The city we now know as Duluth began developing in 1856, after the 1854 Treaty of LaPointe opened land north of Lake Superior for settlement by Americans of European descent. Superior, Wisconsin, pioneer George Stuntz famously set up the first structure—a trading post on the southern end of Minnesota Point—four years earlier. Between 1856 and 1859, pioneers established eleven townships from Fond du Lac in the west to Belville in the east. Many townships involved the same people: Orrin Rice of Rice’s Point was also a settler of Duluth, and Duluth’s first mayor, J. B. Culver, was also a trustee of Fond du Lac Township. These townships and others established in the 1880s would come together—most between 1888 and 1896—to form the City of Duluth.
Prior to European settlement the entire area familiar to us as Duluth and Superior, Wisconsin, was known as Fond du Lac, French for “bottom of the lake.” The name was also used for an Ojibwe settlement eighteen miles up the St. Louis River from Minnesota Point. In 1816 John Jacob Astor built the American Fur Post at Fond du Lac; the Ojibwe, who partnered with Astor in the fur trade, occupied an island adjacent to the fur post. The fur post was out of business by 1839, but a few people stayed, including Reverend Edmund Ely, who had established a missionary school for the Ojibwe. When the land opened to development in 1854, the previous infrastructure made it an ideal spot for a townsite, and in 1857 Fond du Lac was incorporated.
Three years before Fond du Lac’s incorporation, Reverend Ely relocated to Superior. That same year, 1854, he crossed the bay, landed near today’s Forty-Second Avenue West, and envisioned a townsite. Shortly thereafter, he contacted Henry Wheeler in St. Paul, who in 1855 walked from St. Paul to today’s West Duluth to set up a sawmill. Nearby, Lewis Merritt of Ashtabula, Ohio, and his son Napolean had struck a claim. They started calling the area Oneota, a word taken from a local Ojibwe legend meaning “the rock from which the people sprang.” Ely moved his family to the site in 1856, the same year the rest of the Merritts arrived from Ohio—and the year the town was surveyed, so goes the legend, with a “carpenter’s square and level.” The small community survived the Financial Panic of 1857 and a scarlet fever epidemic in 1859, the same year its citizens elected the first town council.
Orrin Rice, another Superior pioneer, moved his family across the bay in the spring of 1854 and filed a claim on the peninsula that jutted into the bay west of Minnesota Point and east of Oneota. Rice then operated a ferry service between Superior’s Conner’s Point, Minnesota Point, and the peninsula he had claimed, which in 1858 would be platted as Rice’s Point. The township stretched from the end of the point north to Point of Rocks and included a great deal of what would later be called Duluth’s West End. Rice had big ambitions for his township, and attempted to have Rice’s Point made the St. Louis County Seat—even temporarily changed its name to “Port Byron” to give it a more glamorous appeal. His efforts failed, but the Territorial Legislature did give him the sole rights to run his ferry service across the Bay—and state lines—to Connor’s Point for fifteen years.
East of Rice’s Point and west of Minnesota Point stood a tract of marshy land along the northern shore of what was then called Superior Bay (essentially below today’s Michigan Street between Minnesota Point and Rice’s Point). In 1856 C. P. Huestis and C. A. Post platted a township atop the muck and named it Fremont. Much of the township actually consisted of floating islands of “accumulated vegetable matter,” and few structures were built there.
