Stanford University History
The Founding of the University
In November 1769, Captain Gaspar de Portola's expedition to find and fortify the port of Monterey for Spain found instead San Francisco Bay. The party worked its way down the peninsula and camped on the bank of San Francisquito Creek near the giant California Coast Redwood that later travelers came to call El Palo Alto, or "the high tree" in Spanish. The tall redwood was a familiar landmark to the native Ohlone Indians.
From this campsite, on which one corner of the Stanford campus is now situated, Portola's reconnoitering parties explored the area. Later, from this same campsite, Francisco de Ortega explored the eastern shore of the Bay. The old redwood, twin-trunked and well over 100 feet high, was visible for miles.
In 1876, former California Governor Leland Stanford purchased 650 acres of Rancho San Francisquito for a country home and began the development of his famous Palo Alto Stock Farm for trotting horses. He later bought adjoining properties to bring his farm to more than 8,000 acres, land that eventually became the Stanford campus. The little town that started to grow across El Camino Real (the old Spanish "King's Road") from the university also took the name Palo Alto.
Today El Palo Alto is rooted precariously on the east bank of San Francisquito Creek, close to the old Southern Pacific Railroad tracks. In 1887, a winter flood rushing down the creek tore off one of the redwood's twin trunks, but half of the venerable tree lives on, a gaunt and time-scarred monument. From Stanford's beginning, El Palo Alto has been the university's symbol and the centerpiece of its official seal.
The Birth of the University
On October 1, 1891, Stanford University opened its doors after six years of planning and building. In the early morning hours, construction workers were still preparing the Inner Quadrangle for the opening ceremonies. The great arch at the western end had been backed with panels of red and white cloth to form an alcove where the dignitaries would sit. Behind the stage was a life-size portrait of Leland Stanford, Jr., in whose memory the university was founded.
About 2,000 seats, many of them sturdy classroom chairs, were set up in the 3-acre Quad, and they soon proved insufficient for the growing crowd. By midmorning, people were streaming across the brown fields on foot. Riding horses, carriages and farm wagons were hitched to every fence and at half past ten the special train from San Francisco came puffing almost to the university buildings on the temporary spur that had been used during construction.
Just before 11 a.m., Leland and Jane Stanford mounted to the stage. As Mr. Stanford unfolded his manuscript and laid it on the large Bible that was open on the stand, Mrs. Stanford linked her left arm in his right and held her parasol to shelter him from the rays of the midday sun. He began in measured phrases:
"In the few remarks I am about to make, I speak for Mrs. Stanford, as well as myself, for she has been my active and sympathetic coadjutor and is co-grantor with me in the endowment and establishment of this University..."
What manner of people were this man and this woman, who had the intelligence, the means, the faith and the daring to plan a major university in Pacific soil, far from the nation's center of culture – a university that broke from the classical tradition of higher learning?
A story of Stanford, the university, is not complete without a history of Stanford, the man. The fifth of eight children, Leland Stanford was born in 1824 at the family home on a farm near Albany, New York. Hard work and schooling filled his early years and in 1848, after three years in an Albany law firm, he was admitted to practice. In search of greater opportunity, he went to Port Washington, Wisconsin, on Lake Michigan, to hang out his shingle. Two years later he married Jane Eliza Lathrop, daughter of a well-to-do Albany merchant. His practice in Port Washington was successful but in 1852, after a fire wiped out his office and $3,000 library, his pioneer spirit sprung into high gear and he joined his five brothers in their mercantile business in the gold fields of California. Leaving his wife in Albany, he went to California by way of the Isthmus. He spent two years in the Stanford Brothers' store in Michigan, 30 miles northeast of Auburn. Life was hard. Stanford slept on the counter under buffalo robes with his boots for a pillow except when flood waters forced him to hoist sugar barrels and other articles to the counter for safekeeping. Nevertheless, Stanford prospered. In three years he bought out the Stanford Brothers' store in Sacramento and he returned to Albany for his wife.
Stanford became the most active member of a small group organizing the Republican Party in California and was the party candidate for state treasurer in 1857, and for governor in 1859. There had been no chance for election, but the party was gaining a foothold. In 1860, he stumped the state for Abraham Lincoln and then met with the new president in Washington. In 1861, the California Republican convention nominated Stanford for governor, and he won decisively after stumping the state with Jane Stanford at his side. Stanford succeeded not only in holding California in the Union, but also saw to it that the state contributed substantially to Union victory. Stanford later would be elected to the U.S. Senate in 1885. He was reelected in 1891, but died in 1893.
