Select Page

“An Act donating Public Lands”

There is curious language in a deed The Legal Genealogist stumbled across doing the usual late-night-poke-around-in-the-records that has become almost a routine.

The grantee in the deed was one James K. P. Newman. On the 14th of March 1882, he acquired 60 acres of land in Scioto County, Ohio, for $90. It’s a perfectly ordinary deed in many respects — with the usual metes and bounds description of the land and the grant to “have and to hold said premises with the appurtenances unto the said James K. P. Newman his heirs and assigns forever” that’s the usual legal boilerplate.1

What’s curious about it is the language at the beginning of the deed: “in pursuance of an act of the Congress of the United States approved February 18 AD 1871. Entitled an act to cede to the State of Ohio the unsold lands in the Virginia Military District … and also in pursuance of an act of the general assembly of the State of Ohio. which was passed and which took effect on April Third AD 1873. …”2

And, of course, the identity of the grantor — shown in the deed as “the board of Trustees of the Ohio State University.”3

So what’s this all about? Turns out you can find language like that, referencing different federal acts and different state statutes, from many different colleges, all over the United States. And it’s all because of something called the Morrill Acts.

In the dark days of the Civil War, Representative Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont continued to look forward to a time when the light of education could shine throughout the land.

Morrill had been the sponsor of a bill in 1857 to give federal land to the states, from the sale of which public colleges teaching industrial and agricultural subjects could be funded. The bill had passed in 1859 but was vetoed by President Buchanan.4

This concept of education suited to the working class — differing from the scientific and liberal arts focus of the private colleges and religious emphasis of sectarian colleges — was surprisingly radical. One of its proponents, Professor Jonathan Baldwin Turner of Illinois, had had his home burned to the ground in the controversy.5

Morrill didn’t accept the defeat of 1859, and reintroduced his bill in the Congress facing the reality of the Civil War with one critical change that secured its passage: in addition to teaching agricultural and industrial subjects, the colleges funded by the law would have to teach military tactics.6

The act became law on 2 July 1862.7 It gave the states 30,000 acres for each Senator and representative in Congress, so the more populated states at the time benefited more from the law.8 And it provided:

That all moneys derived from the sale of the lands … shall be invested …; and that the moneys so invested shall constitute a perpetual fund, … to the endowment, support, and maintenance of at least one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies, and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, … in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.9

And so began what are known as the land-grant colleges — and the deeds those grants caused. In Ohio, the Ohio Agricultural and Mechanical College was established in 1870 under the 1862 federal act. It had just 24 students when it opened its doors in the fall of 1873, and graduated its first six students in 1878 — the same year that it changed its name to The Ohio State University.10

The 1871 federal act referenced in the Newman deed of 1882 gave Ohio all the unsold lands in what had been the Virginia military district11 — some 4.2 million acres of land in Ohio that Virginia had reserved in order to give bounty land to Revolutionary War veterans.12 The state law then provided that the title to said lands is hereby vested in the trustees of the Ohio Agricultural and Mechanical College, for the benefit of said college.13

So the land being sold by the University by way of that deed was Virginia Military District land, ceded to Ohio by the federal government, titled to the University by the state, and the proceeds were then put into the endowment fund that, even today, supports OSU and its educational mission.

And whenever you see language like that — and a grantor that’s an educational institution — take a look at the Land-Grant Act for the explanation of how that transaction came to be … and why.

By the way, as you can imagine, the 1862 act did exclude the Confederate States — “No State while in a condition of rebellion or insurrection against the government of the United States shall be entitled to the benefit of this act.”14 But they were brought into the land grant fold by the act of 1890, which required admission of students without regard to race but permitted the establishment of separate institutions “for white and colored students.”15

That law led to the founding of many of today’s historically black colleges and universities. But that’s a post for another day…


  1. Scioto County, Ohio, Deed Book 63: 270, Ohio State University to James K. P. Newman, 14 March 1882; County Recorder, Portsmouth; digital images, “Ohio, Scioto County Recorder, 1885-1887, Land and property records,” ( : accessed 13 May 2013).
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Wikipedia (, “Morrill Land-Grant Acts,” rev. 10 Mar 2013.
  5. Wikipedia (, “Jonathan Baldwin Turner,” rev. 13 Jan 2013.
  6. Wikipedia (, “Morrill Land-Grant Acts,” rev. 10 Mar 2013.
  7. “An Act donating Public Lands to the several States and Territories which may provide Colleges for the Benefit of Agriculture and the Mechanic Arts,” 12 Stat. 503 (2 Jul 1862), 7 U.S.C. §301 et seq.
  8. Ibid., §1.
  9. Ibid., §4.
  10. Ohio State History and Traditions,” Ohio State University ( : accessed 13 May 2013).
  11. “An Act to cede to the State of Ohio the unsold Lands in the Virginia military District in said State,” 16 Stat. 416 (18 Feb 1871).
  12. “Historical Information,” A Guide to the Virginia Military District Land Surveys, 1787-1823, Library of Virginia ( : accessed 13 May 2013).
  13. “An Act accepting the act of Congress of the United States, … ceding to the state of Ohio certain lands in the Virginia Military District…,” Revised Statutes of the State of Ohio … in Force January 1, 1883, vol. III (Cincinnati : Wrightson Printing Co., 1887), 762; digital images, Google Books ( : accessed 13 May 2013).
  14. “An Act donating Public Lands…,” 12 Stat. 503, §5, paragraph Sixth.
  15. “An act to apply a portion of the proceeds of the public lands to the more complete endowment and support of the colleges …,” 26 Stat. 417 (30 Aug 1890), 7 U.S.C. § 321 et seq.
Print Friendly, PDF & Email