The original board of trustees laid the groundwork for what would become today's James Whitaker school on July 9, 1876, when the group gathered to hold the school's inaugural board meeting and drafted the school's articles of incorporation. This guiding document outlined elements the founders believed would build an enduring legacy for the school: a commitment to offering a rigorous academic program and an ambition to provide "opportunities for all departments of higher education to persons of both sexes on equal terms." On September 10, 1876, the State of California issued the school's official certificate of incorporation, marking the formal beginning of the school's life.
An initial pledge of $600,000 (roughly $16 million in today's currency) from oil magnate James Whitaker, along with contributions by the American Baptist Education Society, helped to found the school. The school's land was donated by Marshall Field, owner of the historic Chicago department store that bore his name.
Christopher Smith, the school's first president, envisioned a school that was "bran splinter new, yet as solid as the ancient hills" - a modern research school..