Stanford's part in building the first transcontinental railroad was of even greater importance in keeping America united as a republic. San Francisco businessmen, well satisfied with the profits they were making from sea routes, turned their backs on the hazardous undertaking. The steep, snow-covered slopes of the Sierra Nevada could just as easily turn the builders into bankrupt paupers as princes of industry. But a group of Sacramento merchants took the high-stakes gamble and formed the Central Pacific Railroad company to lay track eastward to connect with the westward-building Union Pacific.
Stanford, who had demonstrated business acumen and qualities of leadership, was elected president of the venture. Congress voted generous land grants and bonded loans, but the main sums had to be supplied by the companies. Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker emerged as the "Big Four" who risked their financial hides and pushed their crews to meet the Union Pacific at a point as far east as possible. On May 10, 1869, trains of the two railroads drew together at Promontory, Utah. Leland Stanford wielded a sledge of Nevada silver to tap a spike of California gold into a polished laurel tie. The blows heralding completion of the transcontinental railroad were transmitted over telegraph wire attached to the spike.
Leland Stanford Jr.'s birthplace is now a State Park.
A few days later, on May 14, the Stanfords' only child, Leland, celebrated his first birthday, and before he was two the parents and toddler had made their first trip across the continent by rail. Soon the Stanfords were building a great mansion in San Francisco in a part of town that was to acquire the name of Nob Hill. Later, in 1876, they bought the first parcel of land on the San Francisco Peninsula that would be their celebrated Palo Alto Stock Farm and later the site of Stanford University.
One of Stanford's greatest pleasures was to drive down the mile-long eucalyptus-bordered roadway from the Palo Alto home to his breeding establishment for trotting horses. Using his own theories of blood lines and training, Stanford developed trotters that set 19 world records. One of the old red barns with its picturesque white trim still stands and near it, affixed to the base of a bronze statue of a racing horse, is a plaque listing the achievements of Stanford trotters. One of these was Electioneer, sire of nine Palo Alto world champions. He was an unproved stallion when Stanford bought him against the advice of experts.
Young Leland loved the life on the Palo Alto ranch. He kept dogs and horses, knew all about the farm machinery and built a miniature railroad with 400 feet of track on the grounds of the country home. He was a tall, slender youth – taller at 15 than his father's 5-foot-10 – and studious. He spoke French fluently and, on trips to Europe with his parents, developed his passion for collecting in art and archaeology.
The family was in Italy in 1884 when Leland contracted typhoid fever. He was thought to be recovering, but on March 13 at the Hotel Bristol in Florence, Leland's bright and promising young life came to an end, two months before his 16th birthday.
Stanford, who had remained at Leland's bedside continuously, fell into a troubled sleep the morning the boy died. When he awakened he turned to his wife and said,
"The children of California shall be our children."
These words were the real beginning of Stanford University.
The Founding Grant
The Stanfords returned to America in May and, before proceeding to Palo Alto, visited Cornell, Yale, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They talked with President Eliot of Harvard about three ideas: a university at Palo Alto, a large institution in San Francisco combining a lecture hall and a museum, and a technical school. Asked which of these seemed most desirable, Eliot answered, a university. Mrs. Stanford inquired how much the endowment should be, in addition to land and buildings, and he replied, not less than $5 million. A silence followed. Finally, Mr. Stanford said with a smile, "Well, Jane, we could manage that, couldn't we?" and a grave Mrs. Stanford nodded her assent.
They settled on creating a great university, one that, from the outset, was untraditional: co-educational, in a time when most were all-male; non-denominational, when most were associated with a religious organization; avowedly practical, producing "cultured and useful citizens" when most were concerned only with the former.
Although they consulted with several of the presidents of leading institutions, the founders were not content to model their university after eastern schools. "Of all the young men who come to me with letters of introduction from friends in the East, the most helpless are college young men," Stanford said. As the Stanfords' thoughts matured, their ideas of "practical education" enlarged until they arrived at the concept of producing cultured and useful citizens who were especially prepared for personal success in their chosen professions.
In a statement of the case for a liberal education, Stanford wrote,
"I attach great importance to general literature for the enlargement of the mind and for giving business capacity. I think I have noticed that technically educated boys do not make the most successful businessmen. The imagination needs to be cultivated and developed to assure success in life. A man will never construct anything he cannot conceive."
