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 Because of disappointing enrollment, Jones' contract was rescinded and the board of trustees decided to hire a "grammar master" in lieu of a professor.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 1790.

1793:  Lexington made the permanent home of Transylvania Seminary

Gratz park and morrison hall

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 founded at Pisgah, near Midway

Presbyterian academy

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 formed from Presbyterian Seminary and Transylvania Seminary

Morrison hall (transylvania university)

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 "Transylvania University".

Click on link to Transylvania University

1836:  Bacon College founded at Georgetown

Bacon college (georgetown)

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)

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

The 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

The 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..

Click here for more information on the Morrill Act

1864:  Kentucky University burned

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

Mechanical department of the agricultural and mechanical college  kentucky university and woodlands; horticultural department of kentucky university

(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]

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