Catholepistemiad or University of Michigan
State of Michigan Historical Marker

Bates at Larned in downtown Detroit

The federal government administered territories until they became states.  The Northwest Territories Act of 1787 specified how the land north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi would be organized.  Michigan was one of the six territories created by that act.  Actually, Congress reserved the right to create more territories but never did so.  Very few people from the new nation came to Michigan until the British gave up their claim to this area in 1796 when Jay’s Treaty was approved by the United States and England.

President Jefferson strongly believed in populating and developing the western parts of the country.  He appointed several people who, he presumed, would work actively to promote Michigan and bring it into the Union.  At the time, Michigan was much more difficult to reach from the East than Ohio, Indiana or Illinois.  Those states could be reached by the Ohio River after a trip to Pittsburgh, but Michigan required a long trip across Ohio with its numerous marshes.  On March 3, 1805, President Jefferson named his friend from Virginia, Augustus Woodward, to be the chief federal judge in Michigan; that is, Chief Justice of the Territorial federal courts.  Revolutionary War General, William Hall, had been appointed territorial governor and Arthur Woodford as an associate federal judge.  Woodward took President Jefferson’s admonitions very seriously and devoted himself to developing Michigan.  I believe that Woodward arrived in Monroe, Michigan in May or June of 1805 where he presided over the first federal court hearing in the territory.  But he quickly moved to the more populated francophone village of Detroit, arriving there on June 30, 1805.  That was an interesting date of arrival since the village had burned to the ground on June 11 of that year.  Woodward, Territorial Governor Hall and the resident Catholic priest, Gabriel Richard, took it upon themselves to lead the rebuilding of Detroit.  This gave Woodward an opportunity to borrow from the grand design plan that Pierre L’Enfant had been laying out for Washington, DC.

One of the few educated men living in Detroit at the time of Woodward’s arrival was Father Gabriel Richard who, in addition to his training for the clergy, studied mathematics.  Detroit grew very slowly and was held by the British from August, 1812 to September, 1813 during the War of 1812.  However, Woodward and Richard were extremely active and dedicated men.  Strongly influenced by the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, Father Richard established the first schools in Detroit and brought the first printing press to Michigan.  The first item he published was a grammar for young students.  Sometime after peace returned to the area, Woodward began developing his idea for a great university.  He graduated from the University of Virginia and thought of himself as a highly educated man.  He hoped to see Detroit become the leading trading metropolis of the upper Midwest.  It seemed appropriate to him for Detroit to be home to a major university that might rival his Alma Mater.  Woodward had the idea that there should be a Michigan-wide system of free schools providing education from basic grammar school through a college.

At this time, it was somewhat common for highly educated individuals to write thoughtful books presenting a systematic summary of knowledge along with a description of how intellectuals should be trained.  Woodward did so and, in 1816, published a book entitled A System of Universal Science.  This led Woodward to sketch ideas for what a university should teach and how it should be organized.  Along with Father Richard, he had the territorial governor and the federal judges in Michigan approve an act that, on August 26, 1817, established a Catholepistemiad or University of Michigania. 

Woodward’s book laid out the university he wished to create.  It would consist of 13 different professorships or, what he called didaxim.  Today these would be called academic departments or colleges within a university.  They ranged, alphabetically, from Astronomy through Natural Philosophy and included both Military Science and Medical Science.  Woodward invented a unique name for each field using a combination of Greek and Latin syllables.  At that time, the intellectual accomplishments of the Greeks and Romans were highly esteemed and, for a century or so after Woodward, a completely educated scholar was presumed to have mastered the classical languages.  Woodward thought that his terms would become popular and could easily be translated into other languages.  Woodward called the overarching or universal science, Catholepistemia; hence the name for the school he established in Detroit, Catholepistemiad.  Woodward was almost instantly mocked for using these terms, particularly by territorial governor Lewis Cass. In 1821, the name institution’s name was officially changed to the University of Michigan.