On November 11, 1885, Stanford called for several stenographers to come from San Francisco to the country house. Seated on the veranda, he dictated the Founding Grant without notes. The document, providing the endowment and defining the scope, responsibilities and organization of the university, was accepted by the 24 members of the first Board of Trustees on Nov. 14 in San Francisco. The Founding Grant stands today as the university's "constitution." It stipulates that the objectives of the university are:
"to qualify students for personal success and direct usefulness in life; and to promote the public welfare by exercising an influence on behalf of humanity and civilization, teaching the blessings of liberty regulated by law, and inculcating love and reverence for the great principles of government as derived from the inalienable rights of man to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
Having been elected a U.S. Senator earlier in 1885, Stanford left for Washington shortly after the Founding Grant was made public. However, the following summer he and Mrs. Stanford were back at Palo Alto conferring with Francis A. Walker, president of MIT, and Frederick Law Olmsted, the eminent landscape architect who created Central Park in New York. Olmsted developed the general plan for long, low buildings connected by arcades to form a double quad. The actual drawing of the plans was entrusted to Charles Allerton Coolidge, then 28 years old, the youngest partner of the prominent Boston firm Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge, successors to their mentor H. H. Richardson, widely acclaimed for his revival of Romanesque architecture.
In April 1887, Coolidge met Stanford with preliminary sketches. The Stanfords surprised the architect by insisting that the cornerstone be laid on May 14, the anniversary of Leland Jr.'s birth.
"What I did," Coolidge recalled later,"was to order a spade and a brass band immediately." On May 14, 300 guests attended the laying of the cornerstone. There was no brass band, but a choir. Stanford called his wife to his side for the ceremony and, though tears streamed down her cheeks the entire time, she held her head high. It was both a solemn and a joyous occasion. The sandstone block and bronze plaque was built into a corner of the first Inner Quad building, west of where Memorial Church would eventually stand.
The architect was given a small building on the ranch to house his drafting boards and a month later more than 100 men were at work on the university foundations. But the job moved more slowly than anticipated, partly because of Stanford's senate duties in Washington and a trip to Europe in 1888 for his health. Finally the opening date was set for October 1, 1891, but it was not until March of that year that the Stanfords named the university president.
Stanford's First President
"Go to the University of Indiana; there you will find the president, an old student of mine, David Starr Jordan, one of the leading scientific men of the country, possessed of a most charming power of literary expression, with a remarkable ability in organization and blessed with good sound sense. Call him."
This was the advice that President Andrew D. White of Cornell gave to the Stanfords, who earlier had tried to recruit him as the university's first president. That same evening the Stanfords headed their private railroad car for Bloomington.
"My first impressions of Leland Stanford were extremely favorable, for even on such slight acquaintance he revealed an unusually attractive personality," Dr. Jordan wrote. "His errand he explained directly and clearly.... His education ideas, it appeared, corresponded very closely with my own."
Dr. Jordan went home to discuss the offer with his wife. They were intrigued by the possibilities of a new university with a new academic plan in a pioneer state and decided that same day, just six months before the university opened, to accept. "The possibilities were so challenging to one of my temperament that I could not decline," he said.
For his part, Stanford told a reporter back in California, "I might have found a more famous educator, but I desired a comparatively young man who would grow up with the University." Jordan, a renowned ichthyologist, was 40.
The choice was a happy one, for Dr. Jordan and Stanford University grew strong together in his 22 years as president.
The prediction of a New York newspaper that for years to come Stanford professors would "lecture in marble halls to empty benches" was immediately disproved. About 250 students were initially expected, but 465, a third of them from out of California, were on hand opening day. Dr. Jordan told them and the throng that assembled for the ceremonies:
"It is for us as teachers and students in the University's first year to lay the foundations of a school which may last as long as human civilization.... It is hallowed by no traditions; it is hampered by none. Its finger-posts all point forward."
The first student body consisted of 559 men and women, and the original faculty of 15, seven of them originally from Cornell University, was expanded to 49 for the second year. From the beginning, Stanford was co-educational and, like Johns Hopkins and Cornell, followed the German model of providing graduate as well as undergraduate instruction and stressing research along with teaching. Dr. Jordan installed the major subject system with electives at the outset, rather than the more common rigid curriculum of classical studies.
There were many challenges. More professors had to be recruited, housing was inadequate, microscopes and books were late in arriving from the East, but the work of the first year was noteworthy. Mrs. Stanford wrote from Europe in the summer of 1892, "Even our fondest hopes have been realized." She could not know of the deep troubles that were just ahead.
Leland Stanford, in failing health, died in his sleep at the Palo Alto home early the morning of June 21, 1893. The funeral was held in the open air of the University's Inner Quad. His death threw the university into a severe financial crisis.
Mrs. Stanford was from the beginning a full partner with her husband in the founding of the university. Yet she had remained in his shadow. Even on the opening day, she could not bring herself to deliver the speech she had prepared. It was found among her papers after her death.
Her husband's death thrust the full financial responsibility for the university on Mrs. Stanford, and she took it on with unsuspected strength. The country was in severe financial panic and her husband's estate was tied up in probate. Several of her advisers urged her to close the university, at least temporarily.
