Why 1817 Matters

When was the University of Michigan founded? It’s a seemingly simple question that requires more context than you might think. This founding 411 is an easy-to-understand overview of the university’s earliest days, and why U-M celebrated its bicentennial in 2017.
The University of Michigan celebrated its bicentennial in 2017 – the 200th year since its founding. But you may also have seen an old U-M seal that says “1837.”

And you may have heard the University actually started in Detroit – or that no, it actually didn’t.

And that the first students didn’t enroll until 1841.

But that the University as we know it started in 1852.

And that U-M held a centennial celebration – its 100th birthday – in 1937, not 1917.

So when did the University actually get started?

Below are answers to some not-so-frequently asked questions…

What happened in 1817?

On Aug. 26, 1817, in Detroit, the governor of the Michigan Territory, Lewis Cass, and the Territory’s several judges – who were more like legislators than judges – enacted a bill to establish a University of Michigania, also called a Catholepistemiad. (That was a word Augustus Woodward, one of the judges, made up; he said it meant “system of universal science.” But nobody used it. Most people called the new school the College of Detroit.) A few months later, in February 1818, an instructor named H.M. Dickie was hired to organize the first classes.

Was it a real university?

Not the kind of university that U-M is today, or anything close. It was more like a high school before there were high schools – an academy for students to get more training before they went on to one of the few actual American colleges of the day, such as Harvard, Princeton or Yale. The students learned Latin, Greek and some science. There was also an elementary-type school for younger students.

But the little University of Michigania could say one thing that Harvard couldn’t: it was a public institution, not private. It was paid for largely with public funds – mostly the proceeds from selling land given for the purpose by the federal government and three Native American tribes: the Ojibwe, Odawa and Bodewadimi. And its sole purpose was to serve the public good.

Was there a campus in Detroit?

Only if a single building can be termed a campus. It was on Bates Street, a block or two from the site of Cadillac Square. Most of the money to erect the building came from private donors who wanted the town, which counted about 1,200 people, to have a real school.

Etching of Catholepistemiad, Detroit Building
What happened to it?

It was reorganized in 1821, but there was never enough money to actualize what the founders had planned – a Territory-wide system of free public primary schools with the University at its head. By the late 1820s, the sole teacher at the academy had to be paid out of student subscriptions. And by 1834, the governing board had to rent out the Bates Street building to a couple of private schoolmasters.

But the board also sold some of its remaining land, and set the money aside in the name of the University of Michigan.

So what happened in 1837?

By then Michigan was a state. (The Territory’s people approved a state constitution in 1835, but a boundary dispute with Ohio delayed admission to the Union until 1837.) A Congregationalist minister and state legislator named John Davis Pierce was asked to write a plan for a state school system, and he did – with a reconstituted University of Michigan under a Board of Regents appointed by the governor. On March 18, 1837, the state legislature approved Pierce’s plan. A gift of 40 acres from land developers in Ann Arbor – the 40 acres we call the Diag – sealed the decision about where the institution would go.

So the University was started in 1837?
U-M Seal, 1837

Well, it was re-started then. But the assets and records of the old University of Michigania were turned over to the new regents – a link to the old school in Detroit that would be remembered only much later.

Thanks to a financial slump that hit the western states especially hard, it took four more years to construct buildings, hire professors and, finally, to admit some students.

But for many decades, 1837 was considered the University’s founding year – especially in Ann Arbor, which was proud of its growing claim to fame and happy to promote itself as the University’s one and only home.

And “1837″ was placed on the University’s official seal.

When did the official date get changed from 1837 to 1817, and why?
U-M Seal, 1817

The Michigan Supreme Court made that decision in 1930, when it ruled that the University had been a continuous legal entity from the original founding in Detroit through its modern incarnation. (In fact, the same court had ruled the same way as early as 1856.) The Board of Regents accepted that ruling as the last word and the year on the seal eventually was changed.

But the University still threw itself a big party in 1937 – the centennial of its reestablishment in Ann Arbor.

So what, exactly, are we celebrating in 2017?

Bicentennial Logo

We’ll celebrate the founding of the University of Michigan as a public corporation devoted to the pursuit of knowledge and the education of students. The form of the school known by that name has changed several times. But the public corporation called the University of Michigan – “the only legal entity of that name,” in the words of one authority on the matter – has been a single, continuous thing since 1817.

Adapted from “Wait … when did the University start?” by James Tobin, Michigan Today (Nov. 16, 2013). For a more detailed examination of the people and politics behind the founding date, see “The War of 1817“ on the U-M Heritage Project site.