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  • The Wealth of Knowledge:Land-Grab Universities in a British Imperial and Global Context
  • Caitlin P. A. Harvey (bio)

the colonial legacy of the American land-grant university traced by the Land-Grab Universities (LGU) project, of public universities "built not just on Indigenous land, but with Indigenous land," reveals a far-reaching pattern of institutional development that relied on the leasing and selling of enormous tracts of expropriated Indigenous lands to raise universities' endowment capital.1 The mechanism effecting this tremendous land redistribution was the Morrill Act (1862). Yet while it was the largest, the Morrill Act was not the only legislative grant of Indigenous land made to fund higher education in the United States or among settler societies worldwide.

Contextualizing the LGU findings within the larger history of land-grant universities in British settlement societies makes clear that the American land-grant phenomenon was just one episode in the expanding territoriality of settler-colonial universities. Particularly in Canada and New Zealand but also in Australia and South Africa, fledgling public universities received substantial blocks of unceded Indigenous territory as financing from their governments. The development of America's educational institutions, therefore, did not unfold in isolation from the trends established in other Anglo-dominant settler societies.

When we consider the land-grant university in British imperial and global perspective, the full territoriality of land-grant universities comprises over 15 million acres spread over three continents (table 1). Settlers' provincial and federal governments sponsored land-grant institutions with the aim of applying scientific methods to agriculture, fostering technological innovation, and creating an internationally competitive yet civic-minded workforce.2 In New Zealand (Aotearoa) in 1869, for instance, the Province of Otago's legislators issued deeds of 100,000 acres for the University of Otago, followed by another 100,000 acres on the South Island (Te Waipounamu) in the 1870s.3 The Ngāi Tahu disputed this reallocation. But with the New Zealand Wars ongoing and swayed by the complaints of Otago University's largest land lessee, Robert Campbell, the colonial state evicted the Māori landholders.4 [End Page 97]

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Table 1.

Aggregate Totals of University Land by Grant and Location

In England, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge had long relied on the rental income generated by landholding. Even today, the Oxbridge colleges "are among the largest institutional landowners" in land-scarce England.5 Settler societies carried on this European custom on a larger and more devastating scale. Particularly where capital was lacking from benefactions, fees, or government subsidies, the resort to land-granting was continuous. As early as 1619, the British government assigned 10,000 acres to a "Henrico College" in Virginia. Warfare with the Powhatan Confederacy and chronic underpopulation ensured that this institution was short-lived.6

Reaching forward to the nineteenth century and prior to the Morrill Act, The Constitutional History of New York indicates that in 1846 the U.S. [End Page 98] government released to "Tennessee 1,300,000 acres of public land in that state for the endowment of a college."7 This land, nearly the size of Delaware, lay to the "south and west of the Congressional reservation line." Supposedly "vacant and unappropriated Lands" existed there after the violent removal of the Cherokee.8

In nearly the same moment, one of the earliest educational land grants in British North America went to King's College, a precursor to the University of Toronto, in 1828. An Anglican bishop, John Strachan, secured 225,944 acres of valuable Crown Reserves for the new college.9 It is likely that much of this property once supported the Mississaugas of New Credit (Mississauga Ojibwa). Under the strain of recurring Indigenous-settler skirmishes, the Mississaugas ceded 250,808 acres of their land—covering most of what is now the city of Toronto and region of York—first to the British Crown in 1787 and then to the Upper Canadian government in 1805. The Toronto Purchase, as these agreements became known, followed the influx of Loyalists into Upper Canada after the American Revolutionary War.10

Following Canadian Confederation in 1867, institutions of higher learning repeated Toronto's (and, by then, also...


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