History of Endowing Land-Grant Colleges

There is a sordid history behind the endowments of many schools across the country.

We reconstructed approximately 10.7 million acres taken from nearly 250 tribes, bands and communities through over 160 violence-backed land cessions, a legal term for the giving up of territory.

Our data shows how the Morrill Act turned Indigenous land into college endowments. It reveals two open secrets: First, according to the Morrill Act, all money made from land sales must be used in perpetuity, meaning those funds still remain on university ledgers to this day. And secondly, at least 12 states are still in possession of unsold Morrill acres as well as associated mineral rights, which continue to produce revenue for their designated institutions.

The returns were stunning: To extinguish Indigenous title to land siphoned through the Morrill Act, the United States paid less than $400,000. But in truth, it often paid nothing at all. Not a single dollar was paid for more than a quarter of the parcels that supplied the grants — land confiscated through outright seizure or by treaties that were never ratified by the federal government. From the University of Florida to Washington State University, from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to the University of Arizona, the grants of land raised endowment principal for 52 institutions across the United States.

Land-Grab Universities, High Country News

Even in the middle of a civil war there was time to enact several laws to dispose of public lands.

Few years have mattered more in the history of U.S. real estate than 1862. In May, Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act, which offered farmland to settlers willing to occupy it for five years. Six weeks later came the Pacific Railway Act, which subsidized the Transcontinental Railroad with checkerboard-shaped grants. The very next day, on July 2, 1862, Lincoln signed “An Act donating Public Lands to the several States and Territories which may provide Colleges for the Benefit of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts.” Contemporaries called it the Agricultural College Act. Historians prefer the Morrill Act, after the law’s sponsor.

The legislation marked the federal government’s first major foray into funding for higher education. The key building blocks were already there; a few agricultural and mechanical colleges existed, as did several universities with federal land grants. But the Morrill Act combined the two on a national scale. The idea was simple: Aid economic development by broadening access to higher education for the nation’s farmhands and industrial classes.

If you are curious, High Country News shared the database behind their report.

We reconstructed approximately 10.7 million acres taken from nearly 250 tribes, bands and communities through over 160 violence-backed land cessions.

This unique database was created through extensive research into primary source materials, including land patent records, congressional documents, historical bulletins, archival and print resources at the National Archives, state repositories, and special collections at universities, digitized historical maps and more. Information for the database was extracted programmatically where possible, primarily from the Bureau of Land Management’s General Land Office database, but in some cases it was transcribed manually from print records, microfilm and microfiche reproductions, or poor-quality digital images.

How we investigated the land-grant university system, High Country News

Read more about the Morrill Act of 1862 here.

Further reading on HCN’s land-grants university investigation, High Country News

Lost and found: The story of land-grant universities, High Country News

Morrill Act, The Library of Congress

Act of July 2, 1862 (Morrill Act), Public Law 37-108, which established land grant colleges, 07/02/1862; Enrolled Acts and Resolutions of Congress, 1789-1996; Record Group 11;
General Records of the United States Government; National Archives.

Post by Marcelino Pantoja