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Stanford University
Stanford Seal Stanford History
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:Contents of this page:
Birth of the University
Leland Stanford
The Founding Grant
Stanford's First President
Jane Stanford

The Beginning


In November 1769, Captain Gaspar de Portola's expedition to find and fortify the port of Monterey for Spain, found instead San Franciso Bay. The party camped near the giant California Coast Redwood which later travelers along the San Francisco Peninsula came to call El Palo Alto, "the high tree," as the native Ohlone Indians had probably called it for centuries before.

From this campsite, on which one corner of the Stanford campus is now situated, Portola's reconnoitering parties explored the area for almost a week. Later, from this same campsite, Francisco de Ortega explored the eastern shore of the Bay. The old redwood, then twin-trunked and well over 100 feet high, was a landmark visible for miles.

In 1876, Governor Leland Stanford purchased 650 acres of El Rancho San Franciscquito for a country home and began the development of his famous Palo Alto Stock Farm for trotting horses. The farm later became the Stanford campus, and the little town that started to grow up across El Camino Real 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 Southern Pacific Railroad tracks. Many years ago one of the winter floods that periodically rushed down the arroyo tore off one of its twin trunks, but half of the venerable old tree lives on, a gaunt and time-scarred monument. From Stanford's beginning, the Palo Alto has been the University's symbol and the centerpiece of its official seal.

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Opening Ceremony

Opening Ceremony

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, Junior, in whose memory the University was founded.

About 2,000 chairs, many of them sturdy frontier Douglas chairs used in classrooms, were set up in the three-acre Quad, and they were soon filled to overflowing. 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 11:00 am, 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 noonday 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 sympathic coadjutor and is co-grantor with me..."

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 nations's center of culture­a university that broke from the classical tradition of higher learning?

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Leland Stanford, Sr.

Leland Stanford

A story of Stanford, the University, could not be complete without a history of Stanford, the man. The fifth of eight children, Leland Stanford was born 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 Bluff, 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 heavy 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 the Lincoln electors won. Soon thereafter, Stanford visited Lincoln in Washington, and although many Eastern Republicans underestimated the President, Stanford was deeply impressed. In 1861, he told the California Republican convention that the South stood for aristocracy while the Union represented democracy. He was nominated for governor and won decisively after stumping from one end of the state to the other, with Jane 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.

But of even greater importance in keeping America united as a republic was Stanford's part in building the first transcontinental railroad. 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 they formed the Central Pacific Railroad company to lay track eastward to connnect with the westward-building Union Pacific.

Stanford, who had demonstrated business acumen and qualites 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 worked nearly to the breaking point as they pushed their crews to meet the Union Pacific at a point as far east as possible. On May 10, 1869, trains of the two roads 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 activated a telegraph key which clattered across the nation: "Done!"

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The Barn

A few days later, on May 14, the Stanfords' only child, Leland, Jr., celebrated his first birthday, and before he was two the parents and baby had made their first trip across the continent by rail. Soon they were building a great mansion in San Francisco on a neglected eminence 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 which 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 in the arboretum that adjoined the country home. He was a tall, slender youth­taller at 15 than his fathers's 5;10"­and studious. He spoke French fluently and, on trips to Europe with his parents, developed his passion for collecting in art and archeology.

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Leland Jr. as a teenager

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, a few weeks before his 16th birthday.

Stanford, who had remained at Lelands' 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.

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The Founding Grant

The Stanfords returned to America in May and, before proceeding to Palo Alto, visited Cornell, Yale, Harvard and 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. They asked him which of these seemed most desirable and President Eliot answered, a university. Mrs. Stanford then asked him how much the endowment should be, in addition to land and buildings, and he replied, not less than $5 million. A silence followed and Mrs. Stanford looked grave. Finally, Mr. Stanford said with a smile, "Well, Jane, we could manage that, couldn't we?" and Mrs. Stanford nodded her assent.

They settled on creating a great university, one that, from the outset, was untraditional: coeducational, in a time when most were all-male; nondenominational, 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 their 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.

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Top of column

In a statement of the case for liberal education that was remarkable for its time, 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."

With this agreement, Stanford called for several good stenographers to come from San Francisco to the country house. Seated on the veranda, he dictated the Founding Grant extemporaneously and without notes. The document, providing the endowment and defining in sweeping strokes the scope, responsibilites and organization of the University, was executed November 11, 1885, and stands today as the University's "constitution". In bold, sweeping language 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 United States 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 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 the youngest partner of a prominent Boston firm, Charles Allerton Coolidge, then 28 years old and on the threshold of a distinguished career.

In April of 1887, Coolidge met Stanford in San Francisco with preliminary sketches. "Fine," said Stanford. "We'll begin the buildings the first of next week."