At this time, territories were supported, primarily, by transfers of funds from the federal government.  There was precious little to tax in Michigan at this time and hardly any bureaucrats to collect taxes if they could be levied.  The federal government, however, did not spend much money to support universities until the Lincoln Administration started the land grant system.  The next large jump in federal support for advanced education followed the launching of Sputnik.  Woodward did locate enough funds to begin building a modest two-story wooden structure at the corner of Bates and Larned for the Catholepistemiad on September 24, 1817.  The Reverend John Montieth, whom Father Richard had recruited to Detroit to minister to the few Protestant residents of Detroit, was appointed president of the school with Father Richard as Vice-President.  By l818, the building was used for primary school classes and, perhaps, for some more advanced courses we might call secondary school.

Woodward was a member of a Mason’s Lodge in Detroit and they promised to support the Catholepistemiad with $250 paid over a five year span.  Judge Woodward, or perhaps Father Richard saw another opportunity for support in a treaty that was being negotiated in the summer of 1817 with Indians.  The French did not, for the most part, enter into formal negotiations with Indians about land rights.  For one thing, there were very few French settlers and those who intended to stay often settled down with Indians becoming courier de bois.  More than a few of them lived with Indian women, producing a mixed race population.  The French, however, made few attempts to claim the land the Indians occupied. The English had a different view and assumed that Indian tribes had a legal right to their lands even though the Indians were not settled farmers.  English settlers wanted the land for settlement so they wanted the Indians removed.  Very early in the history of the United States, Congress ruled that only the federal government could negotiate with Indians.

The forceful removal of Indians was a commonly used strategy, but there was a more formal approach that was widely used by the new United States government—negotiating a treaty with Indians sometime after a military campaign clearly demonstrated to the Indians that they would be slaughtered or chased away if they did not give up their land.  Of course, most settlers assumed that Indians did not really have any strong claim since they did not use the land for much other than hunting.

During the summer of 1817, when the Catholepistemiad was established in Detroit, Territorial Governor Lewis Cass was negotiating with representatives of the Chippewa, Delaware, Ottawa, Potawatomi, Seneca, Shawnee and Wyandot about land in Ohio.  Settlers had occupied much of the land in Ohio but the tribes claimed ownership, a claim more or less recogized as legitimate by the government in Washington. The Treaty of Fort Meigs was signed September 29, 1817.  The tribes relinquished their claims to most of Ohio.  In return, a few small reservations were to be established for their use and they were to derive some funds from the sale of some of the land they were giving up.

There were 21 articles in the Treaty of Fort Meigs.  One of them was the following:

 “Some of the Ottawa, Chippewa, and Potawatomy Tribes, being attached to the Catholic religion, and believing they may wish some of their children hereafter educated, do grant to the rector of the Catholic church of St. Anne of Detroit, for the use of the said church, and to the corporation of the college at Detroit, for the use of the said college, to be retained or sold, as the said rector and corporation may judge expedient, each, one half of three sections of land, to contain six hundred and forty acres, on the river Raisin, at a place called Macon; and three sections of land not yet located, which tracts were reserved, for the use of the said Indians, by the treaty of Detroit, in one thousand eight hundred and seven; and the superintendent of Indian affairs, in the territory of Michigan, is authorized, on the part of the said Indians, to select the said tracts of land.”

Was this written by the Indians who were negotiating the treaty?  I wonder if it were written by Father Gabriel Richard who served as pastor at Ste. Anne du Detroit and as Vice-President of the Catholepistemiad.

This clause becomes important later in the University of Michigan story.  The grant of lands in the Treaty of Fort Meigs did not provide very much, if any, revenue for the Catholepistemiad.  The school struggled.  President Montieth left in 1820 to take a teaching job at Hamilton College in Clinton New York.  Father Gabriel Richard was elected to serve as the Territory’s representative in Washington.

Perhaps an elementary school with some higher level classes continued to operate in the building at Bates and Congress.

Support for the school was weak and by sometime in the mid 1820s, the entire enterprise may have ceased to exist as an operating entity although it was still a creation of the territory.  The Census of 1830 showed that Michigan territory had a sufficient number of residents—30,000—to become a state.  Steven Mason led the long and challenging fight to convert Michigan’s status from territory to state, and by 1835 or 1837 depending upon how you read the evidence, Michigan became a state.  The convention in 1835 that drew up the constitution for the state of Michigan specified that the capitol must  be moved away from Detroit.  At this time, there were no rail lines linking Detroit to other cities in the Lower Peninsula.  There were a few— but very few—small settlements located on the Great Lakes of navigable rivers.  Ann Arbor was one of the few settlements—other than Detroit—with more than one thousand residents in Michigan in the 1830s.  The leaders of that small town assumed that when the new state legislature met, they would decide that Ann Arbor would become the state’s capitol.  They named a major thoroughfare State Street and were able to secure land where Michigan’s capitol might be erected.  This home town promotion was led by a group called the Ann Arbor Land Company. For reasons that I do not understand, the legislature, meeting in Detroit, decided that a more or less unsettled area in Ingham County known as Lansing should be the capitol.

Civic  boosters in Ann Arbor and the Ann Arbor Land Company, however, realized that something called the University of Michigan was still an entity even if a dormant one. They also had empty space in Ann Arbor.   Having lost the capitol to remote and unpopulated Lansing, they successfully convinced the legislature to move the dormant University of Michigan to their city.  There was still a territorially chartered group of Regents for the University.  The met in Ann Arbor on June 5, 1837 and, I believe, formally designated Ann Arbor as the location of their University.  It took four years for developers in Ann Arbor to build sufficiently to recruit an entering class.  In 1841, the University opened in Ann Arbor with seven students, two faculty members and a Board of Regents of 19 individuals.  Thus was initiated a university that survives to this day.  Innovative, entrepreneurial presidents in the later Nineteenth Century, especially Henry Tappan who served from 1852 to 1863 and James Angell who served from 1871 to 1909 made the University of Michigan into a major national and international intellectual center by the turn of the Twentieth Century.  By the end of the Civil War decade, the University of Michigan  was the largest college in the country with at least 33 faculty members, about 1300 enrollees and specific distinct programs in law, medicine and the liberal arts.

What about the Indians’ land grant to establish the college?  The Civil Rights Revolution of the 1960s led many groups who felt they had been subjected to discrimination—women, Indians, gay and lesbian individuals, the handicapped—to legally challenge practices they considered discriminatory. Congress enacted much legislature seeking to reduce discrimination. Indians, in the United States, were in  a fairly strong position to protest their grievances and seek redress for unfair treatment.  The federal government in the Nineteenth Century had signed treaties with numerous tribes full of carefully written  clauses specifying duties and benefits.  For the most part the treaties had been forgotten.   In the 1970s, lawyers for the tribes represented at the Treaty of Fort Meigs filed suit in federal court contending that the Indians, in 1817, had deeded land to the University of Michigan with the expectation that they would be able to attend school there, perhaps at no cost.  There is no firm information about what happened to the land grants that the Indians made to Father Gabriel Richards’s Ste. Anne de Detroit parish and to the Catholepistemiad, although the school may have sold the River Raisin property in Macon.  In the era before roads and rail lines, river property was particularly valuable because farm products could be shipped.  In 1981, the federal courts ruled that the Indians did not have the right to attend the University of Michigan without the payment of any fees.  However, this was a moot ruling.  By the 1970s, there was a widespread belief that many Indians tribes had been unfairly forced to sign treaties that were unfair and exploitive.   Public Act #174 of 1976, enacted by the Michigan State Legislature in that year, waived in perpetuity, tuition for North American Indians at all public universities and public community colleges in Michigan provided that the Indian had resided in Michigan for twelve consecutive months. 

Date: Catholepistemiad or The University of Michigan was chartered by the Territory: August 26, 1817. 
Construction of the first building was started in September, 1817.
Date the University of Michigan moved to Ann Arbor: 1840
Website of the University of Michigan:
Text of Treaty of Fort Meigs:
State of Michigan Registry of Historic Sites: Listed
State of Michigan Historic Marker: Dedicated
National Registry of Historic Places: Not listed
Photograph: Ren Farley; February 3, 2006
Description updated: January, 2012

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