Berkeley Landmarks :: Founders’ Rock

Founders’ Rock

Hearst Avenue at Gayley Road, Berkeley, CA

Susan Cerny

Photo: Daniella Thompson, 2007

3 March 2001

The University of California was founded in 1868, but its origins date back to 1860 when the College of California, a small, private institution then located in Oakland, purchased thirty acres of land for the “benefits of a country location.”

On 16 April 1860, the trustees of the College of California met at the location of Founders’ Rock to dedicate their new campus.

Among those present were the Reverends Samuel H. Willey, D. B. Cheney, Henry Durant, and Frederick Billings. Billings is credited with choosing the name Berkeley for the townsite surrounding the college, and popular tradition has him standing on the rock when the name Berkeley came to him.

In 1866, the California legislature established the College of Agriculture, Mining, and Mechanical Arts.

Two years later, with the passage of the Charter Act by the legislature, the new state college joined with the College of California, and the University of California was formed.

Founders’ Rock, located at Hearst Avenue and Gayley Road, is a natural outcropping of unusual geologic composition that may have been thrust up by activity centuries ago on the nearby Hayward Fault.

It was once the most prominent feature in the surrounding landscape. The plaque commemorating Founders’ Rock was placed there by the graduating class of 1896.

Photo: Daniella Thompson, 2007

This article was originally published in the Berkeley Daily Planet.


Editor’s note: Many stories circulate about the naming of the town. The Centennial Record of the University of California offers the official story:

A Brief History of the University of California

The hope for a University of California was expressed at the first Constitutional Convention in Monterey in 1849—a year after the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill and a year before California’s admission to the union. But the new state, for all of its apparent wealth, lacked the means to support government and education. To fill the vacuum, private schools and academies sprang up. Among the founders was a handful of churchmen sent by the American Home Missionary Society of New York to minister to human souls in the mining camps and boom towns. They opened the Contra Costa Academy in Oakland in 1853. Two years later, it was incorporated as the COLLEGE OF CALIFORNIA. Through a transfer of its buildings and lands to the state, this institution gave impetus to the creation of the University of California.

Supporters in those early years included the Rev. Samuel H. Willey, who had arrived in 1849 for work in the territorial capital of Monterey; Sherman Day, the son of Yale’s President Jeremiah Day; the Rev. Henry Durant of Yale—who was to become head of the College of California and first President of the University; and the Rev. Dr. Horace Bushnell, who came to California for his health but devoted his visit to a search for a site for the future university.

Land and a Charter

Debt stalked the College of California from the beginning and bill collectors routinely waylaid Durant in the streets of Oakland.

Despite intense dedication on the part of Durant, the students, trustees, and friends of the college, the future remained doubtful.

In 1853, Congress had bestowed upon the state 46,000 acres of public lands, proceeds of the sale of which were to be used for a “seminary of learning.”

In 1862, the MORRILL ACT offered a grant of public lands to each state that would establish a college teaching agriculture and the mechanic arts—and California’s share was 150,000 acres. Taking advantage of this grant, the legislature in 1866 established an AGRICULTURAL, MINING AND MECHANICAL ARTS COLLEGE.

The new college had funds but no campus. The College of California had an adequate site, but limited funds. Therefore, when the College of California in 1867 offered its buildings and lands to the state on condition that a “complete university” be established to teach the humanities as well as agriculture, mining, and mechanics, the legislature accepted. The act of 1866 was repealed, and a new act passed. Signed by Governor H. H. Haight on March 23, 1868—Charter Day—the new act created the University of California.

The college property, in addition to the Oakland site, included land for a new campus among the oak trees and open fields, four miles to the north.

After prolonged deliberation by leaders of the university movement, the surrounding townsite was named for George Berkeley, Bishop of Cloyne, who had visited America in 1729 in the hope of founding an educational institution for the evangelization and education of “aboriginal Americans.” Finding the time not right, he provided the model for Columbia University and endowed three scholarships at Yale.

He is the author of the poem whose lines hold a special meaning for Californians:

“Westward the course of empire takes its way;
The four first acts already past.
A fifth shall close the drama with the day;
Time’s noblest offspring is the last.”

Founders’ Rock

Founders’ Rock is located on the north side of the campus near the corner of Hearst Avenue and Gayley Road. On this outcropping, 12 trustees of the College of California stood on April 16, 1860 to dedicate property they had just purchased as a future campus for their college. In 1866, again at Founders’ Rock, a group of College of California men were watching two ships standing out to sea through the Golden Gate. One of them, Frederick Billings, was reminded of the lines of Bishop Berkeley, “Westward the course of empire takes its way,” and suggested that the town and college site be named for the eighteenth-century English [sic] philosopher and poet.

On Charter Day, 1896, the senior class commemorated the dedication of the campus by placing a memorial tablet on Founders’ Rock.

Photo: Daniella Thompson, 2007

More information is provided in Chapter 3 of Sally Woodbridge’s book John Galen Howard and the University of California.


Founders’ Rock was designated a City of Berkeley Landmark on 25 February 1991. It is #82004642 on the National Register of Historic Places (added in 1982). Along with other historic features of the University of California campus, the rock is part of California Historic Landmark No. 946.



Copyright © 2004–2021 Daniella Thompson & BAHA. Text © 2001–2016 Susan Cerny. All rights reserved.