Land Grant Colleges Research

Research is dangerous. I learn things I’d rather not know. Such was the case recently when I was trying to track down information regarding a place I’m using as a setting for a current historical fiction story. The research took me to the history of land grant colleges and universities. There’s a plethora of information on the topic, yet I’ve managed to live many decades without bumping into any of it. Either it was never taught in the classes I’ve taken, or I didn’t absorb the information,

Now that I do know, I can’t unknow it. What do we do when things we thought were true turn out to not to be? How shall we respond when things we’ve managed to not know come knocking on our conscience demanding to be acknowledged.

Acknowledging events of the past seems to be a good starting place. With that in mind, I offer this land acknowledgment statement:

As I prepare these words for you to read, I acknowledge the sacred lands on which I now live, giving thanks to those Indigenous Peoples who nourished this place, and who are still among us today, in spite of the many broken promises that I mourn. As I know more, may I do more to help pave a path forward, working together to nourish this land for the benefit of all people.

Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890

Ever hear of the Morrill Acts? I did not until I was trying to figure what was located on the land currently occupied by the Ohio State University Newark Campus. It turns out that campus is not the result of these acts. However, The Ohio State University main campus, sprawling over 1,700 acres of Columbus, is one of two land grant institutions in this state. The other one is Central Ohio State University. Curious to know more, I read several articles about land grant colleges.

These are institutions designated to receive funds from the Morrill acts. A total of 57 institutions of higher education benefitted from the 1862 act and another 19 from the 1890 act. In 1857 Congressman Justin Morrill of Vermont introduced a bill that eventually passed in 1862. It seems it’s always taken a long time for an idea to meander through the legislative process.

After the Civil War, Congress established a funding system to assist states in modernizing their higher educational systems. The 1862 Morrill Act gave federal land to states to establish colleges. The intended purpose was to teach agriculture, science, military science, and engineering, without eliminating other scientific and classical subjects. The goal was to expand higher education beyond Latin, Greek and mathematics.

The 1887 federal Hatch Act established an agricultural experiment station at these institutions to do research on best agricultural practices. The second Morrill Act in 1890 required former Confederate states to either provide access to land grant universities, regardless of race, or to provide separate educational options for white and black students. The result was the creation of nineteen additional HBCU – Historically black colleges and universities.

Expansion and Shifting Priorates

By 1914 these land grant institutions had strong political support, enabling them to expand the definition and scope of university course offerings. Over time most land grant institutions evolved into a network of large state universities. For example, the Ohio State student enrollment hovers between 45,000 to 50,000 every year. Today large state universities often dominate the news because their premier athletic events more than their focus on researching agricultural advances. Universities do what they can to attract and keep donors.

Revisiting the Past

According to an August 18, 2020  High Country News article, 52 of the Morrill Act institutions were funded with land stolen from Indigenous Peoples. The article includes the content of a letter preserved by the family of a Native American known as Captain Jim. He received the letter from a U. S. Indian Agent on Department of the Interior, Indian Service letterhead. Written from Fort Hall May 18, 1900, it reads, “Captain Jim, an Indian of this reservation, has permission to be absent for a period of ten days to visit Boise, Idaho. Captain Jim is a leading Indian and chief on this reservation and his tribe formerly roamed in the neighborhood of Boise. He is commended to all persons as being a good Indian, friendly to the whites and deserving of consideration.

Wow. An adult man needed to carry a letter verifying he had permission to walk about the land that once belonged to his people. The article states that nearly 11 million acres of land was acquired, from an estimated 250 tribes, bands and Indigenous communities. Over 160 deals were brokered through violence, treaties made and later ignored, or pressured transfer of land ownership. The 1862 Morrill Act stipulated that those receiving the land sell it for the benefit of the new institutions. The plan raised close to $18 million for the initial 52 institutions by early in the 20th century.

Doing Better

When I wrote Mayflower Chronicles: The Tale of Two Cultures I learned about a partnership between a university and the Pokanoket people in the area. Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island, is named for the 17th Century minister who helped establish Rhode Island. Over the past few years university leaders have partnered with Pokanoket leaders to learn, retain, and disseminate the history of the area Indigenous people who once roamed freely where the university is now located.

For example, a group of students produced a booklet that documents the oral history Pokanoket people have passed down through a dozen generations, dating back to the 1600s and earlier. Massasoit Ousamequin called on the early English settlers in Cape Cod to work out the first treaty between Indigenous people and the English speaking people we know as the Pilgrims.

Historical facts don’t change, but how we preserve, record, and teach them does from generation by generation. Though some of what I learn is hard to accept, it also gives me hope that by learning more, together we can do more to partner more going forward.

Are there any historical discoveries that have influenced how you think about things? Click this link to check out land grant colleges in your state.

Thank you for reading along. If you’ve enjoyed this bit of history, you might also enjoy  my posts on Substack.

I write about a variety of topics, but focus on how history influences our present and informs our future.

Mary Brewster’s Love Life and Mayflower Chronicles: The Tale of Two Cultures: available wherever books are sold.; Mary Brewster’s Love Life
Autographed copies are available on my website.

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