The Morrill Act, which shares a namesake with Morrill Hall, provided Cornell with significant early funding through land grants at the cost of the original inhabitants of that land.

Hannah Rosenberg / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

The Morrill Act, which shares a namesake with Morrill Hall, provided Cornell with significant early funding through land grants at the cost of the original inhabitants of that land.

April 24, 2020

Cornell’s Land Grant Heritage: A Sinister Tradition?

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As a land-grant institution, Cornell is “charged with advancing the lives and livelihoods of the state’s citizens through teaching, research and public service,” according to its website.

This was aided by almost 1 million acres of dispossessed American Indian land granted by the federal government, sold to form the basis of Cornell’s endowment — a sum of almost $6 million by 1914, equivalent to $150 million today.

The Morrill Act of 1862 distributed over 10 million acres of land in the western United States as a grant for the development of agricultural colleges. This land was often taken away from their original American Indian population through violence-backed treaties.

Cornell was the largest beneficiary of the land-grant act, receiving almost a tenth of the total land that the U.S. government disbursed. Revenue generated by selling or exploiting the land, along with $500,000 provided by Ezra Cornell, helped inaugurate the college in 1865.

“As far as the modern institutions that you know, obviously, that funding is kind of a drop in the bucket of the operation of these institutions,” said Prof. Nathan Sorber, West Virginia University, in an interview with High Country Times. “But at the time, the reason they’re here, the reason they were able to weather the difficult financial times of the 19th century, was because of that initial land.”

This distributed land included 500,000 acres in Wisconsin, with smaller parcels in California, Kansas and Minnesota and 11 other states, taken through treaties or confiscation from their original inhabitants.

One such group were the Ojibwe, who were settled in the Great Lakes region. Treaties beginning in 1837 ceded more and more land in Wisconsin and Minnesota to make room for American loggers and miners.

In return, the Ojibwe were forced into a number of reservations throughout Wisconsin, where the federal government forced them to assimilate to American culture. Children were sent away to boarding schools and banned from speaking the Ojibwe language, practicing their religion or engaging in their own culture.

“That Cornell has made money off land the Morrill Act granted to them is not surprising, though important to emphasize,” said Prof. Eric Cheyfitz, American Indian and indigenous studies. “The whole country is based on stolen Indian land, gained through genocide, that has been exploited for profit.”

The impact of this legislation remains visible on the Arts Quad: Morrill Hall is named after Rep. Justin Morrill (R-Vt.), a founder of the Republican party and a major proponent of the legislation.

Cornell’s status as a land-grant university is unique in the Ivy League: Brown University and Yale University were initially given the designation, but were replaced by state colleges by a second Morrill Act in 1892.

Cornell’s Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives website contains an acknowledgement that the university is built on the “indigenous lands” of the Cayuga Nation, but nothing on the displaced American Indian groups that funded its early development.

“We have Indigenous students from Wisconsin, from Minnesota, from California,” said Prof. Kurt Jordan, Director of the American Indian and Indgenous Studies program. “I suspect that this is going to be really eye-opening.”

The university could not be reached for comment at time of publication.