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April 10, 1856
History of Theta Chi Fraternity: 163 years and counting...
Theta Chi Society, as it was then known, was founded at Norwich University at Norwich, Vermont, at nine o’clock on Thursday, April 10, 1856. At that time, Frederick Norton Freeman ’57, and Arthur Chase ’56, met in Freeman’s room in the Old South Barracks and, to quote from the minutes of the first meeting, “being called to order by Mr. Chase, Messrs. Chase and Freeman mutually took the oaths prescribed and declared each other true and accepted members of the Theta Chi Society.” From this humble beginning, Theta Chi has grown to its present status as a nationally-renowned college fraternity.
The next evening, April 11, the first initiation was conducted. One of the initiates was Edward Bancroft Williston of San Diego, California, and the other was Lorenzo Potter of Elkhorn, Wisconsin. Theta Chi was the first Greek letter society to appear at Norwich. It was preceded in 1853 by a secret society known as the “Regulators.” Whether there was any connection between the Regulators and Theta Chi is open to conjecture. It is known that Freeman was a Regulator and that when the Regulators passed out of existence in 1856 practically all of the paraphernalia of this organization was passed into the possession of Theta Chi Society. The fundamentals of the organization, as expressed in the original constitution, to this day remain unchanged. Our present ritual includes the original ritual used in 1856. The oaths taken by Freeman and Chase on that April evening so long ago have since been shared by every man initiated into Theta Chi. At the Seventy-Fifth Anniversary Convention held at Northfield, Vermont, in 1931, the Fraternity placed suitably marked granite memorials at the grave of Freeman near Plainfield, New Hampshire, and the grave of Chase in Claremont, New Hampshire.
The early history of Theta Chi Fraternity is closely connected with the history of Norwich University. The University was founded at Norwich, Vermont, in 1819, then known as The American Literary, Scientific, and Military Academy. It was a pioneer engineering college of the country and has always maintained its military training and traditions. In 1834, the name was changed to Norwich University. In the Spring of 1866, Norwich University burned in a great fire. The Old South Barracks, where Theta Chi was founded, were completely destroyed. It is reasonable to believe that some of the early records and relics of the Fraternity were lost at this time. After the fire, the university moved to Northfield, Vermont, where it is located today. At the Seventy-Fifth Anniversary Convention, the Fraternity erected a granite monument with a bronze plaque at Norwich, Vermont, to commemorate the founding of the Fraternity.
In the first decade of the Fraternity’s existence a number of serious handicaps were experienced. The Civil War greatly depleted the student body of the University. After the fire in 1866, there was doubt for a while as to whether or not the university would continue. The war, the fire, and the uncertainty regarding the continuation of the university seriously lowered attendance, and the Fall of 1866 semester began with only nineteen students. In spite of low enrollment, which continued for some years, Civil War Maj. Gen. Grenville H. Dodge and Norwich Historian William Arba Ellis stated that “the Theta Chi and Alpha Sigma Pi fraternities flourished in this period, 1866 to 1880”, tell us in “The History of Norwich University.” Just what the word “flourished” meant is not known, but it is supposed that even with a small university enrollment, Theta Chi was able to get its share of new members. In 1881 the student body of Norwich was reduced to a dozen men, and Theta Chi found itself with one active member. This critical situation was relieved when local alumni worked with the undergraduate member, James M. Holland, ’83, in pledging and initiating Phil S. Randall, ’86, and Henry B. Hersey, ’85, thus preserving the existence of the Fraternity.
After 1888, university affairs took a decided turn for the better, and from then on there was never a question of Theta Chi leadership on the Norwich campus. From its very inception, Theta Chi was planned to exist as a national fraternity. Why it existed as a single chapter for nearly fifty years will probably never be definitely known. Expansion was no doubt delayed by two conditions, the unstable conditions of the university at first, and anti-expansion sentiment, which developed later within the chapter. In 1888, Theta Chi Fraternity was incorporated under the laws of Vermont. From 1888 until the establishment of the Beta Chapter, fourteen years later, the history of the Fraternity is a history of steady growth of a chapter both in general strength and in members. Norwich University disbanded its fraternities in 1960, so Alpha Chapter no longer exists. With the establishment of Beta Chapter at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at Boston, Massachusetts, on December 13, 1902, a new era opened for Theta Chi, of country-wide expansion, national organization, and administration. Although hindered by a serious depression and two world wars, Theta Chi has grown, and prospered beyond the dreams of the Founders to the position it now holds in the national fraternity scene.