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Among the top 20% of college fraternities in size, Beta Theta Pi
was the first to be founded west of the Allegheny Mountains and the
first to locate a chapter west of the Mississippi River.
At 9:00pm on August 8 in 1839, eight young men from the university
held the first meeting of Beta Theta Pi in the Hall of the Union
Literary Society, an upper room in the old college building, known
as "Old Main." The eight founders, designated "of
ever honored memory" in Beta Theta Pi tradition, were:
* John Reily Knox 1839
* Samuel Taylor Marshall 1840
* David Linton 1839
* James George Smith 1840
* Charles Henry Hardin 1841
* John Holt Duncan 1840
* Michael Clarkson Ryan 1839
* Thomas Boston Gordon 1840
In the year Beta Theta Pi was founded, the college fraternity world
consisted of only 19 chapters of five secret Greek-letter fraternities,
located on 10 college campuses in five states. In addition, the Mystic
Seven Society had been organized in 1837 at Wesleyan University,
Middletown, Conn., and Delta Upsilon had been founded at Williams
College, Williamstown, Mass., as a protest against secret societies.
There were only 135 students at Miami University in 1839 (all male),
and six professors. Tuition cost only $24 per year and the academic
year lasted from early October until early August with breaks for
Christmas and Easter. There were only three main buildings, Elliott
and Stoddard halls serving as dormitories and one main academic building
known as Old Main.
Students at Miami often had made a large commitment going off to
college, perhaps leaving a farm short handed back home. Academics
were a pursuit not to be taken lightly. This is demonstrated by the
most important extracurricular activities being membership in the
Erodelphian and Union Literary Societies. Each had accrued substantial
libraries since their formation in 1825. Students gathered on Friday
afternoons in the society halls on the third floor of Old Main where
they read and criticized essays, debated, and developed skills in
extemporaneous speaking. Each sought to provide its members mutual
improvement, the cultivation of fellowship, and the promotion of
standards of conduct. Most students were members of these societies.
Knox was elected President of the Union Lit in June 1839 while Linton
served as Treasurer of the Erodelphians for a year.
For some of the students something was missing. During the winter
and spring of 1839 the Founders began planning something different.
It was in this time that Knox and Marshall, rooming in the west wing
of Old Main with Harding and Smith, jointly conceived and worked
together to create Beta Theta Pi. On August 8th eight young men crept
up to the third floor of Old Main and entered the Hall of the Union
Literary Society of which Knox was the president. Five of them were
only 19 and four of them just barely so. Knox, Linton, and Ryan were
about to graduate so Duncan was elected the first president and Smith
When the five remaining Founders returned to Miami in October they
began to recruit new brothers. At their first meeting they elected
Smith's cousin, Henry Hunter Johnson, and in February added John
Whitney, Alexander Paddack, and A. W. Hamilton, two of whom would
soon play important roles in founding the Cincinnati Chapter. And
so the Founding of Beta Theta Pi was complete.