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The Birth of Land-Grant Institutions and Purdue University

Last week I wrote about Purdue Extension as a source of research-based information. To more fully understand what Purdue Extension is, we must go back to the birth of land-grant institutions, which led to the establishment of Purdue University in Indiana. Our storied history involves one of our most beloved U.S. presidents, Abraham Lincoln.

America declared its independence in 1776. A decade later, agricultural education became a priority.

The Philadelphia Society, an agricultural group organized in 1785, was one of the first organized efforts to provide information to farmers. In 1792, the Massachusetts Society for Promoting Agriculture recommended meetings for farmers to discuss agricultural improvement. In 1812, this group sent out 1,000 letters to be read to civic and church groups.

In the 1850s, Jonathan Turner, a Yale-educated college professor, and Illinois farmer became outspoken about the need for the U.S. government to promote the establishment of state colleges that would educate young men and women of the working class. Farming associations, trade magazines, and newspapers voiced support, and it caught the attention of Justin Morrill, an influential Vermont congressman.

Before 1862, most colleges in the United States were patterned after European traditions, emphasizing the classics and catering to the elite. The education of America's farm people, then about 85 percent of the population, and industrial workers, was neglected.

On May 2, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Act establishing the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which was raised to cabinet status in 1889.

In 1862 the Morrill Act was also passed. It is known as the Land-Grant Act since each state was given an area of public land to be sold and the proceeds invested, with the interest to be used to endow, support and maintain “at least one college”. Signed by President Lincoln on July 2, 1862, the Act stipulated that the primary objective of the colleges would be: “to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts in such manner as the legislatures of the states may respectively prescribe in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.”

The Indiana state legislature formally accepted the grant in 1865. The land sold to provide the grant to Indiana was in northeastern Nebraska. The exact location was never determined since only land scrip was issued. It was sold to private interests. Some time was required to locate the college in Indiana, as several proposals were received. These included offers by Butler University, Indiana University, and other entities.

In 1869, the legislature accepted an offer made by John Purdue and other Tippecanoe County residents. Purdue contributed $150,000 and 100 acres of land. The new institution was called Purdue University in honor of the benefactor. The first students were enrolled at Purdue in 1874.

Purdue University is Indiana’s sole land-grant institution.

A Second Morrill Act of 1890 provided for land-grant institutions at historically black colleges and universities. An Act of Congress in 1994 established land-grant institutions in Native American tribally-controlled colleges and universities.

To find out more about Purdue Extension’s early years, consider purchasing books authored by Dr. Frederick Whitford and others, available at: Some of the information in today’s article was sourced from the book, The Grand Old Man of Purdue University and Indiana Agriculture, A Biography of William Carroll Latta, by Whitford and Andrew G. Martin.

Next week we will explore the establishment of the Cooperative Extension System within USDA and its relationship to land-grant institutions.

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