Carleton College was founded by the Minnesota Conference of Congregational Churches under the name of Northfield College on November 14, 1866. Preparatory school classes began in September 1867, but it was not until 1870 that the Reverend James W. Strong took office as the first president and the first college class was formed. It was agreed at the outset that after one year formal church control would end, but throughout its formative years, the College received significant support and direction from the Congregational churches. Although it is now autonomous and nonsectarian, the College respects these historical ties and gives continuing recognition to them through membership in the Council for Higher Education of the United Church of Christ.
By the fall of 1871, the name of the College had been changed to honor an early benefactor, William Carleton of Charlestown, Mass., who earlier that year had bestowed a gift of $50,000 on the struggling young college. At the time, it was the largest single contribution ever made to a western college, and it was made unconditionally, with no design that the name of the College should be changed. The College currently has an endowment of about $500 million and assets valued at $700 million.