Higher Education in Kentucky: The Early Years 1780-1865 by Evelyn Rowe McGill
1780 800 acres of land granted by Virginia for a Seminary of Learning
The roots of public higher education in
Kentucky began when the state was still part of Virginia. In May 1780
at the urging of Colonel John Todd, a representative from Kentucky, and
his uncle, the Rev. John Todd, Virginia's General Assembly donated
8,000 acres of escheated land formerly owned by British Loyalists for
the purpose of creating "a public school, or seminary of learning".
Thirteen Kentucky citizens, including Colonel Todd were appointed
trustees. Involvement in the Revolutionary War deferred the actual
creation of an educational institution until 1783.
1783 Land Grant Increased
In 1783 the Virginia General Assembly
gave the name, Transylvania Seminary, to the proposed institution and
12,000 additional acres were added to the original appropriation.
Thirteen trustees met near Danville in November 1783.They chose a
Presbyterian minister, Reverend David Rice, as chairman. Despite the
intentions of the group to create a school as soon as possible, lack of
funding delayed their plans.
1785 Transylvania Seminary founded at Danville
In 1785 a public school was finally
founded at Danville in the home of Reverend Rice. The classes at
"Transylvania Seminary" were taught by Reverend James Mitchell. The
board attempted to finance the school with tuition and private
donations. The tuition was insufficient, and the private donations
never materialized. The trustees then petitioned the Virginia General
Assembly, which granted the school one-sixth of the surveyors fees
collected in Kentucky . When Reverend Mitchell moved back to Virginia
in 1786 the school was left without a teacher.
1789 Transylvania Seminary moved to Lexington.
In 1789 the trustees, discouraged by
lack of local support in Danville, decided to move the seminary to
Lexington. Elias Jones was elected to serve as "professor", and plans
were made for adding new staff as the enrollment increased. Because of
disappointing enrollment, Jones' contract was rescinded and the board
of trustees decided to hire a "grammar master" in lieu of a professor.
Isaac Wilson was hired, and the school held its first commencement in
1793 Lexington was made the permanent home of Transylvania Seminary
View of Gratz Park, Lexington, looking north
[Austin Page Lilly collection]
In 1792 a group of prominent citizens
of Lexington donated to Transylvania Seminary three acres of land
located at the site of what is now Gratz Park. The land was donated
with the condition that Lexington be chosen as its permanent location,
a condition the trustees accepted in 1793. At this time the enrollment
of the school began to grow, and the staffing increased.
1794 Presbyterian Academy was founded at Pisgah, near Midway.
Pisgah Presbyterian Church and Academy (Woodford County)
[U.S. Dept. of Interior, Nat'l. Park Service, Historic American Houses Survey collection]
Although Transylvania Seminary received
some state support, the Presbyterians had been influential in the
founding of the college, and had formed its early leadership. They were
dismayed when the Board of Trustees in 1794 appointed its first head
from outside the ranks of the Presbyterians. Harry Toulmin, a Unitarian
minister, was viewed as a deist or worse. The Presbyterians, after a
failed challenge to the election, withdrew their support, and founded
their own seminary at Pisgah in Woodford Country. The first classes
were held in 1797.
1798 Transylvania University was formed from Presbyterian Seminary and Transylvania Seminary
Old Morrison Hall, Kentucky (Transylvania) University, Lexington, ca. 1910
[Nollau F Series Collection, Non-University of Kentucky series]
When Toulmin resigned in 1796, the
Presbyterians began negotiations with the trustees of Transylvania
Seminary for a reunion of the two schools. Because of fears by some
Transylvania trustees that the Presbyterians were attempting another
sectarian takeover, the project was put on hold for two years. However,
financial problems overrode these concerns and in 1797 the two schools
were united by legislative action. The merged schools became
Bacon College, Georgetown, Kentucky (1836): building used until 1839
[Nollau F-Series Collection]
While the Presbyterians were founding
Transylvania University, another development in the history of public
higher education was taking place in Georgetown at a Baptist school. At
that time three faculty members of Georgetown College were on the verge
of dismissal because of their leanings toward the teachings of
Alexander Campbell, one of the founders of the Disciples of Christ. The
three dissidents, with some support from the Disciples of Christ,
formed their own institution, which was named "Bacon College".
1839 Bacon College moved to Harrodsburg.
Bacon College experienced financial
difficulties almost immediately. Its revenues were raised solely from
tuition, and the amount raised did not meet the needs of the college.
In 1839, the trustees decided to raise more money by promising to
relocate the school to the community that raised the most
subscriptions. This turned out to be Mercer County, and in 1839 the
institution moved to Harrodsburg.
1850 Bacon College ceased operation.
Despite the promise of funding through
subscriptions, most of the financial assistance failed to materialize.
