Yale University was successful largely because of the generosity and hard work of a man named Jeremiah Dummer. But the attempts to have what was then known as the Collegiate School of Connecticut named in his honor instead of Elihu Yale failed largely because the school’s trustees didn’t want the school called Dummer College. So Elihu Yale "the most overrated philanthropist" in American history won the day.
The Dummer family can be traced back to the Dummer village in England in the 12th century. They arrived in Newbury, Massachusetts in 1635. Jeremiah Dummer graduated from Harvard College in 1699 and then attended different universities in England and is believed to have been the first American-born individual to receive a Ph.D. from a European university.
In 1704, Dummer returned to the colonies and became a preacher in Boston and then turned to politics in around 1708 and eventually was appointed as agent for the Province of Massachusetts Bay and served a similar role for the colony of Connecticut.
During the first uncertain years of the Collegiate College in New Haven, Dummer was an important force in the solidification of the college's future. He brought in donations in the form of money and books from Isaac Newton, Richard Steele and Elihu Yale.
Elihu Yale was born in Boston to David and Ursula Yale, (The name originates in Wales from the English spelling of the Welsh place name Iâl) he was the grandson of Ann Lloyd who later remarried Theophilus Eaton Governor of New Haven Colony.
The Yale family returned to England when Elihu was three years old and never returned. He spent 20 years with the all-powerful East India Company and in 1684 towards the end of his career became the first president of Fort St. George, the company's post at Madras India.
Yale presided over the vital and vast intersecting lines of the Indian Ocean slave trade, much larger, in fact, than the Atlantic slave trade. Yale’s influence extended from southeast Asia, to the Middle East, to the Indonesian archipelago, to the shores of Africa. In one case, while Yale served on the governing council at Fort St. George on the Madras coast, he was part of a group that ordered a minimum of ten slaves sent on every outbound European ship. In just one month in 1687, Fort St. George exported at least 665 people into slavery. Yale took a sizeable cut that the company made form the increased trade.
It is true that in May of 1688 issued a decree curbing the transport of slaves from Madras, but this was only because the trade had become more trouble than it was worth to the company and the previous year’s famine had dried up people available to be dragged into the slave trade. However, a year later, in October 1689, Yale issued orders for a company ship to travel to Madagascar, buy slaves, and transport them to the English colony on Sumatra.
On the sly, Yale purchased territory for his own already fast portfolio, but secretly paid for with East India Company funds. He imposed high taxes, under the guise of maintenance of the colonial garrison and town, to cover up the fund transfer, resulting in an unpopular regime and several revolts by Indians, brutally quelled by garrison soldiers. Yale was also notorious for arresting and trying Indians on his own private authority, including the hanging of a stable boy who had absconded with a Company horse.
After being released from his post, Yale returned to Britain in 1699 and more or less went into a gentleman’s retirement at the 'Plas Grono', estate bought for him by his father near Wrexham, Wales. He also lived in London where he was known as a big spender of his considerable fortune.
In 1718, two years before Yale died, the Reverend Cotton Mather, an equally notorious fellow who helped to shape New England’s history, contacted Yale and asked him to help the Collegiate School of Connecticut, the school that would eventually become Yale University, to build its first building.
Yale, who could have easily sent a donation that would be valued in the tens of millions, instead sent Mather 417 books, (on Anglican subjects) a portrait of King George I, and 9 boxes of textiles and arms which could be sold to raise additional funds. (Which they did. The goods sold at market for 800-pound sterling, about $150,000, a substantial sum in the early 18th century) In gratitude, school officials named the new building Yale and eventually the entire institution became Yale College and eventually, Yale College became Yale University. But if the truth be known, the school should have been named for Jeremiah Dummer, or Dummer University.