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25 Numbers I: Counting to 990,000

If there are any readers with a suspicion that this author possesses a tad of nerdiness – your concern is well founded. So pardon this posting as I try to account for the 990,000 acres that the Morrill Land Grant Act subscribed to the Empire State.

The Morrill Land Grant of 1862 gave each state 30,000 acres of land or paper scrip for each representative in Congress as of 1860 (states at war with the Union were excluded for justifiable reasons). As the most populous state and with thirty in Congress, New York was entitled to 990,000 or roughly ten percent of the total grant. We know of Ezra Cornell's investment of 500,000 acres in northern Wisconsin. Where did the rest go?

First of all, New York never got the full 990,000. The scrip was allocated in 160 acre units or sections which any self-respected Cornell engineer knows does not divide evenly into 990,000. So Cornell lost the first 80 acres due to a rounding error. Down to 989,920. [See posting requesting the 80 back!]

New York State sold 76,000 at $.85 an acre in 1864, the proceeds going to the Land Scrip Fund at Cornell University as prescribed by the law. Then things got fun.

Most states sold the land or scrip and deposited the proceeds into a permanent endowment. Since Cornell University had no interest in investing the scrip in Western lands, Ezra Cornell offered. So Ezra paid for the scrip equivalent to 913,920 acres. First he purchased 100,000 at $.50/acres and then the balance of 813,920 for $.60 an acre (half down and half upon the future sale of the invested land). This brought the Land Scrip Fund to $602,792 and fulfilled the Morrill Land Grant Act provisions.

But instead of simply paying for this scrip with the purchase price going to the Land Scrip Fund, Ezra offered to invest the scrip and turn over all net proceeds to a separate Cornell Endowment Fund, thus providing a second round of profits to the University and ensuring the maximum flexibility for these funds to support any part of the institution, not just limited to the teaching of agriculture and mechanical arts as required by the Morrill Act.

Ezra was not close to being done funding his university.

Ezra eventually managed to secure land with 521,120 acres of scrip beginning in 1866. The stress and difficulty of the management and administration of the remote, non-contiguous plats limited what Ezra could undertake and by 1874, Ezra was dead.

He left 292,800 acres of scrip unused.

In all, Ezra's selection of prime timber land (only 11,968 acres were obtained in Kansas and Minnesota) and Henry Sage's subsequent stewardship and sale of this land and stumpage (the price charged by Cornell to companies or operators for the right to harvest timber on that land) by the early 1900s had netted the Cornell Endowment Fund $5,051,000 or an average of $9.69/acre. Remember that initially $1 an acre was thought to be a good price!

If Ezra had the energy to invest the remaining 292,800 acres of scrip, it might have added $2.8 million to the endowment.

All in all a remarkable deal for Ezra, his university, and New York State.

(Stay tuned for the continuing Numbers Saga as I try to account for each sale of the 521,120 acres)


Old forester said...

We would love to see who bought all those acres.
Second, old local plat books show some land in Ezra's name and most of it in the University's name. Do you know why?

Dan Mansoor said...

(1) There is some excellent information about the sales of the Cornell Land in Paul Gates's book. One of my future postings will detail who initially purchased these lands from Cornell.
(2) Beginning in 1866 after purchasing the scrip from New York State, Cornell (often with wife Mary) then bought land in Wisconsin that would ultimately benefit the University. As Ezra became ill (he died in 1874), he transferred the ownership of these lands to Cornell University with the hope the University would hold on to the land long enough to benefit from its expected long term appreciation.

Anonymous said...

So, what's with the unused scrip of nearly 293 thousand? Can it still be used? Was there an expiration on the scrip?? I hear you saying he became burdened and died, but how unlike Ezra to squander opportunity like this. There must be more to the story! Lots of questions beg your able attention, and resolution! :) Thanks!!

Daniel Mansoor said...

Thanks again to M Whalen for his assistance in answering this excellent question.

It states that "Mr. CORNELL was thus enabled to dispose of all the remaining land scrip for $357,651, realizing about ninety four cents per acre." (Third paragraph up from the bottom.)