Scotland’s Isle of Lewis helped shape Duluth

This story first posted June 8, 2012

Dig deep enough into the clannish histories of any smaller city in America and you’ll find lines of immigration that darken well-trodden paths from even smaller places all over Europe. Relatives bring relatives, childhood friends invite childhood friends, and soon enough you have neighborhoods called Little Italy or Polish Town where a handful of names encompass a dense intermarriage mosaic tracing back to some obscure place in the Old Country.

It could be said that Duluth was built on the backs—and wallets—of one such group, hailing from the Isle of Lewis, the largest island in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.  The exact numbers of Lewismen and women who set down roots in the Twin Ports are unknown, but for an island most people have never heard of, easily over a hundred were here by the 1880s, bringing with them traditions and especially music that must have been heard by teams of construction workers throughout the building boom of the time.

Before Duluth was even a thought, there were Lewismen plying the waters of Lake Superior in the employ of the iconic Hudson Bay Company, who prized fur traders from the Isle of Lewis for their hardiness and ability to maintain good relations with the local Native Americans.

The first Lewisman known to arrive in Duluth after its founding was William L. Maclennan, who came here in the 1860s after trying to make good in Ontario. Like so many of our earliest settlers, he plunged his fingers into many business pots, finding success as a contractor, banker and land investor. Perhaps his biggest physical contribution was the ill-fated breakwater, built to create a safe harbor in front of Minnesota Point prior to the digging of the canal. He also served on the founding board of the American Exchange Bank, the first in Duluth. Its first manager, Angus R. Macfarlane, was another Lewisman, originally from Stornoway, the largest town on the island.  (Macfarlane was in turn one of the three Scotsmen who founded the Hunters Park and Glen Avon neighborhoods, Glen Avon Presbyterian Church and the Duluth Curling Club.)

Heather isle, heather isle
Heather isle of the high mountains
Where I was brought up
My beloved Isle of Lewis

Both Macfarlane and Maclennan brought their families to Duluth to settle. Maclennan’s wife Julia was a Stornoway Macleod, and her father Roderick and brothers John and Roland soon followed in turn. The Macleod family’s construction business had a hand in building many of Duluth’s early buildings, including both St. Mary’s and St. Luke’s hospitals, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, the Kitchi Gammi Club, McDougall’s Duluth Shipyard, and the Sellwood, Glass Block, Columbia and Northern Cold Storage buildings—not to mention many of the grain elevators in the region.

William’s son, Donald R. Maclennan, began his Duluth insurance career around 1894, eventually co-founding Marsh & Maclennan Co., now one of Wall Street’s largest brokerage firms. You may remember them as the company whose offices in the World Trade Center were completely wiped out during the September 11 terrorist attacks.

Other Lewismen involved in Duluth’s early grain business included Thomas Gibson, Roderick R. Macfarlane, and Donald Maciver. Thomas Gibson was related to Andrew Gibson, a fish merchant who came here in 1884. Murdo Gibson, one of Andrew’s sons, became somewhat famous as an outdoorsman, writer with the Izaak Walton League, and outfitter. A 1928 article about him in the Duluth News Tribune extols Murdo’s adventurous spirit, listing his accomplishments as dog musher, Klondike prospector, lumberjack, timber cruiser, forester, philosopher and cowboy, not to mention his youthful exploits as an adventurer in the American West, where he was a poolroom marker, muleskinner and railroad bum—those last all before age 18.

Two of Duluth’s prominent early grocers were from the Isle of Lewis.  Alexander M. Morrison opened a grocery store here in 1876, and Simon Clark started his grocery in 1880. He eventually became a national leader in the Grocer’s Association, the manager of the Duluth Marine Supply Company, and a major player in Duluth’s civic and charitable affairs.

Another Lewis descendant was D.B. Macdonald, who was involved in early mining exploration on the Iron Range, banking, founder of Cole McDonald Exploration Co. and president of the Zenith Dredge Co. His son Donald C. MacDonald inherited a role in Zenith Dredge, bringing it successfully into the war effort during World War Two. Notably, he was also a leader in Superior Wood Products—later known as Superwood.

The name of the Isle of Lewis comes from the Gaelic Leodhas, which some scholars think comes from a Norse word meaning “song house.” This is appropriate because it seems that much of early Duluth culture was influenced by the music brought by these Scots. Donald M. Morrison, who came here in 1886, became known in Duluth as “The Bard of Lewis” because he was an authority on the Gaelic language and wrote and composed many Gaelic songs. Another Duluthian from Lewis was John Matheson, an award-winning singer as a child in Scotland and participant in the 1940 National Folk Festival in Washington D.C. Twenty-nine of his songs were recorded and preserved in the Library of Congress by prominent folk song researcher Sidney Robertson Cowell.

Today, most obvious traces in Duluth of its Lewismen and women forbears are gone, but there still remains Lewis Street in the Glen Avon neighborhood, named by Angus Macfarlane in honor of his homeland.

