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In 1838, the Wisconsin state territorial legislature declared that a University of Wisconsin should be established “at or near Madison, the seat of government.” Ten years later, Wisconsin's first governor, Nelson Dewey, signed the act that officially established the university and entrusted its government to a board of regents. In 1862, Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act, which granted public lands to several states for the establishment of a university.

According to a report by the Board of Regents in 1848, a committee examined several locations and found College Hill (now known as Bascom Hill) to be the most suitable, sitting only one mile west of the Capitol, and elevated enough to oversee the village of Madison, the four lakes and the surrounding countryside.

An article in the October 10, 1848 issue of Wisconsin Argus newspaper described College Hill as such:

"It affords one of the most enchanting views which can be found in the state—indeed, we do not recollect one that is, on the whole, equal to it. A more delightful and appropriate location for a college or university cannot be found."

The university's first classes were held on February 5, 1849 at the Madison Female Academy (on the southeastern corner of Johnson and Wisconsin — the future site of Madison’s Central High School and, eventually, Madison College), by the early 1850s, all university business had moved to Bascom Hill, which is to this day the heart of campus.

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