While developing Wheaton Female Seminary’s original academic plan, Mary Lyon also recommended the school’s first principal. She chose her colleague Eunice Caldwell, a fellow teacher at Ipswich Female Seminary, a school that followed a rigorous academic plan similar to the one Mary Lyon created for Wheaton Seminary. After an initial reluctance to accept the position, fearing it was beyond her ability, the cheery voiced “Miss Caldwell,” as her students called her, took the job after Mary Lyon convinced her she was indeed ready at just 24 years old.
On April 22, 1835, Wheaton Female Seminary opened its doors to students for the first time, with Miss Caldwell in charge. Following her motto, “Always be in haste, but never in a hurry,” she supervised the teachers and sometimes taught classes herself if necessary. She also managed the seminary, including handling the tuition money and overseeing the school’s financial transactions. Perhaps her most important role was to lead the students in a thoughtful and imaginative academic direction while enforcing their strict daily routine. Miss Caldwell was exceptional at providing a “leading spirit” at Wheaton Female Seminary. One student remembered that, “Homesick little girls felt the healing balm of her sympathy.” Another spoke of her morning addresses as, “Designed to inspire us with true ideas of duty.”
The institution flourished under Miss Caldwell’s inspiring touch. Unfortunately, her term as principal at Wheaton was short-lived due to a prior agreement with Mary Lyon to join her as assistant principal when she opened her own Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary. When she left the Wheaton community in October of 1837, taking with her one of Wheaton’s teachers, and eight students to form Mt. Holyoke’s first senior class, Wheaton Seminary was thrown into turmoil.
Within a year of leaving Wheaton, Eunice Caldwell married the Reverend John P. Cowles, and moved to Oberlin, Ohio. They returned to Massachusetts and took over the leadership of Ipswich Seminary in 1844, remaining there for thirty-three years. Mrs. Cowles remained a close friend of Eliza Baylies Chapin Wheaton throughout her lifetime, advising her on matters related to Wheaton Seminary, and influencing such decisions as the inclusion of alumnae on the Board of Trustees. Eunice Caldwell Cowles died in 1903.