America’s “Land Grab” Universities: Robert Lee on Colonial Extraction by “Treaty-Like Agreements”

“It’s not about the land underneath campuses. It’s land at a distance, that can be sold or managed to raise funds for endowments.”

Recall This Book is a Brandeis-based podcast that assembles scholars and writers from different disciplines to make sense of contemporary issues, problems, and events. This episode is about the Land-Grab Universities project, which explores the relationship of US universities to the expropriation of Native American lands that characterized settler colonialism’s creep across the continent. That collaborative project has two main creators: Tristan Ahtone and Dr. Robert Lee, assistant professor of history at Cambridge University. Recall This Book’s hosts for this episode are John Plotz and Jerome Tharaud.

John Plotz (JP): Your work focuses on Indigenous dispossession and US state formation in the 19th-century American West. You have a cluster of articles and a database, accessible under the title “Land-Grab Universities.” So, Bobby, can we just start by asking you about that project?


Robert Lee (RL): Land-Grab Universities is a collaborative, multimedia project about the history of land expropriation for the benefit of land-grant universities in the United States under the Morrill Act of 1862.


JP: I always associate the land-grant university with, say, the University of Nebraska being given some land to build a campus. But the land grants you’re talking about do not operate that way.


RL: Yes, for the most part it’s not about the land underneath campuses. It’s land at a distance, that can be sold or managed to raise funds for endowments. Sometimes hundreds or thousands of miles away from the universities that benefit.

Land expropriated through various treaties and surveys became the parcels that you see when you look out the window when you’re flying in a plane across the United States. Universities in western states sometimes selected parcels upon which to build their campuses: The University of Nevada, Reno, for example, is built on land apportioned by the Morrill Act.


JP: How did the selections work? Was it like draft day in the NFL?


RL: A draft isn’t really the right image. Morrill Act land selections were decentralized. Most states in the East were given acres in the West via selection coupons called scrip, which allowed states to select 160-acre parcels from the surveyed public domain. But they didn’t have to make the selections themselves. They could sell the right to enter the scrip. So, what most of the universities in the East did was sell the scrip in bulk to speculators, because they didn’t want to deal with the administrative costs of actually going through the whole selection process.

In contrast, western states had to choose land within their boundaries. The University of California basically ran a real estate office out of the university for decades, acting like any other land speculators would in the 19th and in the early 20th centuries by looking for the best parcels that they could acquire to then resell.

And then you have another phenomenon where universities wind up not selling this land. This happened a lot in mountain states in the West and later territories that became states long after the initial passage of the Morrill Act.

The selection process couldn’t be like NFL draft day because this was an evolving program; as new states were created, they were grandfathered in and became beneficiaries of the Morrill Act.


Jerome Tharaud (JT): You point out that the University of California only got land within the borders of the state of California, something like $740,000 in Morrill funds, whereas Cornell got $5.7 million. That made me think of this older story of colonialism in the West as a resource colony—a “plundered province,” as Bernard DeVoto famously called it. I’m wondering how we should think about the relationship of those two forms of colonialism: extractive resource colonialism versus settler colonialism.


RL: It was all colonial extraction. The Morrill Act was named after Justin Morrill, a senator from Vermont, who made the argument that eastern states had earned the right to plunder the western provinces as payback for building infrastructure like canals and turnpikes that eased passage into the West for settlers.

JT: You make a distinction between parcels seized by unratified treaty versus those seized by treaty. I was curious about what the difference is and why that’s important.


RL: They are part of the large variety of ways the United States took land. Ratified treaties typically would have a token payment. This might be a few cents an acre, or sometimes it might be as high as $0.10 or $0.25 an acre. But mostly payments were in the range of one to three cents an acre.

Unratified treaties were unratified by Congress after an agreement had been made in the field. This is the story of California. California was covered by unratified treaties in the early 1850s. Congress never ratified them, so they technically never became the law of the land. The land gets taken under these treaties anyway, but no payments are made. California is really the epicenter of unratified treaties, although you also see it in other places like Oregon or Nevada.

Then there is some land taken without any legal action at all. Land in (what becomes the state of) Louisiana is just assumed to have been conquered by the Spanish and then it’s transferred to the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase.

