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People are seen in a crowd in front of a tall modern apartment-style building surrounding a totem pole with a large bird on the top tilted on its side being held by cords;  the pole looks like it is going to be raised.
People gather as a totem pole is raised at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, B.C., in April 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

How Commonwealth universities profited from Indigenous dispossession through land grants

Animated by social movements such as #RhodesMustFall and #BlackLivesMatter, universities today have entered a period of critical self-reflection on their histories.

The renaming of campus buildings, removal of statues and re-branding of whole universities are all evidence of this trend towards uncovering higher education’s colonial legacies.

Yet this emphasis on campus iconography, or even on the campus itself, skirts a deeper history of universities and empire.

Most public universities founded in the 19th century — especially in what is now Canada, the United States and Aotearoa New Zealand, but also in South Africa and Australia — were large-scale landowners.

Land for endowment capital

Public universities received substantial tracts of expropriated Indigenous territory from their governments that could be leased or sold to generate endowment capital.

Divided into plots and parcels distant from the universities themselves, these lands covered millions of acres. Financing universities through land brought these institutions into the arena of settler-Indigenous land contestation. This is the subject of my research.

Some of this history has been excavated in the recent and influential investigative journalism project, Land-Grab Universities, created and led by historian Robert Lee and journalist Tristan Ahtone.

It locates the public lands, belonging to tribal nations, apportioned to U.S. states to fund universities under the Morrill Act of 1862. Almost 11 million acres would eventually come under educational stewardship, more land than exists in New Jersey, Connecticut and Delaware combined. (A million acres is roughly equal to 4,050 square kilometres.)

Aerial view of a university seen with a broad landscape surrounding it.
In the 1870s, Cornell University, in present-day Ithaca, N.Y., was selling lands in Wisconsin. (Shutterstock)

Land rents to fund universities

Settler societies around the world, especially those under British rule, relied upon the dispossession of Indigenous groups to fund institutions of higher learning.

What made land-granting an attractive financial strategy for universities? First, young colonial legislatures had little available capital. Allocating land as a substitute for coin currency (specie), in the hope that it might increase in value, was pragmatic.

Using land rents to fund universities also followed a longstanding pattern established by the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

Settler societies carried on this custom on a larger scale. As early as 1619, the British government assigned 10,000 acres to endow a “Henrico College” in Virginia. Warfare with the Powhatan Confederacy, an Indigenous alliance of Algonquian-speaking Peoples, and underpopulation ensured that this institution was short-lived.

University of Toronto

Across British North America, later Canada, three universities collectively received at least 500,000 acres permanently and over two million acres temporarily.

Image shows one page from a leger showing  a list of geographic locations and land parcels.
Page from ‘Tabular Statement of Annual Sales of the University Lands in the various Townships comprised in the Endowment,’ from Final Report of the Commissioners of Inquiry into the Affairs of King’s College University and Upper Canada College, 1852. (Quebec: Rollo Campbell, By Order of the Legislative Assembly, 1852)., Author provided (no reuse)

Records held by the University of Toronto show that, in 1798, the Provincial Legislature of Upper Canada set aside 549,000 acres of land — an area three times larger than the present-day Toronto — for the “maintenance of various educational establishments, including a University.” About 225,000 acres eventually went to University of Toronto’s predecessor, King’s College, in 1828.

These land parcels spread over much of Upper Canada, although the majority of them were situated south of Georgian Bay in districts known to settlers as “Midland, Newcastle, Home, Gore and London.”

As the contemporary Indigenous land map “Native Land Digital” acknowledges, these southern parcels fell within the traditional territories of the Mississauga Ojibwa, Anishinaabe, Haudenosaunee and Attiwonderonk (Neutral) Peoples. Indigenous Peoples have an enduring presence on these lands today.

Other Canadian universities

A few decades later, Manitoban legislators endowed their provincial university with 150,000 acres of recently dispossessed Indigenous land. By 1891, the University of Manitoba used its own “Land Board” to manage this property.

Image of a signed document entitled 'Manitoba University lands, Application to purchase' with a paragraph of text describing conditions of the purchase. Handwriting on the form details the name, town, lot numbers, number of acres, rate, and purchase amount.
Application to purchase Manitoba University lands in Portage la Prairie, Man. (Caitlin Harvey/University of Manitoba Archives & Special Collections), Author provided (no reuse)

In British Columbia, the province’s University Endowment Act (1907) reserved up to two million acres for a body of higher learning.

The University of British Columbia, founded in 1908, exchanged this land for 3,000 acres of more valuable, unceded Musqueam territory near Point Grey in 1920. Today, this land is a provincially run, unincorporated community named the University Endowment Lands.

Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia, South Africa

In the Southern Hemisphere, government officials in Aotearoa New Zealand relied on land endowments for nearly all their colonial universities.

Most land transfer from Māori tribes to European occupiers took place between 1840 and 1890. These years were, not coincidentally, these islands’ most significant periods of development in higher education. About 500,000 acres moved from Maori communities to the eventual colleges of the University of New Zealand. As of 2019, the University of Canterbury remains one of the country’s top public landowners.


Read more: Explainer: the significance of the Treaty of Waitangi


While university promoters in Australia and South Africa first relied on mineral profits (especially gold) before looking for institutional funding via land, certain universities still received significant land endowments.

Under its Act of Incorporation in 1874, the University of Adelaide gained 50,000 acres in South Australia’s Tatiara and Wirreanda districts. Mining magnates such as Cecil Rhodes, meanwhile, offered gifts of land to young South African institutions.

Universities reshape environments

Globally, universities gained the permanent use of over 15 million acres — a landmass about triple the size of Wales — of Indigenous land by 1910. This is a conservative estimate that includes at least a million permanent acres in Canada and Aotearoa New Zealand.

Financing universities through land made these institutions no small piece of the process of Indigenous dispossession. In addition, new public universities later institutionalized branches of knowledge like agricultural science whose products, both intellectual and technological, reshaped surrounding environments.

Cover shows cows in a field and the title Intensive Dairying in New Zealand and Wisconsin.
Intellectual and technical products of university disciplines have also shaped colonial societies. (Caitlin Harvey/'Intensive Dairying in New Zealand and Wisconsin,' by H.L. Russell & T. Macklin. University of Wisconsin, 1925.), Author provided (no reuse)

Inventions such as seed varietals and mining technology profoundly transformed landscapes.

They also diverged from Indigenous ways of being and thinking about land, while simultaneously entrenching settlers’ relationship to the land — actions that have had lasting political and ecological legacies.

Exploring university landholding reminds us that the mechanisms sustaining empire and settler-colonial structures aren’t always obvious. In the 19th century, using land to fund universities was a fragmented, but far-reaching, pattern of institutional development.

It’s a pattern that deserves further exploration — not only for what it might reveal about universities, but for its potential as a window into the operation of empire, colonialism and Indigenous dispossession.