FSL History

The History of College Fraternities

The first Greek-letter society in America was formed when Phi Beta Kappa was founded by five students at the College of William & Mary on December 5, 1776. The Phi Beta Kappa members took an oath of secrecy with an objective to foster friendship, morality and literature. In 1780 a decision to expand the fraternity to other colleges began and a second chapter was formed at Yale. While expansion continued, a popular movement opposing secret societies influenced the chapter at Harvard to remove all of the vestiges of secrecy in 1831. This caused the fraternity to evolve into a purely honorary society that recognizes academic achievement. Although Phi Beta Kappa does not compete with social fraternities today, it is considered to be the forefather of the whole fraternity system.   

In 1824 at the College of New Jersey, renamed Princeton University in 1896, another secret society was organized which bore the name Chi Phi Society. The faculty quickly abolished this group and the name disappeared. Chi Phi Society would form again in 1854 and later merged with two other independent groups named Chi Phi.

Fraternities Establish Chapters
 (1825 - 1855)

The birthplace of the Greek-letter system really began in 1825 at Union College in Schenectady, New York. The establishment of a Phi Beta Kappa chapter there in 1817 encouraged a group of men to form a competing fraternity when the Kappa Alpha Society was established on November 26, 1825. While this new fraternity adopted many of the practices of Phi Beta Kappa, it clearly made fellowship its primary purpose making it the first social fraternity in the nation.

Despite meeting with much opposition, Kappa Alpha Society became secretly popular with the students and was imitated in 1827 by the formation of Sigma Phi and Delta Phi. These three fraternities became known as the “Union Triad”. Of these, Sigma Phi was the first to expand to another college when a second chapter was established at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York in 1831 making Sigma Phi Society the first “National” fraternity. Union College is also where three additional fraternities were created. Psi Upsilon, the fifth oldest fraternity (1833); Chi Psi (1841) and Theta Delta Chi (1847) making the Union the birthplace of six fraternities, the most of any college. 

THE UNION TRIAD

Kappa Alpha Society (1825) 

Sigma Phi Society (1827)

Delta Phi (1827)

The fourth oldest fraternity to organize was Alpha Delta Phi when it was formed at Hamilton College in 1832, the year after Sigma Phi had planted a chapter there Alpha Delta Phi has the distinction of being the first fraternity to expand to the Midwestern states when they chartered their second chapter in 1835 at Miami University in Ohio. Four years later Beta Theta Pi was formed at Miami to challenge Alpha Delta Phi. That was followed with the formation Phi Delta Theta and Sigma Chi. These three fraternities became known as the “Miami Triad” as they quickly established chapters throughout the western states as well as the South and grew into large national fraternities.

THE MIAMI TRIAD

Beta Theta Pi (1839)

Phi Delta Theta (1848)

Sigma Chi (1855)

frat history 1

The Impact of War Between the States (1855 - 1875)

Fraternities continued to expand their chapters at a very rapid pace prior to 1860. However, this growth began to slow as sectional tensions increased. Two northern fraternities, Delta Kappa Epsilon and Phi Gamma Delta, had planted successful chapters at the University of Alabama but were soon challenged when Sigma Alpha Epsilon was formed there in 1856. Sigma Alpha Epsilon quickly established a second and third chapter at Vanderbilt and the University of North Carolina respectively, making them the first national fraternity founded in the South. Sigma Alpha Epsilon grew to 15 chapters throughout the South prior to the War between the Confederate States of America and the United States of America in 1861. But the war suspended most collegiate activity. Fraternities would see chapters become dormant or fold. War also divided fraternities, as brothers from the same chapter would enlist with both armies. In the South, many fraternities would see their chapters enlist as one fighting unit. 

The only national fraternity to form during the War Between the States was Theta Xi, which was started in April of 1864 at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. Theta Xi was initially formed as a fraternity for engineering students only, thus making it the first professional fraternity. It eventually evolved into strictly a social fraternity. It was also in April of 1864 that the Confederate capital in Richmond, Virginia was captured by Union troops and Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered marking the end of the war. Colleges in the South were slow to reopen and many that were destroyed had to be rebuilt. As Confederate soldiers transitioned from the battlefield back to the classroom, many had no desire to restart northern fraternities. This spawned the development of seven new Southern fraternities over a five-year period. The hub of this activity was centered in Lexington, Virginia where Virginia Military Institute and Washington College were located. VMI was a military college many considered to be the “West Point of the South”. Located next door was Washington College, formerly Liberty Hall Academy, a school whose footnotes in history include being the college where it is believed the first black college student in the United States earned a degree in 1795 and where George Washington bequeath $20,000 in 1796. The school added to its history when Robert E. Lee accepted the post of president in August of 1865. His difficult challenge to reopen a looted Washington College equaled the task VMI faced, whose buildings had to be reconstructed after being burned by the Yankee army. 

