Queen's was a result of an outgrowth of educational initiatives planned by Presbyterians in the 1830s. A draft plan for the university was presented at a synod meeting in Kingston in 1839, with a modified bill introduced through the 13th Parliament of Upper Canada during a session in 1840. In 16 October 1841, a royal charter was issued through Queen Victoria. Queen's resulted from years of effort by Presbyterians of Upper Canada to found a college for the education of ministers in the growing colony and to instruct the youth in various branches of science and literature. They modelled the university after the University of Edinburgh and the University of Glasgow. Classes began on 7 March 1842, in a small wood-frame house on the edge of the city with two professors and 15 students.
The college moved several times during its first eleven years, before settling in its present location. Prior to Canadian Confederation, the college was financially supported by the Presbyterian Church in Scotland, the Canadian government and private citizens. After Confederation the college faced ruin when the federal government withdrew its funding and the Commercial Bank of the Midland District collapsed, a disaster which cost Queen's two-thirds of its endowment. The college was rescued after Principal William Snodgrass and other officials created a fundraising campaign across Canada.
The risk of financial ruin continued to worry the administration until the final decade of the century. They actively considered leaving Kingston and merging with the University of Toronto as late as the 1880s. With the additional funds bequeathed from Queen's first major benefactor, Robert Sutherland, the college staved off financial failure and maintained its independence. Queen's was given university status on 17 May 1881. In 1883, Women's Medical College was founded at Queen's with a class of three. Theological Hall, completed in 1880, originally served as Queen's main building throughout the late 19th century.