All associated with Davis & Elkins College know the names of Henry Gassaway Davis and Stephen Benton Elkins, both United States Senators and the founders of the Presbyterian College in Elkins. However, according to Davis & Elkins College Diamond Jubilee History by Dr. Thomas Ross, there is a third founder of the college.
Rev. Augustus Houston Hamilton was born in 1846 in Union, Virginia, which became West Virginia in 1863. His childhood was traumatic as he experienced the death of his mother at age 4, the death of seven of his eight siblings including two brothers killed in the Civil War, and the death of his father when Houston was only 16. Houston’s stepmother abandoned the only two remaining Hamilton children following her husband’s death.
Despite all these challenges, Houston Hamilton enrolled and graduated from Washington College (now Washington and Lee University) and graduated from the Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, VA. He served a Presbyterian congregation in West Virginia before being called to a congregation in Steele’s Tavern VA where he remained for 38 years. He died at the age of 77 in 1923.
So, what does Houston Hamilton have to do with Davis & Elkins College? Early in his ministerial career, he heard two U.S. Senators from West Virginia address the Lexington Presbytery about their desire to begin a Presbyterian College in West Virginia. While the idea did not become reality at that time, twelve years later Houston reintroduced the proposal to the clergy and laity of the presbytery. The Presbyterian organization decided that if Senators Davis and Elkins were still willing to match funds and give land for the college, and if Rev. Hamilton’s church would release him for a year to raise funds, they would support the establishment of what would become Davis & Elkins College.
The senators quickly agreed to the plan and Rev. Hamilton spent over a year on horseback raising $30,000 from the Lexington and Winchester Presbyteries in Virginia, as well as Presbyterians in and around Elkins. In today’s dollars, Rev. Hamilton raised more than $1 million for the establishment of Davis & Elkins College. Rev. Hamilton was a member of the very first Board of Trustees and served as the temporary organizing president of the college, for the purpose of selecting the site, adopting the name for the College, and making plans for the first building. In 1916 D&E bestowed an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree upon Houston, only the third such degree ever awarded to that date.
The story of Rev. Hamilton was brought to my attention by his great granddaughter, Mary Ann Stripling. She has provided valued memorabilia to D&E to honor her relative and insure his rightful place as one of the founders of our institution. Mary Ann has also established the Augustus Houston Hamilton Scholarship to preserve the legacy of this faithful and visionary gentleman. She is working to endow the scholarship and would welcome contributions in his memory.
I give thanks to God for Rev. Hamilton, for without him Davis & Elkins College would not exist. The transformative education experienced by thousands over these past 119 years would never have been possible. Therefore, and with gratitude, his journey and our journeys are forever intertwined.
The journey continues….