Land-Grab Universities

Research project
American History

In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, which distributed public domain lands to raise funds for fledgling colleges across the United States. Now thriving, land-grant universities seldom ask who paid for their good fortune. Disguised as a federal donation, the Morrill Act functioned as an Indigenous wealth transfer. It launched universities with endowments expropriated from Indigenous nations.

This project located more than 99% of all Morrill Act acres, identified their original Indigenous inhabitants and caretakers, and researched the principal raised from their sale in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It reconstructed approximately 10.7 million acres taken from nearly 250 tribes, bands and communities through over 160 violence-backed land cessions—and estimated that the land was worth about a half a billion 2020 dollars.

The historical geodatabase, interactive digital visualizations, and publications produced by the project reveal how the Morrill Act turned expropriated Indigenous land into college endowments.

The project was carried out for High Country News in collaboration with Tristan Ahtone, Margaret Pearce, Kalen Goodluck, Geoff McGee, Cody Leff, Katherine Lanpher, and Taryn Salinas.


The website,, features interactive maps and background information, as well as links to the methodology, data (with a user guide), general bibliography, and related publications.

For discussions of the investigation and findings with co-author Tristan Ahtone, see “Land-Grab Universities” (High County News, March 2020), “Ask Who Paid for America's Universities” (New York Times, May 2020), and “Exposing How US Universities Profited from Indigenous Land” (Global Investigative Journalism Network, May 2020).


Coverage of “Land-Grab Universities” has appeared in Forbes, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Indian Country Today, the Takeaway, and others.

Media Indigena, The Red Nation, and Writing West devoted podcasts to the project.

The Pulitzer Center hosted a pair of webinars devoted to the investigation and the data.

The investigation has been cited in calls to address past and present systemic inequity at the University of Florida and the University of California

Ongoing research drawing on the project’s data is emerging. See, for example, “How a Civil War-era law turned Native American land into university endowments”, “Seizing and Selling Tribal Land in Kansas Funded Scores of American Universities”, and “Recognizing Indigenous Lands & Peoples: OSU’s Land Grant Legacy”.



Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting; Fund for Investigative Journalism