After two weeks in seclusion, Mrs. Stanford sent for Dr. Jordan and told him she had no intention of closing the doors of the university. Together they set about to keep the university functioning. Expenses were cut. Faculty salaries were reduced and, where possible, new appointments were canceled. A long-forgotten insurance policy for $10,000 on the life of Senator Stanford tided them over one hump. The probate court granted Mrs. Stanford $10,000 per month allowance from proceeds of the estate, approximately what she was accustomed to spending on the maintenance of her several households. She reduced her personal staff from 17 to 3 and her monthly expenses to $350 (about the equivalent to a professor's monthly salary), and turned over the remainder to Dr. Jordan to keep the university, now her primary "household," in operation.
Just when it appeared that piecemeal arrangements would see the university through, in May 1894 the estate was tied up indefinitely by a federal government claim of $15 million growing out of construction loans to the Central Pacific Railroad. The loans were not yet due, but the government sought to establish stockholder liability. Mrs. Stanford journeyed to Washington and appealed to President Cleveland for prompt action by the courts. Nearly two years later, on March 2, 1896, the Supreme Court rejected the federal government's claims against the Stanford estate. There was a drizzling rain on the campus the day of the verdict, but it did not hamper a mighty, joyous student demonstration.
The estate was released from probate in 1898 and the following year, after selling her railroad holdings, Mrs. Stanford turned over $11 million to the university trustees. What Dr. Jordan termed "six pretty long years" had come to a close. During that time, "the future of a university hung by a single thread, the love of a good woman," Dr. Jordan said.
For his part, Dr. Jordan had kept the university at a high level of achievement, partly by skillfully applying the small funds available and partly by his inspirational personality. Now he expected to move quickly to build the academic program he had envisioned for the university. Mrs. Stanford, on the other hand, was eager to see constructed during her lifetime the rest of the buildings that she and Senator Stanford had planned. Over the next several years, the Outer Quadrangle was completed, a separate chemistry building was constructed and the magnificent Memorial Church was built. As Mrs. Stanford's tribute to her husband, the church was erected as the centerpiece of the Inner Quad. The location had been reserved for its construction from the beginning.
In 1903, 10 years after Senator Stanford's death, Mrs. Stanford relinquished to the university trustees control over the university's affairs that were given to her, the surviving founder, in the Grant of Endowment. The trustees elected her to their numbers and made her their president. Mrs. Stanford, satisfied now that she had built well and adequately, turned with vigor to the academic program. She addressed the board:
"Let us not be afraid to outgrow old thoughts and ways and dare to think on new lines as to the future work under our care."
But it was not for her to follow this path. Jane Stanford died on Feb. 28, 1905, while on vacation in Honolulu. She was 76. Although an autopsy revealed evidence of heart disease that may have caused a heart attack, there are persistent stories that suggest she may have been poisoned. After funeral services in Memorial Church, students conveyed the casket to the family mausoleum in the Arboretum.
Dispelling an Urban Myth
You may have heard a story that a lady in "faded gingham" (Jane Stanford) and a man dressed in a "homespun threadbare suit" (Leland Stanford) went to visit the president of Harvard, were rebuffed, and as a result, went on to found their own university in Palo Alto. This untrue story is an urban myth, and Stanford's archivist has prepared a response for those desiring more information:
For what it is worth, there was a book written by the then Harvard president's son that may have started the twist on actual events.
Leland Stanford Junior was just short of his 16th birthday when he died of typhoid fever in Florence, Italy on March 13, 1884. He had not spent a year at Harvard before his death, nor was he "accidentally killed." Following Leland Junior's death, the Stanfords determined to found an institution in his name that would serve the "children of California."
Detained on the East Coast following their return from Europe, the Stanfords visited a number of universities and consulted with the presidents of each. The account of their visit with Charles W. Eliot at Harvard is actually recounted by Eliot himself in a letter sent to David Starr Jordan (Stanford's first president) in 1919. At the point the Stanfords met with Eliot, they apparently had not yet decided about whether to establish a university, a technical school or a museum. Eliot recommended a university and told them the endowment should be $5 million. Accepted accounts indicate that Jane and Leland looked at each other and agreed they could manage that amount.
The thought of Leland and Jane, by this time quite wealthy, arriving at Harvard in a faded gingham dress and homespun threadbare suit is quite entertaining. And, as a former governor of California and well-known railroad baron, they likely were not knowingly kept waiting for too long outside Eliot's office. The Stanfords also visited Cornell, MIT and Johns Hopkins.
The Stanfords established two institutions in Leland Junior's name -- the University and the Museum, which was originally planned for San Francisco, but moved to adjoin the university.