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History

Going strong since 1851.

On May 31, 1850, nine men gathered to begin planning a university that would serve the Northwest Territory.

Given that they had little money, no land and limited higher education experience, their vision was ambitious. But through a combination of creative financing, shrewd politicking, religious inspiration and an abundance of hard work, the founders of Northwestern University were able to make that dream a reality.

In 1853, the founders purchased a 379-acre tract of land on the shore of Lake Michigan 12 miles north of Chicago. They established a campus and developed the land near it, naming the surrounding town Evanston in honor of one of the University's founders, John Evans. After completing its first building in 1855, Northwestern began classes that fall with two faculty members and 10 students.

Twenty-one presidents have presided over Northwestern in the years since. The University has grown to include 12 schools and colleges, with additional campuses in Chicago and Doha, Qatar.

Historical Highlights

See how our University and campus evolved over time.

1851 - Northwestern University was officially established when its Act of Incorporation was passed by the Illinois legislature. John Evans, Orrington Lunt and Grant Goodrich were a few of the University's original founders.
1851: Northwestern University was officially established when its Act of Incorporation was passed by the Illinois legislature. Grant Goodrich, John Evans and Orrington Lunt were a few of the University's original founders.
1869 - Construction on University Hall, today’s oldest campus building, is completed following the tumultuous years of the Civil War.
1869: Construction on University Hall, today’s oldest campus building, was completed following the tumultuous years of the Civil War.
1871 - After Northwestern students saved dozens from a tragic boat accident in 1860, the federal government presented the university with a lifeboat to establish a lifesaving station on Lake Michigan. Students manned this station until the U.S. Coast Guard relieved them in 1916.
1871: After Northwestern students saved dozens from a tragic boat accident in 1860, the federal government presented the university with a lifeboat to establish a lifesaving station on Lake Michigan. Students manned this station until the U.S. Coast Guard relieved them in 1916.
1877 - Class photo of law students, then named the Union College of Law, with the faculty.
1877: Class photo of law students, then named the Union College of Law, with the faculty.
1896 - Representatives from seven Universities, including Northwestern, meet to create a permanent faculty organization to supervise sports among the group. Today, this group is known as the Big Ten Conference.
1896: Representatives from seven Universities, including Northwestern, met to create a permanent faculty organization to supervise sports among the group. Today, this group is known as the Big Ten Conference.
1898 - Photo of the Women's Basketball Team. While female students engaged in some forms of physical activity, their athletic endeavors were closed to spectators.
1898: Photo of the Women's Basketball Team. While female students engaged in some forms of physical activity, their athletic endeavors - unlike those of male athletes - were closed to spectators.
1889 - Dearborn Observatory, one of the oldest landmarks on campus, welcomes the world’s largest refracting telescope at the time.
1889: Dearborn Observatory, one of the oldest landmarks on campus, welcomed the world’s largest refracting telescope at the time.
1902 - "The Rock," a six-foot-high quartzite boulder, was a class gift from the Class of 1902. Fraternity and sorority members began painting the Rock as a prank in the 1940s, and ever since, camping out and painting it has become an accepted tradition.
1902: "The Rock," a six-foot-high quartzite boulder, was a class gift from the Class of 1902. Fraternity and sorority members began painting the Rock as a prank in the 1940s, and ever since, camping out and painting it has become an accepted tradition.
1903 - Staff of the Daily Northwestern, which was created after other student publications merged and were renamed. Published three times a week, it primarily covered sports and University milestones.
1903: Staff of the Daily Northwestern, which was created after other student publications merged and were renamed. Published three times a week, it primarily covered sports and University milestones.
1907 - The “Alma Mater” hymn is composed by Peter Christian Lutkin, first dean of the School of Music.
1907: The “Alma Mater” hymn was composed by Peter Christian Lutkin, first dean of the School of Music.
1907 - At the turn of the century, the open spaces and oak groves were more prominent than its buildings, pictured from right to left: the Life Saving Station, Fisk Hall and the Hall of Science.
1907: At the turn of the century, the open spaces and oak groves were more prominent than its buildings, pictured from right to left: the Life Saving Station, Fisk Hall and the Hall of Science.
1911 - Northwestern’s marching band was established when 21 men performed at the season's first football game against the University of Chicago.
1911: Northwestern’s marching band was established when 21 men performed at the season's first football game against the University of Chicago.
1916 - Students sang and danced in a performance that was part of the May Pageant, which celebrated spring.
1916: Students sang and danced in a performance that was part of the May Pageant, which celebrated spring.
1925 - The University breaks ground on its new Chicago campus with donations from Elizabeth Ward, widow of magnate Montgomery Ward, among others. The Ward Memorial Building became the largest University structure on the Chicago campus, and its profile set the tone for the collegiate Gothic campus.
1925: The University broke ground on its new Chicago campus with donations from Elizabeth Ward, widow of magnate Montgomery Ward, among others. The Ward Memorial Building became the largest University structure on the Chicago campus, and its profile set the tone for the collegiate Gothic campus.
1932 - "The World's Great Collegiate Circus," which grew from a small fundraiser in 1908 to a full three-ring circus in 1932, folded its big top when administration said planning the event took too much time from the real purpose of the University.
1932: "The World's Great Collegiate Circus," which grew from a small fundraiser in 1908 to a full three-ring circus in 1932, folded its big top when administration said planning the event took too much time from the real purpose of the University.
Picture of students dancing in the streets of Evanston
1940: Jubilation marked students' faces as they snake-danced after the second win since 1901 over Notre Dame.
