In the Beginning: Campus before MSU
How do you picture campus before Michigan State University came into existence? For me, on hearing that the first students spent a good portion of their time everyday cutting trees, pulling stumps, and draining swamps so that they could then get to the business of agriculture, a romantic image pops into my head of an unaltered wilderness from which an institution of learning would soon rise (thanks to the strong backs of the first students, faculty, and staff). This is not exactly true. While the area purchased by the State of Michigan to start a new agricultural college was largely forested wilderness, it was not unoccupied. This is important to understand for us at the Campus Archaeology Program, as we need to be able to recognize and interpret early finds when they are discovered.
When the land for the Michigan Agricultural College was purchased in 1855, it encompassed a number of ecological zones, including closed forests, patches of open forest, marshes, swamps, river bottoms, and others, which all provided habitats for a variety of plants and animals (Kuhn 1955:12). Such diversity in wildlife and soils, as well as access to the Red Cedar River and a small creek or stream, made this area ideal for individuals looking to live off the land. Both Native Americans and frontier settlers saw the potential of this area and aimed to make the most of it. As early as 3,000 years ago, Native Americans had been using this abundant landscape for hunting, fishing, and other activities, which you can read about here. Much later in time, as the state of Michigan was being increasingly populated by Euro-American settlers, two families lived on plots of land that would soon become the north half of MSU’s campus. In the corner of campus that now contains the Psychology Building, Mason-Abbot Hall, and Synyder-Phillips Hall, the Smith family ran a small farm, which included fruit trees and small agricultural fields, as well as a wood frame house that was eventually moved and reused by the College (Kuhn 1955:12). On the other side of campus, in the current location of Adams Field and the Music building, was a small farm ran by Robert Burcham and his family (Beal 1915:14; Kuhn 1955:12; Lautner 1978:17, 35). As I am currently exploring the history of this western side of West Circle, I decided to delve a little deeper into the Burcham Farm.
In 1851, four years before the land was purchased in order to form the college, Robert Burcham began to build a small log cabin and clear several small fields in the area of where the Music building and Adams Field now stand (Beal 1915; Kuhn 1955. Lautner 1978). He also planted and tended a few fruit trees in this same area (Beal 1915:14). Based on a map that used various resources to create a vision of what campus would have looked like in 1857 (Figure 1 above, found in Lautner 1978:35), Burcham’s agricultural fields and orchard were laid out in the area that is now Adams Field, while his log cabin appears to have been built where the Music Building now stands. Since this map is a composition from various sources and was not scientifically charted, it is unknown if the footprint of the Music building completely covers where the Burcham Cabin sat or if the cabin was located a short distance away.
In 1852, Burcham and his family moved into the cabin and began farming and trading. While they made their living off the land, the Burchams also interacted with Native Americans that intermittently camped along the south side of the Red Cedar River. At any one time, hundreds of Native Americans may have camped in this area, hunting, fishing, processing maple sap, and trading skins and meat with the Burchams for various agricultural products and refined goods like flour (Kuhn 1955:12; Lautner 1978:17).
After 1855, when the land was purchased by the State of Michigan, it is unclear exactly what happened to the Burcham Farm. While Kuhn (1955:37) writes that the fields previously cleared by the Burchams were used from the very beginning of the College for growing crops and instructing students, other records indicate that the Burcham’s continued to live on this small plot of land. As seen on the above map, their farm appears to have still been operational as of 1857, when the College first opened its doors. Housed in the MSU Archives and Historical Collections (Madison Kuhn Collection- UA 17.107 box 2410 folder 40) are also a small number of receipts of payment spanning into the mid-1860s (Figures 2 and 3). These receipts document payments made to Robert Burcham for a number of jobs done on behalf of the College, such as hauling stones for building materials, chopping down trees and turning them into fire wood, and days of digging. These receipts, along with the lack of construction that took place in this area early on, suggest that the Burcham family lived on campus for at least a decade after the land was purchased. While it is unknown when they left, the Burcham farm is not identified on a map made by Dr. Beal in 1870, indicating that they no longer lived on this property by that time.
So, next time you stop by the Music Building, remember the Burchams and how they helped to tame the wilderness that would soon become the campus of Michigan State University.
Author: Jeff Painter
Beal, W. J.
1915 History of the Michigan Agricultural College and Biographical Sketches of Trustees and Professors. Michigan Agricultural College, East Lansing.
1955 Michigan State: The First Hundred Years. The Michigan State University Press, East Lansing.
Lautner, Harold W.
1978 From an Oak Opening: A Record of the Development of the Campus Park of Michigan State University, 1855-1969. Volume 1. Self-published manuscript on file at the MSU Archives and Historical Collections.
MSU Archives and Historical Collections
Burcham, Robert- Receipts for Services, 1853-1864. UA 17.107, Box 2410, Folder 40.