The Hogg Poplar? The Myth of the Davie Poplar

Illustration of commissioners searching for a site for the university. (Yackety Yack, 1935)

On this day, 220 years ago, the Board of Trustees chose the location for the University of North Carolina. You have probably heard the legend of how it was chosen. If you haven’t, it goes like this: The committee that had been charged with the task of finding a location for the new university were wearily wandering through the woods west of the newly selected capital. Tired, hungry, and thirsty, the committee stopped beneath a great tree for a picnic. After they ate, they fell asleep beneath the tree, overcome by fatigue, a food coma, too much alcohol, or some combination of the three. When they awoke, William R. Davie announced that there could be no better spot for the new university than where this tree stood. He and his committee unanimously recommended the location to the Board of Trustees, who adopted the committee’s proposal. The tree that Davie and his committee slept under was named the “Davie Poplar” to honor William R. Davie’s discovery.

It is a great story. Unfortunately, not a bit of it is true. In fact, William R. Davie wasn’t even on the committee that chose the site of the university. So how was the location of the university decided?

John Daniel's Survey of University Lands with annotations, November 7-8, 1792 (University of North Carolina Papers, #40005, University Archives)

John Daniel's Survey of University Lands with annotations, November 7-8, 1792 (University of North Carolina Papers, #40005, University Archives)

In Hillsborough on August 1st, 1792, the Board of Trustees decided that they would vote on a location from which the university could be no more than 15 miles. Given the choice of Pittsboro, Williamsborough (near present day Henderson), Charlotte, Hillsborough, Goshen (near present day Wilkesboro), Smithfield, or Cyprus Bridge and New Hope, the Board of Trustees chose Cyprus Bridge and New Hope because of its central location.

The Board of Trustees then dispatched a committee to New Hope to determine the precise location of the university. The eight committee members, none of whom were named William Davie, represented the eight districts the Board of Trustees had divided the state into. During the first week of November, the committee surveyed the land surrounding New Hope and received various offers of land and money from land owners who wished to have the university built on their land. However, the offer James Hogg put together on behalf of Chapel Hill dwarfed all others. It included over 1100 acres (nearly double the next highest offer) $780, and 150,000 bricks for the first building. On December 3rd, the search committee proposed that Chapel Hill be the site of the new university and the Board of Trustees unanimously approved the proposal.

Board of Trustees Minutes, Vol. 1, 1789-1798, p. 82

List of land donors and amount of acreage donated for the new university in Chapel Hill (from the Board of Trustees Minutes, Vol. 1, 1789-1798, p. 82)

The story of James Hogg aggressively encouraging his neighbors to donate land is not as glamorous as the “love at first sight” legend of William Davie and the old poplar. And “Hogg Poplar” definitely does not roll off the tongue as easily as “Davie Poplar”. But next time you are enjoying the beautiful scenery of Chapel Hill, you might want to take a moment to thank James Hogg.

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2 Responses to The Hogg Poplar? The Myth of the Davie Poplar

  1. K. Lawson says:

    Christopher Barbee is my gggggrandfather and is one of the neighbors who donated land for the university. So interesting so see his name on this original document.

  2. Donnie Strickland says:

    Matthew McCauley was my GGGG Grandfather who donated 150 acres to the University and his brother donated 100 acres. I’m 62 years old and never knew about this until just recently. How cool!!

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