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Selecting a Site for the University of North Carolina

On August 2, 1792, 25 of UNC's 40 original trustees gathered in Hillsborough, North Carolina, to determine a site for the state's (and the nation's) first public university. The participating members, representing counties from eastern, central, and western North Carolina, voted on August 4th to establish the University of North Carolina within a fifteen-mile radius of Cyprett's (or Cipritz's, later renamed Prince's) Bridge, which formed part of the road from Raleigh to Pittsboro. The precise location of this bridge is unknown, but university history scholars believe that it spanned a section of New Hope Creek that now forms part of Jordan Lake. Two hundred and sixteen years later, Documenting the American South commemorates the selection of the location of the University of North Carolina, featuring documents from several digital collections: The North Carolina Experience, True and Candid Compositions, and The First Century of the First State University.

The site selection was a lengthy process with various concerns and restrictions. The university's original charter (1789) required that the campus "shall not be situate[d] within five miles of the permanent seat of government, or any of the places of holding the courts of law or equity" (p. 15). In his History of the University of North Carolina (Vol. 1), Kemp P. Battle notes that the New Hope/Chapel Hill site was chosen over other contenders—Raleigh, Williamsboro [in Granville County], Hillsboro, Pittsboro, Smithfield, and Goshen—because it was "as near the centre of the State as possible" (p. 20). In her summary of the university's founding, Erika Lindemann points out that the Chapel Hill area was conveniently located near the intersection of two key thoroughfares: the north/south highway (close to what is now Interstate 85) from Petersburg, Virginia, to Hillsborough, North Carolina, and the east/west highway (possibly Highway 70 or the old Highway 64) from New Bern to Salisbury. These roads facilitated university students' travel from across the state of North Carolina, as they do today.

Though many North Carolinians played key roles in the site selection for the university, perhaps the two most significant contributors were William Richardson Davie and James Hogg. Davie, sometimes called the "Father of the University," secured an unprecedented appropriation of $10,000 in state funds in December 1791, paving the way for the trustees to choose a location. (Davie was also a member of the selection and building committees, and later served as governor of North Carolina.) Hogg, a Scottish-born merchant who lived in Wilmington, Fayetteville, and finally Hillsborough, was adamant that the university should be located in Orange County. In addition to donations of land, he was able to raise approximately $1,600 from his friends in Orange County, some of whom may have convinced the commissioners to "unanimously" vote for the "New Hope Chapel Hill" location.

Battle's History recounts that in early November 1792, a commission chaired by Senator Frederick Hargett surveyed the country within a fifteen-mile radius of Cyprett's bridge. Remarkably (and possibly due to the influence of James Hogg), nearly every local landowner made a generous offer of land for the new university. In all, Hargett noted that the commission received donations of "1,290 acres of land, [most of which] lie on Chapel Hill or adjoining thereto" (p. 23). A building committee subsequently selected the location for the Old East Building, where the cornerstone was laid on 12 October 1793. This event is commemorated every year as University Day.

DocSouth's digital collection The North Carolina Experience is a compilation of journals, oral and written histories, institutional documents, and other materials that chronicle life in the Tar Heel State. True and Candid Compositions features 121 documents written primarily by students attending the University of North Carolina between 1795, the year in which the institution opened its doors, and 1868, when the devastation of the Civil War closed them for a semester. The First Century of the First State University presents manuscripts and official documents related to the founding and growth of the University from its inception through the Civil War and Reconstruction.

Works Consulted: Battle, Kemp P., An Address on the History of the Buildings of the University of North Carolina,; Battle, Kemp P., History of the University of North Carolina from Its Beginning to the Death of President Swain, 1789-1868,; Lindemann, Erika, "1795-1819: The Establishment of the University," Documenting the American South, referenced 3 Aug 2008,; Snider, William D., Light on the Hill: A History of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992; Tomberlin, Jason, and McKown, Harry, Personal Interview, 15 Aug 2008.

Patrick E. Horn