As for Minnesota Point itself, several communities were established. (Pinpointing the precise original borders of these claims has been a source of frustration for researchers, as there is little written evidence, no maps, and plenty of contradictory anecdotal evidence; the following is the most logical summation at which the authors could arrive.) Beginning at Oatka (today’s Thirty-Ninth Street South) and running north to a point south of where the Duluth Ship Canal runs today, Robert Reed and T. A. Markland platted a community called Middleton. Directly north of Middleton, Englishman William G. Cowell purchased a tract stretching north to today’s Buchanan Street, called Cowell’s Addition. The land north of Cowell’s Addition to the base of the point was owned by pioneer brothers George and William Nettleton, who arrived in 1852 and staked a claim at the base of the point east of Third Avenue East that stretched west to Eighth Avenue West, corresponding to much of today’s downtown. John Pendergrast of New York platted the land immediately north of the Nettleton claim—essentially today’s Central Hillside. As the Nettletons would name their stake Duluth, Pendergrast called his North Duluth. Pendergrast lost much of his land when a false claim he made against the Nettletons backfired on him; he forfeited all but eighty acres to the Nettletons. By the time Duluth was incorporated by George and William Nettleton, Joshua B. Culver, Orrin Rice, and Robert Jefferson, it included North Duluth, the Nettleton property, Cowell’s Addition, and Middleton, stretching from today’s Central Hillside to Oatka. At South 19th Street the township split into Upper Duluth and Lower Duluth.
Platted in 1856 by seven men led by James D. Ray and Clinton Markell, Portland stretched roughly from Third Avenue East to Twelfth Avenue East. Sidney Luce built the first warehouse at Portland’s southeastern corner, where Third Avenue East meets Lake Superior. It stood three-stories tall, with half of its foundation carved into rock on its north side and the other half perched atop cribbing submerged in the lake on the south. Portland was established as a residential area, and most of its incorporators and residents had business interests in Duluth.
East of Portland stood Endion, platted by Captain T. A. Markland as a quiet suburb for “capitalists doing business at Superior,” which at the time looked to be the region’s city of destiny. The township—named after the Ojibwe word for “my, your, or his home”—stretched from Fourteenth Avenue East to about Twenty-First Avenue East. East of Endion in 1856 J. B. Bell platted a township between Fortieth and Forty-Third Avenues East from Lake Superior to today’s McCullough Street and named the town Belville after himself.
In 1857 the Minnesota State legislature incorporated all eleven townships, in which about 1,500 souls lived and worked. That same year a financial panic struck the nation, putting the pioneers’ dreams on hold. Most left before the decade ended.
Few stayed behind to oversee the young townships after the Panic of 1857, and the Civil War further decimated the population, as many pioneers set off to fight for the Union. In 1860 the three largest townships—Duluth, Oneota, and Fond du Lac—had a total population of just 353. No deliveries were made to the Minnesota townships; all goods had to be purchased in Superior, and the pioneers had little to eat outside of fish pulled from Lake Superior. Those who rode out the financial panic in Duluth called themselves the “Ancient and Honorable Order of the Fish Eaters.”
The mid-1860s brought hope in the form of Philadelphia’s Jay Cooke, who set out to build the Northern Pacific Railroad from Duluth to Seattle’s Puget Sound and the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad from St. Paul to Duluth. Cooke’s ambitious plans brought prosperity to Duluth: to build railroads, you need manpower and materials. Soon the townships were teeming with people and activity, nearly all living off Cooke’s pocketbook in one way or another, either building his railroad (or working any number of jobs in support of that effort) or housing, feeding, and outfitting the flow of newcomers.
Cooke’s investment also coincided with what turned out to be a false gold rush at Lake Vermilion. The prospectors came in droves, and when their plans went bust, many found work in the Minnesota townships. Building that had stalled in 1857 picked up again after 1866. The newcomers not only built Cooke’s depots, docks, and a grain elevator, but also the buildings that would house and serve the growing population. By 1869 the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad approached Duluth and the local population neared 3,000. The Fish Eaters called the newcomers “Sixty-Niners.”
The townships were all growing, but Portland had a problem. When first platted, its streets ran directly north and south. The other townships had platted their streets more or less parallel to the lake, essentially tipping the traditional North/South compass points on a 45 degree angle. In order to follow suit with the other townships, in 1869 every house in Portland was temporarily vacated, the streets replatted to align with other townships, and the house placements adjusted. Washington Avenue remained a north/south road, but only a half-block remnant of it exists today.