Skip to Main Content

Course & Subject Guides

University Archives @ Pitt: Historical Records

Guide to collections documenting the history of the University of Pittsburgh

Early History of the University, Pre-1845

The University was founded in 1787 as the Pittsburgh Academy in a modest building in what is now downtown Pittsburgh. It remained an Academy until 1819, when it was granted a charter to become the Western University of Pennsylvania. The records of the Pittsburgh Academy and the early records of the Western University of Pennsylvania were destroyed in two devastating fires in 1845 and 1849. 

Log Cabin schoolhouse of Pittsburgh Academy, 1787

The earliest existing minutes of the University Trustees are from 1845 and are located in the University Archives.  The two histories of the university, Agnes Lynch Starrett's Through One Hundred and Fifty Years and Robert Alberts' Pitt: the Story of the University of Pittsburgh reconstruct the early history through other historical documents and  secondary sources.


Becoming Pitt

The charter establishing the University of Pittsburgh is housed in the Pennsylvania State Archives.  The original document was repaired and scanned and is now available on the Documenting Pitt website.  Click on the images below to see a pdf of the charters.

Thumbnail image of Pittsburgh Academy charter, February 28, 1787

The charter that elevated the Pittsburgh Academy to the Western University of Pennsylvania is also located there. 

For its 225th anniversary, the University of Pittsburgh created a timeline of the history of the University from Pittsburgh Academy to the present.

The Western University of Pennsylvania, 1845-1908

Between 1849 and 1855 the University was alive, but dormant.  A building was constructed and in 1855 a headmaster was secured; however, after a dismal period of struggle, the Trustees hired a scholar and leader to take over the business of running the University.  In 1858 George Woods accepted the post of Chancellor and began to build the University.  In 1890 the University moved into two buildings on Observatory Hill in what is now Pittsburgh's North Side.  In 1909 the University moved one final time to Oakland, and changed its name to the University of Pittsburgh.

The records of the University from 1845 to the beginning of the 1900's are mostly limited to the minutes of the Board of Trustees.  By the early 1900's there are records of the Chancellors, beginning with William Jacob Holland.  Board of Trustees minutes are closed for a period of 25 years before they are available for use at the University Archives.

Western University of Pennsylvania, 1837

The University of Pittsburgh, 1908-Present

The move to Oakland, or Schenley Farms as it was named then, called for a new set of buildings.  State Hall was the first building of the new campus plan that was to have some 20 new buidlings constructed on the hill.  The plan was to follow a Greek Revivial style of architecture laid out by Henry Hornbostel.  Now in a more permanent home, the University of Pittsburgh grew as a result of new interest in academics, investment by Pittsburgh's prominent businessmen, and a certain notoriety gained by its winning football team.  

For various reasons, the Hornbostel plan was never completely finished, but Chancellor John G. Bowman's dream to build the Cathedral of Learning on a plot of land called Frick Acres soon became a reality. In addition to various administrative records, the University Archives holds the documentation and drawings of the Cathedral, as well as many other buildings on campus.
The University Archives also maintains a set of general Information Files on the various departments, programs, projects and functions of the University.

Board of Trustees, Chancellors and Other Administrative Records

The minutes of the Board of Trustees (1845-present) are housed in the University Archives.  Minutes of the board meetings are restricted for 25 years after their inception, but there are sets of public board minutes that are available for that time period in the University Archives, as well as at the Library and other campus offices.  The make up and function of the Board is available on the Chancellors website.

Chancellors McCormick, Brashear and Holland at the laying of the cornerstone of State Hall, the first building constructed on the new campus in Oakland.

The University Archives has some scattered records of the early Chancellors and Principals, but the first substantive collection is that of William J. Holland beginning in 1891. Following is a list of the Chancellors with links to guides for their records:  

Per University rules, executive files are closed for 25 years after the official leaves office.

The University Archives also includes records of various departments of the University of Pittsburgh.  Because many collection guides are not yet online, you should also contact the Archives directly if you cannot find what you're looking for.