DuLuht-DanielGreysolon (Hugo)

Daniel Greysolon Sieur du Lhut depicted in his hometown of Saint-Germain-Laval, France, in this painting by Duluth artist David Ericson. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

by Trevanion W. Hugo

The facts of one generation which become the foundations for the tales of the next, are but the myths of succeeding generations unless preserved in contemporary print or manuscript, and corroborated by evidence, easily accessible, of unprejudiced and reliable witnesses.

To no locality do these truisms apply more aptly than to that portion of Minnesota included in St. Louis county, because so recently have its valuable resources been recognized, that long after the Territory of Minnesota had been organized the northeastern portion was considered mere “Indian Land,” practically useless, and recognized as being only the intervening space between civilization and the Canadian boundary. Such being the condition at the middle of the nineteenth century, it is no wonder that information is so scant concerning the early discoveries of the hardy and venturesome men who, two hundred years before, visited this section of the Lake Superior territory, hitherto unknown.

With the early explorations we have little to do, except that portion connected with the man from whom the city of Duluth is proud to derive its name. Those who preceded Dulhut in the Lake Superior district may be briefly mentioned as follows: Nicolet, an interpreter, sent on by Champlain, was probably in the vicinity of the Sault Ste. Marie, even if he did not see the lake itself; he was at Winnebago Lake, Wisconsin, in the valley of the Fox River, in 1639; Jogues and Raymbault, Jesuit priests, were at the Sault in 1641; Radisson and Groseilliers, explorers and traders, in 1654-59; Garreau and Druilletes, priests, in 1656; Rene Manard, priest, in 1660; Claude Allouez, priest, at the Sault September 2, 1665, at Bayfield and La Pointe on October 1, was probably at Fond du Lac, Minn.; Saint Lusson and Perrot, at the Sault in 1671; with the probable exception of Allouez none of those early explorers and adventurers visited the extreme westerly end of Lake Superior, so that Dulhut’s claim on our affection remains pre-eminent.

While the attempts at settlement along the Atlantic coast commenced somewhat earlier, the real extension westward did not begin until toward the middle of the seventeenth century, when, in consequence of the rivalry between the English and French, efforts were made to extend the influence of both inland, and thus to secure a better field for the lucrative business of exchanging cheap trinkets and more noxious wares for valuable furs; through their self-sacrificing missionaries the Catholic Church was active in extending that faith among the heathen tribes of America; there were also those who, impelled by patriotic motives, braved the dangers of the wilds in order to plant the flag of their country in hitherto unclaimed territory. Each of these ideas had considerable weight in determining that the French should be the first to visit the territory now included in the State of Minnesota.

A potent factor in influencing the Frenchman to seek his fortune in the unknown wilds, rather than in the partially settled mission colony of New France, was the peculiar system of the government of Canada, a modified feudal one, with the King as the supreme and fountain head. The feudal lords, or noblemen, were so bound around by regulations and hampered by sumptuary laws, that they were nobles by courtesy only, being untitled. Their tenures brought them in little returns, unless farmed, which labor was beneath the dignity of a noble. There were but two methods of securing a living in the so-called settled portions of Canada: agriculture and trading, which included the usual shopkeeping and dealing in furs. As a consequence those not adapted, either by ability, experience or inclination for either, lacked the necessaries of life, unless they could obtain some government position, which, however, in order to encourage emigration, generally fell to someone in France. It is recorded in some of the old documents that even the daughters of some of the original untitled noble families, called the noblesse, worked in the fields, and it is certain that the King was appealed to, on more than one occasion, to keep the families from starving. Their education and bringing up were not such as would fit them for anything in the new country which could afford them a living, and the younger sons of the old country nobility found themselves in a similar predicament when sent out to the new France to better themselves and their fortunes.

There was, however, one branch of industry which, to the successful, offered great inducements in the shape of large profits—the fur trade, which, by a royal edict, could be engaged in by the noblesse without loss of prestige or privilege. This business appealed to the adventurous spirit of the young men, as well as to the lust for gain of the elder ones. A business in which the education in arms of the scions of the noblesse came in good stead, as well as encouraging them to engage in it, and one which promised in addition to wealth of money, the eclat and honor of discovery, for the mighty West and Northwest were practically unknown lands, enriched by the glamor and glorious possibilities, of fiction and travelers’ stories. This promising safety valve for the pent up pressure of spirits and adventurous tendencies of the young new Frenchmen was limited in its usefulness by licenses, by restrictions as to what territory could be visited, and what kind of furs could be obtained. The length of the life of the license was usually eighteen months. After the voyage had been made, the dangers overcome, and the canoes bearing the packages of peltries safely tied up at the landings at Montreal, or Three Rivers, the greed of the authorities had to be appeased. One-fourth of the beaver skins and one-tenth of the moose skins had to be put to one side as the share of the King, the jealousy of the unsuccessful allayed, and the “man higher up” rendered blind.

All that glittered was not gold in those cases, but the business increased very greatly and commercial conditions adapted themselves so readily to the new industry that it in time dominated the life of Montreal.

The good priests inveighed against the practices of those who were engaged in this venturesome business, they called attention to the unmoral tendency of the freedom of a life in the woods, and complained about the number of young men who were leaving civilization for the adventurous life of the “Coureur du Bois.” Many of these criticisms were exaggerated, and some were encouraged by the Jesuit Fathers who had gone on ahead and established missions where they indulged in barter, and who did not want to see their monopoly interfered with. Nevertheless, this condemnation was understood to apply to all who left the settled portions for the great western country, and from this fact, perhaps more than from any other cause, has the stigma which has been cast on those who embarked in that business been derived. There were, at least, two kinds of persons engaged in making trips into the wilds. Those who were in the business purely as a speculation, in which any and all means were thought legitimate to secure the monetary returns, and those engaged in exploration, who traded only in order to sustain life.

Into the first mentioned class there naturally drifted the adventurer, the outcast, the greedy and the vicious. It is readily understood that the epithets of the good fathers, who saw irreligion and immorality in everything they were not able to control, were well founded, and judging in a mild way, by our own woodsmen, we can appreciate their strictures and we concur in their verdict. In the second class, a different spirit prevailed; greed gave away to a patriotic desire to extend the boundaries of the known world and to raise the banner of France in places hitherto unexplored. The love of discovery for itself alone, the ambition for name, fame, and glory, always weighty arguments with a Frenchman, were probably more so in the days of which we write than now. But, whatever the case, there were two distinct kinds of men engaged in extending the information concerning the country, which one class looked upon as promising a place in which to make money, and the other as promising a field for discovery.

In the old world, as well as in the new, the condition of that class known as the gentry was anything but enviable. They were no longer being supported by servants and serfs, and not having been taught to care for themselves, and imbued with the idea that to engage “in trade” or do any kind of manual labor, was lowering to their dignity, they preferred to keep up their dignity in public and starve in private. That condition could not prevail long, and as one of the consequences we find the daughters of the wealthy bourgeois establishing precedents for the present day, by exchanging their wealth for the name and title of the impoverished sons of the decaying nobility.

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  • Woodbridge, Dwight and John Pardee, eds. History of Duluth and St. Louis County Past and Present Vols. 1 – 2. C. F. Cooper & Company, Chicago: 1922.
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