1940 - From the moment that Scott Hall's "Scott Grill" opened in 1940, it became the bustling social center of campus. The building also housed lounges, student activity offices and Cahn Auditorium.
1940: From the moment that Scott Hall's "Scott Grill" opened in 1940, it became the bustling social center of campus. The building also housed lounges, student activity offices and Cahn Auditorium.
1943 - Although naval training became the main activity on both campuses during the war, the beaches were still used by student sunbathers.
1943: Although naval training became the main activity on both campuses during the war, the beaches were still used by student sunbathers.
1949 - Getting to the Rose Bowl was a dream come true for Northwestern, and all of Evanston was caught up in the excitement. In the game, which went down to the final minute, Northwestern was victorious against the University of California.
1949: Getting to the Rose Bowl was a dream come true for Northwestern, and all of Evanston was caught up in the excitement. In the game, which went down to the final minute, Northwestern was victorious against the University of California.
1954 - Melville J. Herskovits, one of the first scholars to study the African heritage of black people in the New World, establishes the Library of African Studies.
1954: Melville J. Herskovits, one of the first scholars to study the African heritage of black people in the New World, established the Library of African Studies.
1960 - Decades after his appearance on the sidelines, Willie the Wildcat rides in a Homecoming parade. Northwestern athletes were first called "wildcats" after a 1924 game against the University of Chicago.
1960: Decades after his appearance on the sidelines, Willie the Wildcat rode in a Homecoming parade. Northwestern athletes were first called "wildcats" after a 1924 game against the University of Chicago.
1960 - The annual Waa-Mu show featured Ann-Margaret Olson, later known as Ann-Margaret. Other actors who got their start in Waa-Mu productions include Warren Beatty and Shelley Long.
1960: The annual Waa-Mu show featured Ann-Margaret Olson, later known as Ann-Margaret. Other actors who got their start in Waa-Mu productions include Warren Beatty and Shelley Long.
1964 - The lakefill expansion project, intended to provide more campus space without sacrificing the natural beauty of the lakeside campus, establishes solid ground. This project made room for buildings such as University Library, Norris University Center, and Pick-Staiger Concert Hall.
1964: The lakefill expansion project, intended to provide more campus space without sacrificing the natural beauty of the lakeside campus, establishes solid ground. This project made room for buildings such as University Library, Norris University Center, and Pick-Staiger Concert Hall.
1970s - Students sitting on the exterior of Elder Hall, which was one of several residence halls built to ease Northwestern's housing shortage between 1950 and 1970.
1970s: Students sat on the exterior of Elder Hall, which was one of several residence halls built to ease Northwestern's housing shortage between 1950 and 1970.
1972 - Computing took place in the new Vogelback Computing Center, which opened with a then-cutting edge CDC 3400 computer. It wasn't until the mid '80s that the campus saw widespread student use of computing and networking, initially using library computers
1972: Computing took place in the new Vogelback Computing Center, which opened with a then-cutting edge CDC 3400 computer. It wasn't until the mid '80s that the campus saw widespread student use of computing and networking, initially using library computers
Dillo Day stadium with fireworks
Early 1970s: The University's annual springtime celebration is dubbed Armadillo (or 'Dillo) Day, a daylong celebration of sunshine and music.
1975 - Twenty-one couples kick off the inaugural dance marathon and raise $9,000 for charity. Today, dance marathon raises more than $1 million annually and is one of the largest student-run philanthropies in the nation.
1975: Twenty-one couples kicked off the inaugural dance marathon and raised $9,000 for charity. Today, dance marathon raises more than $1 million annually and is one of the largest student-run philanthropies in the nation.
1980 - By the 1980s, Northwestern offered nine varsity sports for women, including cross country, which soared for several years in the mid '80s.
1980: By the 1980s, Northwestern offered nine varsity sports for women, including cross country, which soared for several years in the mid '80s.
Picture of student and child dressed in costume at Project Pumpkin
Late 1980s: The Northwestern Community Development Corps student group began sponsoring Project Pumpkin, an annual Halloween celebration for area children held at Norris University Center.
Northwestern makes the Rose Bowl
1995: After almost half a century, the Wildcats rose up and made it back to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl. Northwestern ultimately lost the fast-paced and exciting game against University of Southern California. but a second Big Ten championship followed the next year along with a trip to the Citrus Bowl.
Picture of students working in the campus kitchen
2003: Students created a Northwestern branch of the national nonprofit Campus Kitchens. Participating students prepare meals using leftover food from dining halls and area restaurants and distribute those meals to those in need throughout Evanston.
Women's Lacrosse team celebrating victory.
2005: The women's lacrosse team won the national championship, the first of seven NCAA titles in eight years.
Photo of a girl in the solar car
2008: Northwestern University's solar car crossed the finish line in the North American Solar Challenge, placing 13th out of 25 teams registered for the race. This was the best finish for Northwestern's Solar Car Team in its 10-year history.
2009 - Northwestern's campus in Doha, Qatar, opened its doors to students from the Middle East and around the world. Students earn degrees in journalism and communication, with the hope they will help bring the story of the Middle East to the wider world.
2009: Northwestern's campus in Doha, Qatar, opened its doors to students from the Middle East and around the world. Students earn degrees in journalism and communication, with the hope they will help bring the story of the Middle East to the wider world.
Students marching through the arch
2011: A new tradition is born: Every incoming freshman class at the University is now led by the Northwestern University Wildcat Marching Band and cheered on by fellow students in a "March through the Arch" that welcomes first-year students and their families to Northwestern.
President Obama visits Northwestern.
2014: President Barack Obama delivered a major address on the economy to Kellogg School of Management students at Cahn Auditorium.
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