Flashback Friday: Land grant approved for University of Minnesota 169 years ago

President Millard Fillmore signed an act of Congress that approved a grant of 48,040 acres of land to be held for the University of Minnesota 169 years ago, on Feb. 19, 1851. However, it would take 18 years to appropriate those lands and get the institution in operation.

In the time between the school’s founding and its first day of college classes, six states, including Minnesota, gained statehood; five different U.S. presidents were sworn into office; and the Civil War had come and gone.

The university was chartered six days after land was granted to create a public university in the Minnesota Territory, on Feb. 25, 1851. 

The original university charter declared that the school would be founded “at or near the Falls of St. Anthony,” and one of the regents, Franklin Steele, donated a site for the school’s first building at the intersection of Central and University avenues in what is now St. Anthony Main.

That first location operated as a preparatory school until 25 acres of land were acquired at the U of M’s present location, about a mile southeast of St. Anthony Falls.

“They have obtained 25 acres at this point, which is universally admitted to be the most beautiful location in the West,” the Oct. 19, 1854, edition of the Minnesota Republican said of the site, “commanding, as it does, a magnificent view of the Falls, river, and country on the west of the river, and covered with large and stately oaks.”

When Minnesota was petitioning for statehood, Minnesota Territory delegate Henry M. Rice, with the assistance of Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, inserted a provision that would double the land made available for “the use and support of” a state university. The provision was successful, thanks to some additional lobbying by John S. Pillsbury and John Nicols, two members of the board of regents, and in 1857 the University of Minnesota’s land grant doubled to 96,160 acres overnight.

The school wouldn’t use all of that land, however. The board of regents had no funds and hoped to sell off some land to help pay for university buildings, but a financial crisis hit in 1857 and the regents remained saddled in debt.

Legislation was approved in 1864 to give the board of regents authority to sell land reserved for the university. By December 1867, about 12,000 acres of land were sold, and the regents reported that the university was out of debt.

On Feb. 18, 1868, Gov. William Marshall approved “An act to reorganize and provide for the government and regulation of the University of Minnesota, and to establish an Agricultural College therein.” This was a final, major step toward establishing the University of Minnesota as it exists today. 

This act more acutely defined the governance of the university and ordered the creation of some of the separate colleges that make up the University of Minnesota today, such as arts and sciences, education, agriculture, law and medicine.

And finally, in the fall of 1869, the University of Minnesota opened its doors to a freshman cohort of 13 students — just two of them went on to graduate in 1873.

Now the U of M has a student body of more than 47,000 students on its Twin Cities campus. The school is a long way from being broke, too. As of 2019, its endowment had grown to $3.95 billon, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers.