Vassar’s first English Professor, Henry Barmby Buckham, taught rhetoric, belles-lettres, and English language in the college’s first year, 1865-1866. Although his time at Vassar was brief, Buckham proved to be a challenging professor who gave many of his students a strong foundation in writing and grammar.
Born in March 1827 in Hinckley, County of Leicestershire, England, Buckham came to Vermont at the age of seven with his family. His mother was Margaret Barmby from Yorkshire. His father, Scottish Reverend James Buckham, emigrated to preach as a congregational minister in Canada and Vermont. His father’s penchant for the classics encouraged Buckham to obtain his Master’s degree from the University of Vermont and State Agricultural College in 1853. His brother, Matthew Henry Buckham, also an alumnus of Vermont, would go on to have an illustrious career as the president of the university. After graduation, Buckham was the principal of Burlington High School, Chittenden County Institute at Essex Center and State Normal School in Britain, Connecticut. He married Annie Remington of Potsdam, New York, in 1856 and had two children: Arthur, who died at the age of fourteen in 1872, and Bertha.
After his experience as an administrator, Buckham came to the classroom at Vassar College. The letters to her family of Caroline E. Slade (special student, 1865-66) illustrate Buckham’s capacity as a professor. In a letter on February 11th 1866, she wrote that her “English Literature Class is splendid, it is just as interesting as can be, Professor Buckham is a very fine teacher.” However, many of his assignments caused students great stress. Slade writes in a letter a week later that, reading the assigned compositions, “some of the girls cried all yesterday afternoon. . . . Professor Buckham asked Laura why she objected to writing them and she told him there was a lack of time and ideas.” Slade, however, admired Buckham’s concision, as she states in a letter of February 4, 1866: "Instead of a sermon an hour and half long, we had one to-day only forty minutes long. I wish Professor Buckham would preach every Sabbath."
Buckham was the temporary president of Vassar’s first student organization, Philaletheis, a literary society established on December 2, 1865. He was appointed until the election of officers because students had no leadership experience and thus were unsure of their skills as organizers. In addition to this extra-curricular work, Buckham also conducted a Bible class and occasionally preached sermons.
After one year, Buckham resigned in 1866. The reason for his brief tenure is apparent in his June 23 report to President Raymond on the first college year. Buckham detailed his dissatisfaction with both the prior knowledge of his students and the college administration. “All the classes in the Department have been special classes,” he said, “in that they were formed after the other classes had begun their work; that many pupils . . . have been ill-prepared to profit by their studies because they were most grounded in their preliminary studies; that the membership of the classes has been constantly fluctuating.” He expressed frustration that 100 of 150 students lacked basic grammatical principles, obliging him to spend the first month of classes in grammar review. At the end of the year, only a small number of students had done work sufficient to complete their studies in Buckham’s department. In addition, Buckham directed criticism towards President Raymond’s administration, stating, “No opportunity has been given to do anything with Readership; and no officer of the College has visited any class within the Department.”
After his brief stint at Vassar, Buckham returned to normal schools. From 1872 until 1887, he was the principal of the State Normal School in Buffalo, NY. From 1889-1905, he taught English at State Normal School in Monmouth, Oregon. He retired to Santa Barbara, California, where he died in the fall of 1914 at the age of 87. His obituary in the University of Vermont’s student newspaper, The Vermont Cynic, hailed him as “a born teacher, enthusiastic and successful. He followed all his life the vocation that he most liked.”
Bishop, Elizabeth L. “Philaletheis.” Vassar Miscellany, Volume XXVI, Number 4, 1 January, 1997.
Buckham, Henry Barmby. “Report of the Professor of Rhetoric and Letters for 1st College Year ending June 27, 1866.” Special Collections Biographical File.
“Henry Barmby Buckham.”The Vermont Cynic, Burlington, Vermont, October 24, 1914.
“President Buckham Called to Rest.” Burlington Daily News, Tuesday, November 29, 1910.”
Slade, Caroline E. “Letter of Feb. 4, 1866.” Vassar Student Letter Archive.
Slade, Caroline E. “Letter of Feb. 11, 1866.” Vassar Student Letter Archive.
US Census. “New York, 1820-1850 Passenger and Immigration Lists Record.”
JLD, 2005, MT, 2018