The two major university systems in Texas had slow and shaky beginnings.
The Congress of the Republic of Texas, on Jan. 14, 1839, provided for the selection of a site for the seat of government, to be named Austin. Included in the legislation were provisions for sites for a capitol, an arsenal, a magazine, an academy, churches, a common school, a hospital, a penitentiary and "all other necessary public buildings and purposes."A bill establishing the University of Texas passed the Texas Legislature in 1858, including a provision that the sum of $100,000 in U.S. bonds be set aside in the State Treasury for the development of the university.
A 40-acre site named College Hill was also set aside for a university, but no plans for construction were made at the time. Congress also set aside 50 square leagues of land, approximately 221,420 acres, to endow two universities.
The Civil War postponed further action. The 50 sections of land previously set aside for the two universities were augmented by a grant of one section of land for every 10 sections that were granted to the railroads.
The Morrill Land-Grant Bill, passed by the U.S. Congress in 1862, granted Texas 180,000 acres of land to establish an agricultural and mechanical college. The offer was accepted in 1866, but again there was a delay. The Legislature finally provided for the establishment of a land-grant college in April 1871. Three commissioners were appointed to locate and build the college within three months – an impossible task.
The commissioners were wooed by officials of several communities, including Bryan in Brazos County, Kellum Springs and Piedmont Springs in Grimes County, and Bellville in Austin County. Officials in Bryan successfully courted the commissioners with talk of contributions of $20,000-30,000 if the college located there.
Bryan businessmen aggressively promoted the town through land give-aways. To the Agricultural and Mechanical College, they made a total grant of 2,416 acres. Those acres have been described as a "wild, bleak prairie, barren of trees and shrubs ... except for one small mesquite tree." Wolves were abundant: One early student was attacked by wolves during the day in full sight of the main building. Another was attacked at night when he fell off a porch.
Early plans for the college were clouded in factional disputes, at least partly because they were proposed by a radical Republican administration.
With the legislative session of 1873, the fortunes of A&M College improved. The main building was completed by the end of 1874 and additional buildings were constructed. In 1875, the Legislature separated the administrations of A&M and the University of Texas, which still existed only on paper. The Agricultural and Mechanical College formally opened on Oct. 4, 1876.
University of Texas Organized
The Constitution of 1876 provided that a "university of the first class" be established at a site selected by a vote of the people and that it be called "The University of Texas." The Agricultural and Mechanical College was to be a branch of the main university.
But since the university had not yet been established, the legislature saw no harm in shifting the location of university lands to West Texas. The university's million-acre land endowment was carved out of Schleicher, Crockett, Terrell, Pecos, Upton, Reagan and Irion counties. Another million acres, equally arid, were added to the endowment in 1883, in Andrews, Crane, Culberson, Dawson, Ector, El Paso, Gaines, Hudspeth, Loving, Martin, Ward and Winkler counties. Texas' "university of the first class" was backed by an endowment of a vast amount of land of extremely dubious value.
Finally, on March 30, 1881, the Legislature passed a law providing for the organization of the University of Texas. On Sept. 6, 1881, voters selected Austin – over sites at Waco, Tyler, Thorp Spring, Lampasas, Williams Ranch, Albany, Graham, Matagorda, Caddo Grove and Peak – for the main university and Galveston for its medical branch. Men and women were to be accepted as students on equal terms, and no religious qualifications for either students or faculty were to be required. The cornerstone for the west wing of the main building was laid on Nov. 17, 1882, on the site originally set aside for the university in 1839.
At the ceremony, Ashbel Smith, president of the board of regents, made an unwittingly prophetic speech, in which he declared, "Smite the rocks with the rod of knowledge, and fountains of unstinted wealth will gush forth."
The university formally opened on Sept. 15, 1883, with a ceremony in the unfinished west wing of the main building. Classes were held in the temporary capitol at the corner of Congress and Eleventh Street until the building was finished in December.
The University Co-Op, which is almost as old as the university itself, began operations in 1896 in a space 10 feet by 20 feet under the stairway of the second floor of the Main Building. It is now housed in spacious quarters across Guadalupe Street from the main campus. To generations of University of Texas students, it has been a fixture of university life.
Land Endowment Yields Petroleum
Around 1900, the University's Bureau of Economic Geology began to investigate the possibility of finding oil and gas on university lands. In 1916, although most other geologists disagreed, the University's Dr. Johan A. Udden reported that oil could be found lying atop an underground fold of rock that was believed to run from the Marathon area through Pecos County and into Upton and Reagan counties. Udden's theory, though in itself flawed, encouraged exploration that led to the first major oil discovery in West Texas' Permian Basin. The unstinted wealth of Ashbel Smith's 1882 speech gushed forth when the Texon Oil and Land Company's Santa Rita No. 1 well blew in on May 28, 1923, on university lands in Reagan County.
Initially, the interest earned by investments of the oil money from university lands went to the University only. However, in 1931, the legislature split the net income, with two-thirds going to the University of Texas and one-third to Texas A&M University. The income was further split in 1984, when the legislature voted to include all institutions in the University of Texas System, not just the main university at Austin, and the entire Texas A&M University System.
— Adapted from an article by Mary G. Ramos, editor emerita, for the Texas Almanac 1998-1999.