The European fur trade drove the early economy at the head of the lakes, long before Superior and Duluth became cities. The trade was dominated by the French and English. Even after the War of Independence, the British traded at Fort St. Louis at the mouth of the St. Louis River in what would become Superior, Wisconsin. The post burned to the ground in 1800, but the British kept trading in the region. Nine years later German immigrant John Jacob Astor made a bet on the fur trade and established the American Fur Company. Astor—who would become the world’s first millionaire—then established a small post in what is today the Duluth neighborhood of Fond du Lac.
Astor chose Fond du Lac because the Ojibwe had established themselves there by 1770 and were key to a successful trade. Unfortunately for Astor, the Ojibwe preferred to trade with the French and British. The War of 1812 put an end to all that: the post-war American Congress barred foreigners from trading in American territory. And so in 1816 Astor took over the British North West Company’s interests and a year later built a new fort at Fond du Lac, managed by William Morrison.
Astor’s facility included a two-story log building, a granary, an ice house, a stable, a dormitory for traders, and the post commander’s house. The fort was surrounded by a cedar-post fence. It faced the St. Louis River near today’s 133rd Avenue West. An Ojibwe village stood on an island directly across from the post.
The outpost became a center of trade and a natural spot for gatherings. In 1826 Michigan territorial governor William Cass and Colonel Thomas L. McKenney, the head of the newly formed United States Indian Department, gathered native leaders from throughout the region at Fond du Lac to ratify a treaty designed to both stop fighting among the Ojibwe, Dakota, and other tribes as well as to establish U.S. dominance in the region. Artist James Otto Lewis traveled with McKinney to Fond du Lac and painted watercolors of both the treaty signing and Astor’s fur post, shown on the previous page depicting both the front and back of the post.
Unfortunately for Astor, the fur trade declined steeply just five years later. The 1830s saw the fur post turn to commercial fishing to bolster its profits. Astor’s charter expired in 1833, leaving trader Ramsay Crooks in charge of the post. At this same time Protestant missionaries like Edmund Ely came to the region. Ely helped establish a mission and taught grammar and arithmetic to the native and mixed-race children who lived near the fort. Ely also worked on converting locals to Christianity and set to work on a Chippewa language dictionary. But economic realities continued to hinder population growth: A financial panic in 1837 coincided with the increased popularity of silk hats in Europe, and the European fur trade came to a screeching halt. The fisheries operated by the fur company saw bountiful harvests, but had few customers. The company failed in 1842, the fur post ceased operating by 1847, and the mission closed its doors in 1849.
The post was abandoned and soon fell into decay (see below). In 1900 its ruins were finally removed. In the 1930s a replica of the trading post was built in nearby Chamber’s Grove Park. Created as a tourist attraction, it was much smaller than the original post and its popularity was short lived. The long-neglected reconstruction was demolished in 1968. The actual fur post site was set aside as Astor Park, recently renamed Historical Park.