The University of Michigan is nearing a milestone. Michigan's oldest public university celebrates its bicentennial this weekend.
August 26th, 1817 was the day Lewis Cass, then governor of the Michigan territory, and the so-called judges of the territory, decided to establish an educational system headed up by the “University of Michigania,” a full 20 years before Michigan became a state.
The history of how the University of Michigan grew from a single building in Detroit to a sprawling institution headquartered in Ann Arbor is a complicated story, according to Jim Tobin. Tobin is a journalism professor at Miami of Ohio, who received his PhD in history from the University of Michigan and was a longtime reporter for The Detroit News.
“What they established was a corporate entity that had that name, there was no actual school yet, that took a little longer,” Tobin said. “That’s what got started on this date in 1817.
Tobin says before that point, education had been relegated to tutors, a few common and church schools. In 1817 Detroit wasn’t yet a big city, but the territory was growing and the need for a public system of education was being recognized.
Classes began in 1818, taught by a single instructor at a single building in Detroit. Tobin says in those days the school was nothing like the University of Michigan we know today.
The land that the “University of Michigania” was founded on was purchased with proceeds from the sale of land ceded to the territory by Native American tribes, Tobin says.
According to Tobin, those tribes ceded land they held to the Michigan territory, In the Treaty of Fort Meigs. Territorial officials then sold the land to raise money to create an education system. Some of that money was used to purchase a plot of land on a street in Detroit where the University of Michigania was then founded.
Tobin says the school struggled until after Michigan joined the union as a state in 1837. That was the year a new University of Michigan was established. A group of landholders in Ann Arbor agreed to give away 40 acres that became the University of Michigan “diag,” and Ann Arbor out-bid other towns to host the school.
“The whole thing got re-started in Ann Arbor,” Tobin said. “But it really isn’t then until 1841, because of a financial crisis, that classes start to be taught, buildings are put up and the first classes are begun.… It was known as the University of Michigan from that point forward.”
So, the bicentennial celebrates a milestone birthday of the legal corporate public entity called the University of Michigan that was established in 1817.