But for the vast majority of the continent, the US uses some type of legal instrument to take land, typically a treaty. After 1871, they’re making what are called “treaty-like agreements.” There are also other instruments used to simply take Indigenous land, like executive orders.

And there are just unilateral congressional acts that are passed that take land. The best known is probably the Dawes Act, which has this back door to dispossession, where it says we are going to distribute land to tribal members on the rolls, and we’re going to take the surplus land. On top of that, through the allotment process you have the loss of millions more acres through things like tax seizures and all other unscrupulous means by which people are able to extract tracts from Indigenous allottees.


JT: So, as you did that research, what surprised you as your data emerged? Was there an aha moment?


RL: It’s not so much an aha moment, it’s more like a “we should have known” moment when you finally see all the parcels laid out on a map of the continental United States. When you look at that map, you’re going to see a big half crescent of Morrill Act parcels that goes from Missouri up through Wisconsin. This was the main property frontier in the 1860s and 1870s, the hot property market for public domain land. But you also see a cluster of parcels in the great Central Valley of California. This is another dense area where scrip was being used to snap up valuable land in the 1860s and 1870s.

Figure 1: Map by Margaret Pearce. Courtesy Robert Lee and Tristan Antone

It speaks to a pedestrian story about the beneficiaries of colonialism. These universities are doing what others were doing at the time within those larger land markets. This huge land area covered by Morrill Act parcels, it’s still just a drop in the bucket of the amount of Indigenous land that is being churned into the settler property market in the 19th century. Overall, the United States privatized more than a billion acres over the course of the 19th century. Our land-grant universities project only dealt with 10–11 million of those acres. It’s like 1 percent of the whole.

JP: I was thinking about that Walter Benjamin idea that every document of civilization is also a document of barbarism. One of the things I love about this project is that it helps us see universities, like the railroads, as instruments of expropriation, the extinction of Native land claims. But they’re also the places where scholars and students explore both of those things.

Universities are trying to grapple with their legacy. What you’re proposing is not so much the acknowledgment of the acres that we’re standing on, but those acres far away that were extinguished in order for this university to be founded and, crucially, funded.


RL: Yes, the Benjamin quote is a great way of thinking about the contradiction embedded within land-grant universities.

On the one hand, these universities extol themselves as sites of progress: this is a story that you see in the things like the murals that they have up at land-grant universities, where it’s like a vision of American progress through technological development. And there’s a lot of great things to say about what land-grant universities have done and produced. After all, it’s a graduate of a land-grant university who’s responsible for a lot of the vaccines that we get as children, television tubes were developed at land-grant universities, the dominant corn variety that is in most of the food that Americans eat was developed at a land-grant university.

On the other hand, land-grant universities depended on colonial extraction to grow and prosper. What we are trying to show in the Land-Grab Universities project is that this form of colonial extraction was not just about the land that we’re standing on, it’s the way in which land has been capitalized to transform a settler society. And we’re starting to see some acknowledgment of that history, if only a little. Washington State University incorporated some of our data into their land acknowledgement. Not a lot of the others are doing that. Cornell University adjusted its land acknowledgment, too. But they still tend to cling to the idea that land acknowledgments are just about the land that you’re standing on.


JT: What has the response to this story been from Native communities?


RL: Indigenous student groups and Indigenous faculty have really been the driving force in asking their universities to respond to or to think about the historical implications of the Morrill Act. We’ve spoken at the Indigenous GIS (Geographic Information Systems) conference, and some people there are working on related issues. We’ve gotten requests from tribal nations for access or instruction on how to use the data set. But really, the response to this piece has mostly been from Native communities connected to and embedded within university communities.


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JP: I was thinking about the recent Georgetown case, the selling of enslaved people down to Louisiana in order to pay university debts. Of course, there’s an obvious difference, which is that it’s easy to make a rich university like Brown or Georgetown a villain, because we already think of them as pampered and privileged. There the story is: rich universities do what it takes to bankroll their fancy ivy halls. But this is why I think it’s so interesting to talk about this question of extinguished land titles, or ratified and unratified treaties. The context of slavery and capitalism is one form of exploitation of other human beings. Black people as enslaved workers, as units of labor action within an economy, are one form of expropriation alongside expropriated Native American land.

So, this might be a good time to pivot to Recallable Books, where we ask guests if there’s a book they would like to point listeners to. Bobby?