Both colleges eventually opened and fraternity activity quickly began. The first fraternity to form was Alpha Tau Omega at VMI in September of 1865. In December, Kappa Alpha Order organized at Washington College. Lexington was also the birthplace of Kappa Sigma Kappa in 1867 and Sigma Nu in 1869, started at VMI. Two other fraternities were founded during this time in nearby Charlottesville, Virginia. Pi Kappa Alpha started in 1868 and Kappa Sigma in 1869 at the University of Virginia. One other national fraternity to form after the War was Alpha Gamma in 1867 in Tennessee at Cumberland University. Five of these seven fraternities started during this period grew into large and successful national fraternities. Two, Kappa Sigma Kappa and Alpha Gamma became casualties of an anti-fraternity movement years later and folded.  

southern fraternities

THE FIRST SOUTHERN FRATERNITIES

Sigma Alpha Epsilon (1856)

Alpha Tau Omega (1865)

Kappa Alpha Order (1865)

Pi Kappa Alpha (1868)

Sigma Nu (1869) 

Kappa Sigma (1869) 

frat history 2

The fraternity system once again grew as colleges enjoyed the impact of post-war economic expansion. In 1877 President Rutherford Hayes withdrew the federal troops from the occupied South and removed the military governors. Northern fraternities started discussions about revitalizing dormant chapters in the South and Southern fraternities began to consider expansion to the north and west.  

The Anti-Fraternity Movement (1876 - 1889)

But the fraternity system would once again face a hardship when the nation experienced a severe economic depression following the effects of the financial Panic of 1873. The Long Depression as it later became known would last until the mid 1890’s.    

Another challenge fraternities would have to endure would be growing opposition to secret societies. Many college administrators began to forbid students from joining fraternities, which had a devastating impact on the local fraternities and forced the national fraternities to close many of its chapters. Several states began to pass legislation making secret societies illegal. Some fraternities folded, others had to merge with each other just to survive and some simply operated underground. 

Expansive Growth - Dawn of A New Century (1890)

In the mid 1890’s the anti-fraternity movement began to subside and the long economic crisis came to an end. Many new state-supported colleges were formed and student enrollments surged as co-education opportunities became available. The impact of this caused phenomenal growth in the Greek system as fraternities and sororities became very popular. Old established fraternities were rapidly planting new chapters while new national fraternities were being created overnight as they absorbed the hundreds of local fraternities that had been formed. Three fraternities that successfully used aggressively expansion policies to grow were Tau Kappa Epsilon, organized at Illinois Wesleyan University in 1899; Sigma Phi Epsilon, which began at Richmond College in 1901; and Lambda Chi Alpha who formed in 1909 at Boston University. Tau Kappa Epsilon, Sigma Phi Epsilon and Lambda Chi Alpha have grown into the largest of all of the Greek-letter social fraternities today in membership. 

The outgrowth of this created a need to form organizations to assist in communication and collaboration among the fraternities and sororities. Sororities were the first to hold a joint meeting when representatives of seven sororities gathered in Chicago in 1902. This meeting resulted in the formation of the National Pan-Hellenic Conference. A similar meeting with representatives of 26 fraternities in New York City in 1909 ended with the founding of the National Interfraternity Conference.

The Last 100 Years

Fraternities again faced the challenges of war when World War I began. However, there was minimal impact since American participation was limited. Fraternities again experienced tremendous growth after the war and through the rest of the 1920’s. Then the stock market crashed in October of 1929, which was followed by the Great Depression. College enrollments plunged and fraternities were paralyzed as they watched chapters close overnight. Some national fraternities disappeared altogether while others merged their memberships just to survive. Fraternities that managed to continue would soon have to face their next obstacle with the outbreak of World War II in 1941. Although most college activity was suspended, few fraternities lost chapters during the war. Fraternities that somehow survived the shakeout of the Great Depression managed to weather this next storm. The War ended in 1945 and the return of soldiers to the classroom allowed fraternities to once again expand. Fraternities enjoyed several decades of steady growth until the late 1960’s through the early 1970’s when they experienced a slight decline due to the political unrest at some colleges. However, this was short lived and fraternities have since seen continuous growth and are today are considered a vital part of most colleges. 

This page was last updated on: June 28, 2016