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Stanford History

The Leland Stanford Junior University was founded in 1885 by Jane and Leland Stanford in memory of their only child, Leland Jr., who died of typhoid fever at 15. After his 1884 death, the Stanfords determined that they would use their wealth to do something for other people’s children.

They decided to create a university that was, from the outset, untraditional: coeducational in a time when most private universities were all-male; nondenominational when most were associated with a religious organization; and practical, producing cultured and useful citizens. The Founding Grant states the university’s objective is “to qualify its students for personal success, and direct usefulness in life” and its purpose “to promote the public welfare by exercising an influence in behalf of humanity and civilization.” 

The campus sits on the ancestral land of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe. This land was and continues to be of great importance to the Ohlone people. Today, the university and the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe are partners in community-led archaeology, historic interpretation and a native plant garden.

Leland Stanford, who served as California’s governor and senator, devoted to the university the fortune he had earned, first by supplying provisions to the ’49ers mining for California gold and later as one of the “Big Four,” whose Central Pacific Railroad laid tracks eastward to meet the Union Pacific and complete the transcontinental railway. Included in the Founding Grant was the Stanfords’ Palo Alto Stock Farm for the breeding and training of trotting horses, 35 miles south of the family’s San Francisco residence. The Stanfords stipulated that the land they conveyed to the university could not be sold, and the campus still carries the nickname “the Farm.”  

The Stanfords engaged landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to design the campus. Their collaboration with Olmsted and the architectural firm of Shepley, Rutan, and Coolidge resulted in Stanford’s characteristic buildings of local sandstone with red-tiled roofs, surrounding a cloistered quadrangle with Memorial Church as its focus. The rectangular plan of the Main Quadrangle was designed to provide for expansion through a series of quadrangles developed laterally. Stanford opened its doors on Oct. 1, 1891, with some 555 students enrolled in the first year.