[To hear the original Gaelic version of the song quoted above (Eilean Fraoich)—and other beautiful recordings from the Isle of Lewis, including many about emigration and the longings it produced—click here.]

12 Responses to Scotland’s Isle of Lewis helped shape Duluth

  1. My grandmother, Mina Morrison, came to Duluth from Stornoway in 1885. Her sister, Elizabeth Morrison Clark and brother-in-law, George Clark were already here. George was Simon Clark’s brother. My grandfather Dr, James George Harris DVM, not a Lewisman as his parents came from Glasgow and Fife, came from Ottawa in 1889. He had a veterinary office in 1890 at 218 W. Superior St, now the Minnesota Surplus store. There are descendants of the Morrison sisters in the Twin Cities, Milwaukee, St. Joseph, and Florida.

  2. Dear Heidi, what fun to read this piece early this morning. I have sent it to my sandbox pal John
    MacArthur whose box was at their home at 127 Lewis Street in “Oatmeal Hill” as my father called our
    home in Hunter’s Park, which was down Columbus Street a couple of houses from Lewis Street.
    What great memories of growing up among the houses built by MacFarlane, Ferguson, McCabe
    MacArthur etal.

    John’s father, John D. MacArthur, was one of the earliest employees at Marsh McLennan starting as a
    young teenager and retiring from there in his seventies. My pal became a very successful surgeon out
    east. We graduated from Washburn Grade School in1945 right as WWII was ending.

    Keep up your exciting research and writing.

    Grant Merritt

  3. The Isle of Lewis was purchased by Sir James Matheson a few hundred years ago. Anyone with the surname of Matheson that is from the Isle of Lewis is most likely a cousin or of some relation. The Matheson family built the famous Lews Castle and used it as a family home. I grew up in northern MN and my grandmother was a Matheson. The Lewis name is Norse for “song house” or Gaelic for “Leòdhas”which means “marshy”. It has no relation to the Lewis surname.

  4. Came across the information re the connection of the Island Of Lewis Scotland with Duluth. My uncle Donald Macdonald Morrison is mentioned and just one week ago his great grandaughter from St Louis was visiting the Island of Lewis for a family gatherng.
    I am now preparing a newspaper article about the Lewis connection with Duluth and trying to source a photograph which was of the Lewis Society of Duluth circa 1890
    The article should appear in a publication called Back in the Day published by the Stornoway Gazette

  5. Dear Heidi, I hope it is not too late, and you will still receive this Email/comment!
    I am deeply interested in knowing more about the Lewis settlers of Duluth (and Scottish emigration to MN in general). In particular, John Matheson and the songs he sang for Sidney Robertson Cowell. (also very interested in knowing more about Donald Morrison).
    I would love to be in contact with you – if possible, please reply!
    Many thanks,
    Laura MacKenzie

  6. It is with pride and appreciation that I read your research into the Isle of Lewis pioneers who came to Duluth and left such a lasting impression. It is a fitting tribute to them when you talk of their contribution to the community, their achievements and the buildings that still stand as witness to their work ethic. I was born on Lewis, came to Duluth in 1972 raised a family and managed a ship loading company until I retired in 2002. Thanks for the credit you give to my fellow islanders.

  7. Thanks for the information, Patricia!

    Maybe someday when I try to rally my fellow Butte Avenue residents to petition for the return of its name to the original “Bute” you can wear your tartan to the City Council. (This is not really a serious part of my agenda, but it does bug me that somebody at some point arbitrarily changed our street from its Scots origin.) On all the original Duluth plat maps, real estate developer’s maps, and in C.P. Frank’s and Frederick Roe’s atlases, the name was Bute. I’m sad that it no longer reflects its membership to the Scots group of street names. Besides, those of us who live on the street have to deal with snickers from phone workers and others who hesitate and want to call it “Butt” Street.

  8. It is correct that my great-grandfather, Guilford Hartley, moved here from New Brunswick and was of English extraction. However the Lewis side to my family, to the best of my knowledge, emmigrated here from Scotland via Canada.

    I believe that our family was, indeed, part of clan Lewis, which was a sub-sect of the clan Stuart. While I do not know if my anscestors actually lived on the Isle of Lewis or the nearby Isle of Bute, we have chosen to we wear the Stuart of Bute tartan. In short, though, my anscestors were most certainly from that area, if not from that actual island.

  9. To be more specific, of all the families who came to Duluth from the Isle of Lewis, none of them bore the surname of Lewis.

  10. The Isle of Lewis in Scotland and the Lewis Family of Park State Bank do not have any connection, as far as I know. I would chalk it up to coincidence.

    Guilford Hartley was born in New Brunswick–his paternal ancestors came there from England in the 1700s.

  11. Remarking in regards to the Isle of Lewis influence in the area and stating that the forebearers are gone. The Lewis name is prominent in the City of Duluth especially in the banking business. Also Lewis’s are connected through marriage to the Hartley family with a strong connection to the Hunter’s Park Glen Avon area. Is this the same Lewis influence or just a coincidence in the name?

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