Bacon College closed in 1850.
1857 Bacon College reorganized as Kentucky University
Bacon College, Harrodsburg, Kentucky: building destroyed by fire in 1864
[Nollau F-Series Collection]
Efforts to reopen Bacon College began
almost as soon as the doors of the old institution closed. The first
statewide meeting of the Churches of Christ in 1850 pledged financial
support for the school, and attempts were made to raise funds. These
efforts were unsuccessful. The college would have remained closed,
except for the efforts of one of its trustees, John B. Bowman. With the
aid of Major James Taylor, a subscription of $150,000 was raised. A
committee met in 1857 and submitted to the state legislature a petition
for a charter, which was approved on January 15, 1858. Since the
charter was sent to the legislature without a name for the institution,
the name "Kentucky University" was selected. The school was to be
administered by a board of curators chosen from the counties that had
contributed at least $15,000 to the efforts. The charter also
stipulated that at least 2/3 of the seats on the board would be given
to members of the Disciples.
1859 Kentucky University opened with Robert Milligan as president.
university remained open during the Civil War even though enrollment
dropped, and its building were seized by the Confederates during the
Battle of Perryville.
1862 Morrill Act (Land-Grant Act) Passed by Congress
Morrill Act of 1862, also known as the Land-Grant College Act, was
passed in 1862 through the efforts of Vermont Congressman Justin
Morrill. Education prior to this time had been based on the study of
the classics. The Morrill Act was intended to create institutions of
higher education that emphasized practical areas such as agriculture
and the mechanical arts. The first Morrill Act was passed in 1862, and
signed into law by Abraham Lincoln on July 2, 1862. Each state was
eligible to receive 30,000 acres of federal land for each of its of
senators and representatives as allotted that state by the census of
1860. Funding for the mechanical and agricultural colleges would be
provided by the sale of this land..
In 1864, the building housing Kentucky
University burned, and its Board of Trustees met to determine a new
home for the institution. After difficulties in obtaining funding in
Mercer County, the Board responded to an offer from Transylvania
University in Lexington. Transylvania was again suffering from
financial hardships, and had obtained permission from the legislature
to transfer some control of the institution to a denomination in return
for financial assistance. Bowman, representing Kentucky University, met
with representatives of Transylvania University, to work out details of
a union between the two institutions.
1865 Agricultural and Mechanical College established as college of the new Kentucky University
On February 22, 1865 the
Agricultural and Mechanical College was chartered by the State
Legislature and established as a college of the soon-to-be-organized
Kentucky University. Six days later on February 28 the new Kentucky
University (formed by the merger of old Kentucky University and
Transylvania University) was created by the Kentucky legislature. John
Bowman's efforts had been successful.[The
different colleges of the new Kentucky University were: College of
Science (1865); College of the Bible (1865); College of Law (1865);
Agricultural and Mechanical College (1865); and later Commercial
College (1869) and College of Medicine (1874) There was no
provision for a president. The institution was to be governed by a
regent elected from among the Board of the Curators. John Bowman was
selected Regent. Thirteen years later, in 1878, the A&M College -
precursor of the University of Kentucky - was formally separated from
Kentucky University by the Legislature and began life as an independent
state-supported institution of higher education.
1865 Bowman purchased Ashland, the
former estate of Henry Clay, and an adjacent property, the Woodlands,
to become home to the new college.
(Top) Old Mechanical Hall, A&M College of Kentucky, Ashland Farm, Lexington (1868)
(Bottom) Horticultural Building, A&M College of Kentucky, Woodlands Farm, Lexington (1866)
[Nollau F-Series collection]
Despite delays caused by a reduced
demand for the land, and deflation of land prices the Agricultural and
Mechanical College opened on October 1, 1866.
[Adapted from a chart created by former University of Kentucky Registrar Ezra Gillis; The University of Kentucky, Its History and Development; a Series of Charts Depicting the More Important Data, 1862-1955]
(March 31, 2016) The UK Libraries Special Collections Research Center has initiated a new online requests system allowing all our faculty, students, patrons, and visiting researchers to submit requests for materials, schedule a visit, or place digital reproduction and oral history orders through a custom web-based interface.
Create an account to get started. All researchers visiting after March 31st will need to complete registration in their new account.
UK community members can login using their LinkBlue IDs while visitors can create their own login username and password. For more information, visit our FAQ.
The mission of the Special Collections Research Center is to locate and preserve materials documenting the social, cultural, economic, and political history of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Materials are acquired regardless of format and include both primary and secondary sources; Kentuckiana is collected comprehensively. Special Collections maintains the records management program for all records generated by the University and serves as its archival repository for permanent records. As part of the mission, the Special Collections Research Center advances and supports the research, teaching, and scholarship of the University and beyond by preserving and providing access to its holdings.