William Neill (1778?-1860)

Portrait of William Neill

William Neill was born to William and Jane Snodgrass Neill in McKeesport, Pennsylvania in April 1778 or 1779, though the exact date is unknown. When still an infant, his father was killed by a band of Indians, and soon thereafter his mother died as well. After of her death, William and his five siblings were scattered among family relatives. Neill moved to Canonsburg, Pennsylvania where he attended country schools and later became a clerk in a country store. In 1797, he entered the Canonsburg Academy with the intention of becoming a Presbyterian minister. He enrolled in Princeton University, graduating in 1803. He immediately took a job as a tutor at Princeton, and on October 5, 1805 he married his first wife, Elizabeth Van Dyke, with whom he had two children. In that same year, Neill became a pastor in Cooperstown, New York, and while there he tutored James Fenimore Cooper and his brother Samuel. He would later take positions in Albany, New York and Philadelphia. In 1809, his wife Elizabeth died, and on February 25, 1811 he married Frances King.

In 1824, Neill was elected as president of Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. During his term as president, Neill, like Jeremiah Atwater fifteen years earlier, tried to secure the association of a theological seminary with the College. Attempts with the Evangelical Lutheran Church and the German Reformed Church both ultimately failed. Throughout his term enrollment increased, and he was known for being a good administrator. Among the students, Neill was also known as a very strict disciplinarian. In 1829, Neill resigned from the presidency, taking with him a large portion of his faculty. The reasons for these departures are not fully known, but differences between the faculty and trustees regarding the governance of the College and its students were likely the cause.

Neill became the secretary of the Board of Education of the Presbyterian Church upon leaving Dickinson, a position he held until 1831. His wife Frances, mother to three of his children, died in 1832, but he would remarry again on April 15, 1835. This union to Sarah Elmer would bring Neill two more children. William Neill died on August 8, 1860.

Author of Post: 
Dickinson College Archives
Date of Post: 
College Relationship: 
President - Years of Service: