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The institution was named after the town, which in turn had been named after Jeffery, Lord Amherst, a veteran from the Seven Years' War and later commanding general of the British forces in North America.
On November 18, 1817, a project was adopted at the Academy to raise funds for the free instruction of "indigent young men of promising talents and hopeful piety, who shall manifest a desire to obtain a liberal education with a sole view to the Christian ministry." During the fundraising for the project, it became clear that without larger designs, it would be impossible to raise sufficient funds.
The college is a member of the Five College Consortium, which allows its students to attend classes at four other Pioneer Valley institutions: Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, Hampshire College, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst.