Morris Thomas

Horses prepare to haul a sleigh of freshly cut timber somewhere in Northeastern Minnesota, ca. 1895. (Image: X-Comm)

As most Duluthians know, Duluth’s first major industry was timber. We’ve all seen the old photos of nameless lumberjacks standing in front of an impossibly overloaded sleigh with logs bigger around than any tree we’ve ever seen outside of California’s redwood forests. We can imagine the brave timber beasts releasing logjams in rushing rivers, the great rafts of logs in the harbor. We know that Duluth’s east end is filled with the grand homes of timber barons who made a killing denuding the country of its pines.

However, most of us probably have no idea just how little we the people were paid for the harvesting of one of our greatest natural resources. The story of timber baron Morris Thomas—namesake of Morris Thomas Road—illustrates how this all went down.

Morris Thomas, from a facsimile of his 1911 Duluth News Tribune obituary. (Image: X-comm)

Morris Thomas was born in 1847 in New Brunswick, Canada. He immigrated to the United States when he was 12 years old and came to Duluth in 1880 with his wife Angie and young son Frank. His employment was variously listed as logging contractor, pine lands broker, and lumberman.

In the middle of the 19th century, the United States government had acquired vast tracts of land, and it wanted that land to be settled by white farmers. To that end, it passed the Preemption Act of 1841, which permitted “squatters” who were living on federal lands to purchase up to 160 acres at $1.25 per acre before the land would be offered to the general public. To qualify under this law, the settler had to be the head of a household, a single man over age 21, or a widow, a citizen, and a resident of the claimed land for a minimum of 14 months.

The Homestead Act of 1862 was a similar law, actually a reform of the Preemption Act. The 1862 act made things even easier: if you’d never taken up arms against the U.S. Government, even if you were a freed slave or a woman, as long as you were an adult, you could file for a federal land grant. The result of this act was illustrated in the film Far and Away in a scene that showed hopeful settlers racing across the prairie to grab the best land. The hard part was that you had to settle the land—prove up your claim. In other words, you had to clear the land and build a house. This was no mean feat for former city folks who had no idea how to go about such things, but then, that’s the story of many of our ancestors. They had a hard go of it, but many of them made it.

Click on “2” for the rest of the story….

Sources:

  • Bakk-Hansen, Heidi. Who the Heck was Jean Duluth? A Guide to Place Names in the Zenith City. Zenith City Press, Duluth, Minnesota: forthcoming.
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