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Planting a Seed in the Wild West

The idea of a state university began to incubate in the minds of Californians before California had even become a state. In 1849, when a group of farsighted community leaders met to draft a state constitution, they included a provision for a university.

California was the place to dream big dreams. The 1849 Gold Rush brought throngs to the West Coast seeking their fortunes — and along with them came preachers and teachers with lofty ideals and eastern schooling. Among this latter group was Henry Durant, a Congregational minister and Yale graduate, who left New England in 1853 and headed for California, saying he had “college on the brain.”

Durant opened his College of California with only three pupils, but he and his trustees soon acquired 160 acres of land for a campus. They named the site Berkeley, after 18th-century philosopher George Berkeley, who had worked to establish higher education in the colonies and whose writings included “Verses on the prospect of planting arts and learning in America.”

The College had land, but money was scarce. In 1867 the trustees decided to donate their acres to the state for its new university. With this gift of land and federal land grants, the state legislature was able to charter the University of California in 1868. Henry Durant was appointed the first president.

A number of California pioneers, especially those who had made fortunes in the gold fields, believed that an investment in the university would have a potent effect on the development of the West. The first major individual donation came from Regent Edward Tompkins. His decision to endow a chair of oriental languages and literature in 1872 demonstrated his faith in the university’s future — and in the important role it would play in the future of California and the world beyond its shores.

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