To provide funding for the newly founded university in 1789, William R. Davie wrote and helped pass through the legislature an act that would give to the university all unclaimed land and property in the state. Known later as the Escheats Act, after a legal term for the reversion of property to the state, this would be the primary source of revenue for the university for decades. These funds were essential for the early growth of the school but also led to some unusual and troubling results. During the first few years of the university, a good bit of the land that was sold to fund the school was in far western North Carolina, in what is now Tennessee.
In the early to mid-nineteenth century, the unclaimed property allocated to the university sometimes included enslaved women, men, and children. Agents working on behalf of the university participated in the domestic slave trade, seeking to earn as much as possible for the university through these transactions. In some cases, including one described in Kemp Plummer Battle's History of the University of North Carolina (1907—12), this meant breaking apart families.
The state of North Carolina still has an escheats fund, but it is no longer earmarked solely for UNC—Chapel Hill. Money in the fund is used to support scholarships and other education initiatives statewide.
Date Established: 1789
Date Range: 1789 – Present