Amos Eaton, natural scientist, educator, and co-founder of the Rensselaer School, was born on May 17, 1776 in New Concord parish (now Chatham, Columbia County), New York. Eaton graduated from Williams College in 1799, and despite an interest in the natural sciences, undertook the more practical study of law in New York City. He was admitted to the state bar in 1802. From 1802 to 1810 he practiced law and worked as a land agent and surveyor in Catskill, New York.
In 1811 Eaton was imprisoned on charges of forgery in a land dispute. Although Eaton and many others always maintained his innocence he spent nearly five years in jail. During his incarceration he began a course of scientific studies and upon his release spent a year at Yale College studying science under Benjamin Silliman and Eli Ives. He then returned to Williams College where he introduced a very successful course of scientific lectures and published A Botanical Dictionary and Manual of Botany for the Northern States in 1817.