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The Birth of the Modern Fraternity System:
The "Union Triad"

College fraternities arose around 1825 out the student literary societies. These groups had developed as early as 1740 when students banded together to compensate for perceived differences in the educational experience of college: inadequate libraries and a narrowly focused course of study.

The student literary societies evolved naturally out of the sharing of books among friends and intellectual curiosity beyond the prescribed curriculum. The student literary societies turned what would have been a very narrowly focused classic course of study into a broad, intellectually solid education.

Around 1750, students at the College of William and Mary banded together to form the F.H.C., known to outsiders as the Fat Hat Club. Literary societies such as the F.H.C. grew at many schools over the next 75 years, including the first American group with a Greek letter name: Phi Beta Kappa, also founded at William and Mary in 1776. But in the early nineteenth century, these groups became as stodgy and uninteresting to students as the classic curriculum.

A Kappa Alpha Key
The Delta Phi Seal

In the Mohawk Valley of New York in 1795, Union College was established. Three members of the Union College class of 1826 established Kappa Alpha Society. In November 1825, they initiated two other men, and by December, eight others were similarly initiated.

Kappa Alpha Society was a success, as indicated by the establishement of two powerful rivals within two years: Sigma Phi Society in March of 1827 and Delta Phi in November. These members of the "Union Triad" had a Greek name, secret and non-secret mottoes, a grip, and a code of principles or ideals expressed in a ritual or formal initiation ceremony. Their purposes were avowedly social as well as intellectual. Although some of these characteristics had been present in the literary societies, the "Union Triad" comprises a new form of student organization.

Founding brothers of Sigma Phi Society
Sigma Phi Society was the first to expand beyond Union College, placing a chapter at Hamilton College in 1831. In 1832, another fraternity was established at Hamilton--Alpha Delta Phi--out of disgust with the ungentlemanly nature of the rivalry between the Sigma Phi Society chapter, Kappa Alpha Society chapter, and the two literary societies on campus, Phoenix and Philopeuthian.

The Alpha Delta Phi crest
The spreading of fraternities came indirectly from Union College, through Alpha Delta Phi, to the "Miami Triad." The "Miami Triad" is a group of three expansion oriented fraternities; Beta Theta Pi, Phi Delta Theta, and Sigma Chi; founded at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

Beta Theta Pi arose in August of 1839 in opposition to Alpha Delta Phi, which expanded from Union. Phi Delta Theta, established in 1848, was badly hurt by the Civil War, but expanded south shortly after the fighting ceased. Sigma Chi, 1855, was founded by former members of Delta Kappa Epsilon who had refused to elect a brother as poet in the Erodelphian Literary Society merely because he was a brother. They felt he also should have poetic skills.

Beta Theta Pi's Crest Flag of Phi Delta Theta Seven founders of Sigma Chi
Although the concept of the modern fraternity began at Union College, and six groups were founded there prior to 1850 (Psi Upsilon, Chi Psi, and Theta Delta Chi are the other three), expansion came primarily from the Miami Triad. In 1996-97, the Miami Triad fraternities had more than 560 total chapters and colonies, and 594,000 initiates. In contrast, the Union Triad fraternities had grown to only 40 chapters and colonies, and 32,000 initiates.

The Zeta Psi Crest
Several more fraternities were founded prior to the Civil War, but the war thwarted both the growth of fraternities and of educational institutions. After the war, several fraternities were established in the New South.

In 1879, Zeta Psi established the first chapter in Canada at the University of Toronto. The international flavor of fraternities was well established by 1909 with nine active chapters at the University of Toronto and seven at McGill University in Montreal.

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