RL: I want to draw attention to a much older book in this historiography of land-grant universities called The Wisconsin Pine Lands of Cornell University. If you can’t tell from the descriptive title, it’s an old-school monograph published in 1943 by Paul Wallace Gates. He was at Cornell University for most of his career, where he had access to the university archives. He wrote one of the earliest and most sophisticated accounts of the disposal of land under the Morrill Act, using Cornell as an example.

Gates argues, and I think correctly, that Cornell’s land grant under the Morrill Act facilitated one of the most successful land speculations in American history. The Morrill Act raised this $5 million endowment that exploded in value and made Cornell the third wealthiest university in the United States within 20 or so years from its founding in the 1860s. It’s really this wonderful, detailed study of the land-grant university system.

Yet it is striking how this very detail-oriented scholar just didn’t want to engage with the expropriation aspect of public lands. You won’t find anything about Native people in this book. If it was being written today, I think it would be called The Ojibwe Lands of Cornell University. It’s really emblematic of the long history of public-lands scholarship in the United States and its shortsightedness. It has a long history of not thinking about the consequences, causes, and results of colonialism.

You have this huge brilliant literature that is completely disengaged from the conquest of a continent.


JP: That’s great. Doesn’t Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick open Epistemology of the Closet by saying that, along with our epistemology of knowledge, we need an epistemology of ignorance as well? A genealogy of the things that are not said?


RL: Questions not asked, yes.

JT: When I think about efforts to return land, I tend to think of places like the Black Hills or national parks: large contiguous tracts of public land. But when you start thinking about 80,000 parcels of land—where some are Walmart parking lots or playgrounds in California—it reveals just how complicated the process of achieving justice would be.

It makes me wonder, is returning land feasible? Since these parcels have been capitalized, invested, and turned into money or endowments, is the best mechanism for justice through scholarships? Or are there other models?


RL: Yes, there are two tiers of feasibility. The Morrill Act land that’s still retained by the states, about 5 percent or so, could be returned by the states. The real challenge would be political, because you would have to go to state legislatures and convince them to divest themselves of this land. And most of this land is in western states that are controlled by Republican state legislatures. Not that I would expect a different outcome from Democratic state legislatures, but I think the hill would be even higher to climb in deep-red western states.


JP: California might be an interesting test case.


RL: Yes, but they are in the category of having sold all of their land, so they’re in the second tier of feasibility, the case where the land entered the open market long ago.


JP: Oh, I see.


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RL: The real estate market in the United States has been chopped up and turned into tract housing, baseball diamonds, private and public property of all sorts. So, UC’s Morrill Act lands are now in the same boat as property distributed from the public domain across the country. Other land reached the market through different laws, thousands of them, that produced the current mosaic of property. Returning the sold-off Morrill Act parcels would be as difficult as returning any other piece of private property, and doing so is outside the reach of land-grant universities themselves. Though some people are trying to come up with new types of partnerships for sharing lands that universities own now.

As a result, most proposed solutions or responses revolve around what land-grant universities can do in terms of expanding enrollment, changing curriculum, providing better services, and more recruitment of Indigenous students, staff, and faculty. South Dakota State is one of them, as well as the University of Minnesota. Ohio State University has created a partnership with the First Nations Development Institute to think about what moving forward with the full knowledge of the Morrill Act’s implications can look like for them. It’s still to be seen what’s going to come out of that. But there are other creative solutions that could be put in play.


JP: Do you have any idea of what the numbers are of Native American or Indigenous students who’ve gotten degrees at these universities? Do they represent the vast majority of all Native Americans who’ve ever gotten college degrees?


RL: A study that appeared in the Native American and Indigenous Studies journal by a pair of economists asked that question: How well have land-grant universities served Indigenous students? In general, what they found is that land-grant universities did not have a statistically more significant record of providing educations to Indigenous students than non–land-grant universities. There are some that enroll larger numbers than others, like the University of New Mexico versus Cornell.

On our website there are pages for each university, and one of the statistics that we did collect is what the proportion of Native and Indigenous students is today for those universities. So, we have a tiny sliver of that story, which is waiting to be written more fully. icon

Featured image: Cornfields, Adams, Nebraska. Photograph by Kalen Goodluck/High Country News, “Land-Grab Universities”