Justin Smith Morrill ensured the existence of land-grant universities in the United States.
John Wesley Hoyt made sure there was one of them in Wyoming.
The 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act -- President Abraham Lincoln signed it into law on July 2, 1862 -- marks a significant milestone for land-grant institutions, including the University of Wyoming, whose roots can be traced to the revolutionary works of Morrill, a U.S. representative and senator from Vermont who believed federal funding should be used to support higher education in each state.
Today, UW is one of 106 universities in the U.S. and its associated territories that carry out Morrill’s vision of teaching practical agriculture, science and engineering.
“Nothing has had a greater impact on higher education in America more than the Morrill Act and the creation of the land-grant university,” says UW President Tom Buchanan. “It was the land-grant university that made education accessible to all citizens of the U.S., and public land-grant universities are among the most affordable and relevant today.
“The University of Wyoming was established as a land-grant university in 1886 and our mission now is the same as it was then: To provide the highest quality education possible for the people of Wyoming. We’re proud of the legacy of the land-grant system and even prouder to be one of the finest land-grant universities in the nation.”
Upon enactment, the Morrill Act funded educational institutions by granting federally-controlled lands to the states -- but not territories, like Wyoming -- to develop or sell to raise funds for the establishment and endowment of universities.
That’s where Hoyt comes in.
With the Morrill Act as his compass, Hoyt set out shortly after being appointed as the territory’s governor by President Rutherford B. Hayes to establish a land-grant school on Wyoming’s high plains.
“What John Hoyt said was, ‘Why should people be denied the opportunity for a college education at a land-grant university just because they happen to live in a territory and not in a state?’” says Phil Roberts, a UW associate professor of history who specializes in the history of Wyoming and the American West. “So, Congress changed the law in the early 1880s to authorize territories to receive land-grant university lands.”
At the urging of Stephen Downey, a prominent Laramie lawyer whom Roberts says “didn’t see a lot of future in being home to the penitentiary,” Hoyt settled on Laramie as the site for a university and worked with one of his gubernatorial successors, Francis E. Warren, to complete the process of creating the school.
During the 1886 legislative session, Warren was authorized to hire F.O. Sawin to select up to 72 pieces of federal lands on behalf of the university. Though Sawin chose some lands that were “as worthless then as they are now,” Roberts says he also made a few fortuitous selections.
“One section turned out to be the university tract on which the first discovery well was drilled at Big Muddy Oilfield. That didn’t happen until 1916, years later, and there’s no way he could have known there was oil there,” Roberts says. “It was a lucky shot but it kept UW in royalty money. During the 1920s, there was a substantial amount of income from that land that kept UW afloat while the agricultural economy was flat on its back.
“That’s why the university was able to build what’s now the Aven Nelson Building, what was then the university library, and Half Acre Gym, which, at the time, was the state-of-the-art gymnasium in this area.”
While Sawin was scouring the territory for university lands, a process that continued into the 20th century and included other surveyors, the university’s first board of trustees pondered the future of the school. “They took a look at Hoyt and said, ‘Well, gee, this guy, he’s a lawyer, he’s a medical doctor, he’s a former editor of an agricultural journal. Hey, we’ll make him the president.’” Roberts says.
Months later, on Sept. 27, 1886, the cornerstone was laid at Old Main to mark UW’s beginning. The first class of 42 students began the following year.
But Hoyt’s work wasn’t done.
At Wyoming’s Constitutional Convention of 1889, Hoyt argued to keep the university in Laramie -- Roberts says some legislators were undecided about the school’s permanent home but Hoyt stressed that it would be a “waste” to re-locate UW since Old Main was already built -- and authored a prophetic article on education in the state constitution.
“He’s the one who we can thank for putting in that statement that says, ‘Tuition at the university shall be nearly as free as possible.’ What a lot of people don’t realize when they read that language is that that’s not a charge to the university or to the trustees. That’s a charge to the legislature to make sure that the university is funded sufficiently to ensure that tuition shall be nearly as free as possible,” Roberts says.
He adds, “I’ve always contended that the Hathaway Scholarship program, in many respects, is following through with the vision of John Hoyt. It’s really in the spirit of John Hoyt.”
Hoyt Hall, which opened in 1916, four years after Hoyt’s death, is named in honor of the school’s first president.
The mission of the land-grant universities was expanded by the Hatch Act of 1887, which provided federal funds to establish a series of agricultural experiment stations in each state. The outreach mission was further expanded by the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 to include cooperative extension.
As UW prepares to welcome its 125th class of students in the fall, Roberts says Wyoming’s only university continues to deliver on the promise of its land-grant mission.
“Unlike other states, Wyoming has been able to consolidate and combine those various land grants and funds so that we’re not confronted with the challenge of trying to operate two or more separate universities. I think that’s why we’ve been able to maintain a strong university over the years, because we haven’t divided our resources,” he says. “Instead of multiple desperate universities, we have one solid university that was, and still is, a unifier in our state.”