Expropriated Indigenous land is the foundation of the land-grant university system.
On August 29, 1911, a Yahi man known as Ishi came out of hiding near Oroville, California. He had spent decades evading settlers after the massacre of his community in the 1860s and had recently lost the last of his family. Whisked off to the University of California’s anthropology museum, he was described by the press as the “last wild Indian.” Ishi spent his final years living at the museum. When he wasn’t explaining his language to researchers or making arrow points for visitors, he swept the floors with a straw broom as a janitor’s assistant. In return, he was paid $25 a month by the same university that sold thousands of acres of his people’s land out from under him while he hid out in forests and river canyons.
Ishi may be known in Indian Country and to California public school students, but his story remains mostly obscure — though considerably less so than that of the millions of acres of Indigenous land sold to endow the land-grant universities of the United States.
In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, which distributed public domain lands to raise funds for fledgling colleges across the nation. Now thriving, the institutions seldom ask who paid for their good fortune. Their students sit in halls named after the act’s sponsor, Vermont Rep. Justin Morrill, and stroll past panoramic murals that embody creation stories that start with gifts of free land.
Behind that myth lies a massive wealth transfer masquerading as a donation. The Morrill Act worked by turning land expropriated from tribal nations into seed money for higher education. In all, the act redistributed nearly 11 million acres — an area larger than Massachusetts and Connecticut combined. But with a footprint broken up into almost 80,000 parcels of land, scattered mostly across 24 Western states, its place in the violent history of North America’s colonization has remained comfortably inaccessible.
Over the past two years, High Country News has located more than 99% of all Morrill Act acres, identified their original Indigenous inhabitants and caretakers, and researched the principal raised from their sale in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 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.