The Founding of the University: Myths and Heroes

March 6, 2001

by James E. Turner
UA Historian
Special for Lo Que Pasa

"Who ever heard of a professor buying a drink?" That's supposedly why saloonkeepers didn't want the university in Tucson.

Many wild West tales have grown up around the founding of the University of Arizona, and the real heroes have too often been ignored. It may not be as exciting as the myth - no gunplay is involved - but it is a story of men of vision, conviction and persistence.

The true founder of the University of Arizona is undoubtedly Jacob Samuel Mansfeld, an education-minded bookseller. Born in 1833 in Pasewalk, Germany, Mansfeld immigrated to San Francisco in 1856. After keeping store in the goldfields, he endured a bone-rattling wagon trip to Tucson in 1869 because he heard there were no bookstores in Arizona. Mansfeld opened the Pioneer News Depot, and ran it until he died in 1894. A man of integrity and service, at various times Mansfeld served as city councilman, county supervisor and trustee of the Tucson Public Library.

Like many village stores, Mansfeld's was a place to relax and talk about topics of the day. It is not surprising that before the 13th Arizona Territorial Legislature convened in Prescott in 1885, a few prominent men met in Mansfeld's store to discuss what political gains might be secured for Pima County. According to territorial representative Selim Franklin, the university was considered the most realistic option, more for its federal funding than its academic promise.

The end of the 19th century was an era of political featherbedding and boondoggles, and Arizona was no exception. That year's Legislature earned the name "Thieving Thirteenth" because of its outrageous expenditures, and big prizes went to the shrewdest politicians. First and foremost, Tucson was determined to regain the capital, which it lost to Prescott in 1877. Tucsonans sent their representatives to Prescott with instructions not to come back without it. The second largest financial allocation was for an insane asylum. That plum went to Phoenix, and many believe that they still have a greater need of it.

Tucsonans trusted territorial councilor (senator) C. C. Stephens to bring home the capital. Unfortunately, they hadn't considered the bigger political picture. According to Stephens, weather caused his late arrival and a political "bloc" of northern legislators had already agreed to leave the capital in Prescott. More likely, Stephens' business allegiance had more to do with it. As an attorney for the Southern Pacific Railroad, he had a vested interest complying with their desires.

When they learned what was going on, Tucsonans held a mass meeting and sent Frederick Maish to the Legislature armed with a satchel stuffed with $4,000 to "treat the boys" and bring home the capital. Although the bill passed the house, it died in the council where legislators, once bought, had the integrity to stay bought. Not daring to go home without a prize, Stephens opted for the university.

In spite of others' political chicanery, there was one 25-year-old legislator who wanted the university in Tucson. Born in 1859 and orphaned at age 12, Selim Maurise Franklin arrived in Tucson in 1876 and was raised by his uncles, Barron and Lionel Jacobs. Earning his law degree from the University of California in 1883, he returned to Tucson to practice law. Fearing that the university bill might not make it through the house, Franklin gave an impassioned speech on the last day of the session.

"Gentlemen, the Thirteenth Legislative Assembly is generally conceded to have been the most energetic, the most conscientious and the most corrupt Arizona has ever had. We have been called the Fighting Thirteenth, the Bloody Thirteenth and the Thieving Thirteenth. We have deserved these names and we know it. We have employed too many clerks, we have subsidized the local press to cover up our shortcomings, and we have voted ourselves additional pay in violation of an Act of Congress.

"But, gentlemen, here is an opportunity to wash away our sins. Let us establish an institution of learning, where for all time to come the youth of the land may learn to become better citizens than we are, and all our shortcomings will be forgotten in a misty past and we will be remembered for this one great achievement."

The Legislature passed the bill on March 12, 1885, and it was time to go home. Stephens called a mass meeting on his return to Tucson, hoping to smooth things over. The townspeople were so enraged that they "rotten-egged him," threw spoiled vegetables and, legend has it, even a dead cat. Stephens hired a large bodyguard who spirited him away from the mob scene, but it was not long before the honorable councilor sought permanent refuge in California.

Signing the bill was just the beginning, however. The legislative act provided that 40 acres must be provided within a year or the $25,000 federal appropriation would lapse. The governor appointed regents to carry out the provision, but only Jacob Mansfeld bothered to qualify. Mansfeld told the other appointees and said that they should take the oath or resign. When they refused, he convinced the governor to appoint former mayor Charles M. Strauss, Mariano G. Samaniego and Dr. John C. Handy.

No one wanted to provide land for a university and some even wanted to use the federal money to drill a new town well or build public schools. Mansfeld selected a mesa three miles east of town. He and Franklin spent the next six months goading Tucson landowners - the infamous two gamblers and saloonkeeper, E. B. Gifford, Ben C. Parker and William S. Read - to donate the 40 acres before time ran out. As Harry Arizona Drachman described them, "I do not mean tinhorn gamblers; I refer to the men, many of whom came from the East and from fine and religious families, and were men of high character. They were good men. It was their business that was bad."

Even so, to say that these land donors founded the University of Arizona does a disservice to Mansfeld, Franklin, and the other regents. Better to say that a bookseller and a young lawyer persuaded some rough Western characters to think of the future instead of their profits. The regents quickly accepted the land at its first meeting on Nov. 27, 1886. The rest is history.