Skip to content Skip to navigation

CESTA research in the news: Land Grab Universities

CESTA Affiliate Robert Lee's research on indigenous land dispossession was recently featured in the High Country News and The New York Times, with the help of some nifty web design and development work by former CESTA intern Cody Leff and CESTA Affiliate Geoff McGhee (formerly of Bill Lane Center), and Spatial History Project Co-Director Erik Steiner.

CESTA is collaborating with Lee on the American Domesday Project to develop an open-access website revealing the history of how the United States transformed vast indigenous territories into into real estate property. Drawing on digitized General Land Office records, the site will trace the dispossession and sale of some 11.4 million individual parcels of indigenous land in a slow but methodical transfer of wealth over the latter half of the 19th century.



Ask Who Paid for America’s Universities

Cornell, Virginia Tech, Ohio State and many more were created with wealth stolen from Indigenous people.

By Tristan Ahtone and Robert Lee

This is how deep it goes. Even an essay calling for a fairer America missed the injustice at the core of the nation’s character.

“From some of its darkest hours, the United States has emerged stronger and more resilient,” the Times editorial board wrote. “Even as Confederate victories in Virginia raised doubts about the future of the Union, Congress and President Abraham Lincoln kept their eyes on the horizon, enacting three landmark laws that shaped the nation’s next chapter.”

Among those laws was the Morrill Act of 1862, which appropriated land to fund agricultural and mechanical colleges — a national constellation of institutions known as land-grant universities. A graduate of Montana State University went on to develop vaccines; researchers at Iowa State bred the key corn variety in our food supply; the first email system was developed at M.I.T. It’s easy to see why The Times looked to the Morrill Act as a blueprint for a more progressive future.

But ask who paid for it, and who’s still paying today.

The Morrill Act was a wealth transfer disguised as a donation. The government took land from Indigenous people that it had paid little or nothing for and turned that land into endowments for fledgling universities.

An investigation we did for High Country News found that the act redistributed nearly 11 million acres, which is almost the size of Denmark. The grants came from more than 160 violence-backed land cessions made by close to 250 tribal nations. When adjusted for inflation, the windfall netted 52 universities roughly half a billion dollars.


Continue reading at