The Dartmouth inextricably ties the present to the past — albeit a remote and slightly controversial one. It is a historical work in progress, one whose legacy and continued presence on campus will continue shaping generations of Dartmouth students to come, challenging each one to see and learn from the traces of the past that exist all around us.