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11.06.2010

26 Heroes: Prof. Paul Gates, Scholar. Historian

I do not know what provided the initial inspiration to undertake this exploration of the Cornell land grant in Wisconsin.

As a high school student in Madison, I think I noticed that there was a "Cornell" on the Wisconsin map, but the idea that there was a connection to the University did not cross my mind.

Years later, it might have been a short online paragraph or Michael Whalen’s explanation of the Cornell’s early years that got me curious.  But however you approach the subject, one is quickly steered toward Prof. Paul Gates’s seminal, “The Wisconsin Pine Lands of Cornell University: A Study in Land Policy and Absentee Ownership (Cornell Univ Press, 1943; reprinted, Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 1965). Amazon.com lists used copies of this out of print book for $75.00 and $99.95.

Everything changes with this book.

Bill Cronon is the Frederick Jackson Turner and Vilas Research Professor of History, Geography, and Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison (you've seen him in Ken Burns's documentaries). Dr. Cronon has this to say about Prof. Gates and his "classic" on the Cornell land grant: “If you haven't read it, you should run, not walk, to figure out how to obtain a copy from a good library, since it should answer many of the questions you may still have about this fascinating subject.  It's a first-rate piece of scholarship by the most important twentieth-century scholar of the history of U.S. public lands.”

Dr. Cronon is worth getting to know as well.

[from Cornell Chronicle obituary]
"Cornell Professor Emeritus Paul Wallace Gates died January. 5, 1999, in Oakland, CA at age 97. He was an authority on the American West and US public land policies and an ardent conservationist who spoke out against using public lands for private gain. Gates' History of Public Land Law Development, published in 1968, immediately became the acknowledged authority for all historical research on US public lands, according to Lawrence Lee, a colleague from San Jose State University. "Paul Gates' career has a unique quality about it in its exceptional focus on one grand topic, US land history," wrote Lee in 1991. He also praised Gates for devoting his post-retirement years to "saving the natural resources on federal lands from profligate exploitation."

Gates taught at Cornell from 1936 until his retirement in 1971 and held two endowed chairs during his tenure: the Goldwin Smith Professorship of American History and the John Stambaugh Professorship of American History. He also chaired Cornell's history department from 1946 to 1956.

Before coming to Cornell, Gates taught at Harvard, where he also earned his Ph.D. in 1930, and at Bucknell. At Harvard he studied under Frederick Merk, a former student of Frederick Jackson Turner, who is considered one of the great American historians. In a "festschrift," or collection of tributes produced in 1968, Merk lauded Gates for being a stimulating teacher and "a producer of producing scholars." He noted that Gates' 23 Ph.D. students had already gone on to write 21 excellent books.
"In a sense, Gates was a student of Turner's," said Richard Polenberg, Cornell's current Goldwin Smith Professor of American History. He called Gates "a remarkable individual, an inspiration to colleagues who actively pursued his research and writing well into his 90s."

He was a historical expert for the justice department on cases involving Native American land claims and a consultant for the Public Land Law Review Commission.

In addition to the seminal book on land law cited by Lee, Gates' principal books include: The Illinois Central Railroad and Its Colonization Work; The Wisconsin Pine Lands of Cornell University; Fifty Million Acres: Conflict over Kansas Land Policy, 1854--1890; The Farmers' Age, Agriculture, 1815--1860; Agriculture and the Civil War; Land and Law in California, Essays on Land Policies; and Jeffersonian Dream, Studies in American History."

On my last visit to Madison and the Wisconsin Historical Society I had the pleasure of meeting Kathy Borkowski, director of the WHS Press. She expressed hope that Gate's book on Cornell's pinelands  might be reprinted in time for the Morrill Act's 150th annivesrary in 2012.

Me too.


American Historical Association tribute