Coolidge knew better than to tell Stanford he needed another six months for final plans. "What I did," he recalled later," was to order a spade and a brass band immediately." The cornerstone was laid May 14, the anniversary of Leland Jr.'s birth. 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 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 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 could devote themselves to selection of the University president.

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David Starr Jordan

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 which President Andrew D. White of Cornell gave to the Stanfords and that same evening they 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 unusally attractive personality," Dr. Jordan wrote. "His errand he explained directly and clearly...His education ideas, it appeared, corresponded very closely with my own."
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Dr. Jordan went home to discuss the offer with his wife. They were intrigued by the possibilites of a new university with a new academic plan in a pioneer state and decided that same day 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."

The choice was a happy one, for Dr. Jordan and Stanford University grew strong together in his 22 years as president.

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Inner quad

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 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 Unviersity's first year to lay the foundations of a school which may last as long as human civiilization... It is hallowed by no traditions; it is hampered by none. Its finger-posts all point forward."

"We hope to give our students the priceless legacy of the educated man, the power of knowing what really is. The higher education should help to free them from the dead hands of old traditions and to enable them to form opinions worthy of the new evidence each new day brings before them."

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The first student body consisted of 559 men and women, many more than had been expected, and the original faculty of 17 was expanded to 29 for the second year. From the beginning, Stanford was coeducational 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 at the outset, and English was the only subject required for entrance.

There were many challenges. More professors had to be recruited, housing was inadequate, microscopes and books were late in arriving from the East­but 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, already in failing health and crushed under the weight of the impending national financial panic, 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. At the close of his sermon, the minister turned to the pallbearers, eight senior locomotive engineers on the railroad, and admonished them, "Gentle up your strength a little, for 'tis a man you bear."

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Jane Lathrop Stanford

Jane Stanford

Mrs. Stanford, a woman of intelligence and bearing who had long since forsaken the small talk of the parlor for interests in the affairs of the world, was from the beginning a full partner with her husband in the founding of the University. Yet it was inevitable that she should remain in his shadow. Even on the opening day she could not bring herself to deliver the little speech she had prepared. It was found among her papers after her death.

Her husband's death thrust the full burden on Mrs. Stanford. 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. "Stop the circus!" was the callous demand of Collis P. Huntington, Central Pacific partner who had had a bitter personal falling-out with Stanford.

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After two weeks in seclusion, Mrs. Stanford sent for Dr. Jordan. She told him she had no intention of closing the doors of the University. The large man knelt before her and kissed her hand. Together they set about to keep the University functioning. Expenses were cut. Faculty salaries were reduced 12 percent 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. A friendly probate judge ruled that the professors were technically personal servants of Mrs. Stanford and he fixed her allowance from the estate at $10,000 a month. The first money actually received was $500 in $20 gold pieces and Dr. Jordan drove around the campus doling these out where he thought they were most needed.

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 the government's loan to the Central Pacific at the time of its construction. The loan was 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 and the case was put forward at his request. The district court, the appeals court, and finally, on March 2, 1896, the Supreme Court all ruled against the government. There was a drizzling rain on the campus the day of the final verdict, but it did not hamper a mighty demonstration. Students marched and every sort of noisemaker, including the human voice, was brought into use. That night there was a great assembly in the Inner Quad, followed by a meeting at the gym where Dr. Jordan spoke and a letter from Mrs. Stanford was read.

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 "the six pretty long years" had come to a close. Finances had been touch-and-go throughout.

"The future of a university hung by a single thread, the love of a good woman," Dr. Jordan said.

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Memorial Church

For his part, Dr. Jordan had somehow kept the Universiy at a high level of achievement, partly by skillfully applying the small funds available and partly by his inspirational personality. "There is but one Dr. Jordan," Mrs. Stanford wrote. Now he expected to move quickly to the brilliant academic program he had envisioned for the University. Mrs. Stanford, on the other hand, was anxious to see constructed during her lifetime the rest of the buildings which she and Mr. Stanford had so often discussed. Over the next several years, the Outer Quadrangle was completed, a separate chemistry building constructed and the magnificent Memorial Church was bulilt. As Mrs. Stanford's tribute to her husband, the church was erected as the centerpiece of the Inner Quad, a location which had been reserved for its construction from the beginning.

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In 1903, 10 years after Stanford's death and when she was in her 75th year, Mrs. Stanford relinquished to the University trustees control over the University's affairs which were given to her, the surviving founder, in the Grant of Endowment. The trustees immediately 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. Ill with a persistent cold, she sailed for Honolulu, where she died, probably of a heart attack, on the last day of February 1905. After funeral services in Memorial Church, students conveyed the casket to the family mausoleum in the Arboretum.

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Last modified 04/29/96
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