Breaking the Silence on Cornell’s Morrill Act Lands

What follows is an August 19th letter written to Cornell President Martha Pollack and copied to other senior administrators as well as the Chair of the Board. It followed on the heels of research on injustices long overlooked in the Morrill Act of 1862 that gave 11 million acres of land to support state land grant colleges. Much of the land was Indian land secured violently before 1862 or through fraudulent transactions. Cornell University was the largest beneficiary of these land grants.

We hope the letter below speaks for itself. It was signed by 106 people, mostly from the faculty and alumni/ae of Cornell’s Dept. of Development Sociology. Upon reading the letter and background research by High Country News, to whom we owe a great debt, you may wish to pursue similar initiatives with Land Grant administrators in your state. Thus far, Cornell’s President and Provost have responded favorably, though the exchange is in its early stages.

Dear Dr. Pollack:

We are writing this letter on behalf of a group of Cornell alumni from Development Sociology, current and former faculty from the same discipline, and several other Cornellians who have learned of the letter and asked if they might sign. Had we intentionally reached out to other departments, the list of signatories would surely have been many times longer than the 100+ appearing below. We have also been in touch with the Director of Cornell’s AIISP about the letter (copied here).

In recent weeks, we have become aware of the investigative work undertaken by journalists/researchers for High Country News, documenting how post-secondary institutions and others in the United States were allocated nearly 11 million acres of land under the provisions of the 1862 Morrill Act ( As you likely know, Cornell was the single largest beneficiary of that land allocation, totaling just under one million acres spread over 15 states, with about three quarters of that total located in Wisconsin and California. The Morrill Act lands were Indian land and, with respect to the Cornell allocation, many American Indian tribes were affected. We’re aware that the federal government “acquired” these territories and then made them available via the Morrill Act to the states with the express purpose that post-secondary institutions would have access to a source of funds that could be used to build their endowments and fund their operations. The institutions sold the bulk of these lands. Other lands were not sold but continue to generate revenues from leasing and from surface and subsurface rights to the present day. Just how much Cornell, in particular, has derived from its share of the lands remains to be determined.

The lands assembled by the federal government and allocated under the Morrill Act resulted from the dispossession of American Indian nations of their traditional lands. This has been described as a process of confiscation and violence-backed treaty-making by High Country News and referenced in other credible outlets such as the New York Times, Forbes, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. While there are variations on a case-by-case basis, in general it is not a pretty story. The government took the land for which it paid little or nothing, from tribes with little bargaining power, that were impoverished, and that were sometimes subject to threats to withhold rations and other benefits if they did not comply. If treaties were negotiated involving the “surrender” of lands, in many cases the treaties were not ratified by the federal government and their reciprocal obligations ignored. Further research is required to document precisely the location of each of Cornell’s land grants, which Indian nations were affected, the circumstances under which the lands were taken, and the financial benefit that accrued to the university from those grants in the past 150+ years.

While Cornell is one step removed from the original dispossession process, it has very much benefited from the Indian lands that were distributed via the Morrill Act. This benefit was particularly important in the early years after the university’s founding in 1865, when the land revenues combined with Ezra Cornell’s gift of $500,000 made up a very substantial portion of Cornell’s income at the time.

It is striking that, as far as we know, the university has never acknowledged this aspect of its history. Sadly, the best-known histories of Cornell, written by Bishop and by Altschuler/Kramnick, fail to inform readers about the extent to which Cornell’s foundation is built in large measure upon the fruits of the illegitimate dispossession of American Indian nations from their traditional territories. Even your recent statement announcing measures to address systemic racism at Cornell fails to mention this most obvious example of institutional racism at Cornell, from which all members of the Cornell community, past and present, have benefited. It is an unacknowledged and unaddressed history that casts a shadow over the reputation of the university and the coveted degrees it bestows upon its graduates, including our own. While many of us were at Cornell when issues of racism came to the fore in the 1960’s, such as the cross burnings and the discrimination against students of colour, some of whom occupied Willard Straight Hall, it is most unfortunate we were unaware of Cornell’s history with respect to American Indian nations when we were students. More tragically, the university seemed unaware of this history as well.

Many universities in the United States and abroad have had the moral courage to address aspects of their history which tied them to slavery, Cornell among them. They have engaged in respectful dialogue with descendants of the affected peoples and have developed and implemented recommendations that not only recognize the past but also take steps to confer concrete benefits as part of a process of reconciliation. We know several Land Grant Universities (South Dakota State, Colorado State University, and others) seeking to make amends through research, land restoration, scholarships, and directing annual proceeds from Morrill-related revenues to benefit programming at the university and to support Indigenous students. Public acknowledgements are no less important. The American Indian and Indigenous Studies Department at Michigan State University has incorporated language into its land acknowledgement statement that recognizes the “indelible relationship between the creation of Land Grant institutions [and] the simultaneous and ongoing expropriation of Indigenous Lands” (

There is much that Cornell should do in this regard, and without delay. We urge you in the strongest possible terms to address the inconvenient truth that lies at the origins of Cornell University, by establishing a process that would include respectful engagement with the American Indian nations affected by its sizeable land grant. The faculty and alumni of your own distinguished American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program have much to contribute to a reimagined relationship with the Indigenous descendants of the lands in question and should be given leadership in whatever unfolds. If deemed useful, our group of alumni have experience and expertise – some of us have worked over many years on issues affecting Indigenous peoples in the United States, Canada and other parts of the world.

We recognize that you have made Black Lives Matter a core focus of your administration, an emphasis which is consistent with the work of Cornell faculty, students and alumni who address the disenfranchisement of many peoples around the world in keeping with Cornell’s educational mission. The issue about which we write has been ignored for too long. The current environment is favourable, thanks to convictions and conscience arising around the national, indeed global, Black Lives Matter movement which we are gratified to see Cornell take so seriously. It must do no less with Native American peoples.

Writing on behalf of the Development Sociology alumni group and friends, we are:

Dr. Fred Wien, Professor Emeritus, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia  (

Dr. Charles Geisler, Professor Emeritus, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York  (