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Out & About: Learn about the Morrill Act’s impact on Indigenous people

  • A portrait of Sen. Justin Smith Morrill by Constantino Brumidi has been restored. (Courtesy Friends of the Morrill Homestead)

  • The Justin Morrill Homestead in Strafford is open from Memorial Day weekend through mid October. (Courtesy photograph) Courtesy photograph

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/7/2022 11:13:32 PM
Modified: 9/7/2022 11:09:46 PM

STRAFFORD — This year, the Land-Grant College Act celebrates its 150th anniversary. Also known as the Morrill Land Grant College Act of 1862 in honor of U.S. Sen. Justin Morrill, of Strafford, the legislation was lauded for expanding access to higher education across the country.

Morrill has been largely celebrated in Vermont, and his Strafford homestead is a popular spot for visitors. However, his legacy is much more complicated. The legislation, named in his honor, came at a high cost to Indigenous people throughout the United States.

Robert Lee, an assistant professor of history at the University of Cambridge, and Tristan Ahtone, a member of the Kiowa Tribe and editor-at-large, at the online, nonprofit magazine Grist, researched and mapped the land owned by Indigenous people that was reallocated by the United States government and the long-term effects that had on various Native American tribes throughout the country. The pair published an article in High Country News titled “Land-grab universities: Expropriated Indigenous land is the foundation of the land-grant university system” in March 2020.

Lee and Ahtone will be among the speakers participating in a program titled “The Morrill Land-Grant Acts and Tribal Lands: What Happened, What’s Next” from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. this Saturday. Other speakers at the event — which is hosted by the Center for Justice Reform at Vermont Law School and Friends of Morrill Homestead — include Hillary Hoffman, co-director of the Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition; Twyla Baker, president of Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College; and Rich Holschuh, spokesperson for the Elnu Abenaki tribe.

The event will take place at Vermont Law School in South Royalton and will be followed by a reception and tours at Justin Morrill Homestead in Strafford. People can attend in person for $20 or online for $10. Registration is required at

Lee answered questions about the Land-Grant Act in an email Q&A, which has been lightly edited for length, style and clarity.

Question: What led you to research the Land-Grant Act of 1862?

Answer: I was researching links between Indigenous dispossession and public land sold by the United States, using digital mapping techniques. Historians had been thinking about universities as beneficiaries of colonialism, mostly in relation to the transatlantic slave trade, but questions were already appearing about land endowments. Scholars knew land-grant colleges got land to sell off to raise endowments, but the details were inaccessible. In 2018, I gave a presentation at Harvard suggesting that GIS (geographic information system mapping) could be used to reveal connections between dispossession and Morrill Act land endowments on an unprecedented scale. Tristan was in the audience, and the High Country News collaboration launched from there. The goal was to transform my initial findings into a comprehensive database of all the land redistributed through the Morrill Act.

Q: How did the Land-Grant Act reflect the way the U.S. government viewed tribal nations and Indigenous people at the time?

A: All of the United States was expropriated Indigenous land and, of course, policymakers were well aware. In general, they viewed its acquisition as part of the United States’ “manifest destiny.” In the 19th century, Congress regularly reported on the amount of Indigenous land seized and how much it cost to acquire. And they debated what to do with it. Sometimes Congress sold the land to raise funds. Sometimes it granted parcels to aid public works or development projects. The Morrill Act was just one of the results — one of thousands of land laws the United States passed to distribute land taken from tribal nations to individuals, corporations, and states. The U.S. still holds hundreds of millions of acres.

Q: It seems like there is a fair bit of irony involved in the Land-Grant Act: The purpose was to help make education more accessible to people in lower socioeconomic classes, by taking land from a very marginalized group. Can you speak a little about that?

A: This is the irony raised by Morrill Act. In popular memory, the act democratically distributed public resources to make higher education more accessible. In practice, it redirected Indigenous resources obtained through violence to make education more accessible, predominantly for white American men. Land-grant universities expanded higher education and fueled valuable scientific discoveries, but not without costs. Recognizing the source of their seed funding raises the question of how to square their colonial legacies with missions that promote equality, diversity and truth-seeking.

Q: Many institutions of higher learning have started to incorporate land acknowledgements into their programming. What else can these institutions, which still benefit financially from the Land-Grant Act, do to reflect on their beginnings?

A: Land-grant universities should incorporate mention of the Morrill Act into their land acknowledgments, and, to their credit, a few have. They could also recognize that this isn’t all in the past. Land-grant universities continue to retain and draw income from these funds.

Acknowledgment is a first step. For example, land-grant universities could do more to attract and support Indigenous students, connect with and partner up with the nations that underwrote their prosperity, create or expand programs and programming in Native American and Indigenous studies or help restore land holdings to tribal nations. Material changes beyond acknowledgments have already started with tuition waivers for Native American students in states like Arizona and California.

Q: The Land-Grant Act is now 150 years old, and thousands of students have graduated from universities established through it. How can those affiliated with those institutions reconcile their achievements with how those universities were founded?

A: Millions — not thousands — of students have graduated, including myself (Ph.D., University of California, Berkeley, 2017). Knowing this history doesn’t diminish anyone’s achievements, but it does alert us to obligations, in particular to encourage our schools to find ways to repay this debt.

Q: Justin Morrill is a celebrated figure in Vermont’s history. How do you think he should be remembered?

A: As a historian, I don’t put much stock in casting historical figures as heroes or villains. Justin Morrill will — and should be — remembered as the sponsor of the Agricultural College Act, warts and all. It was a transformative law with benefits that have gotten a lot of attention and costs that have been mostly forgotten. The popular idea of the Morrill Act as a federal donation is little more than a caricature that conceals as much as it reveals. We can understand Justin Morrill’s impact and legacy much more clearly when we think of it as a wealth transfer.

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at or 603-727-3221.

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