Duluth’s Formative Period: 1852–1859

When the first territorial legislature in 1849 blocked out the boundaries of this vague region, Itasca County was indicated by a line running from Lake of the Woods to the Mississippi and across to the St. Louis, embracing all northeastern Minnesota to the medial line of the state. Six years later Doty County was erected between Vermilion lake and the boundary, afterwards divided into Superior and Newton counties, and then forgotten.

It could not make much difference to the Indians, and there was nobody else here.

That first legislature also adopted a memorial asking for a post road from the head of the lake to the falls of the St. Croix by way of Pokegama. That project materialized when Henry M. Rice was delegate from Minnesota in 1854 and Congress granted an appropriation for making the road, which is still traced as the old military road from the head of the lakes to Point Douglas, where the St. Croix flows into the Mississippi.

In 1854, however, there was no Duluth and there was a very hustling settlement at Superior. They set out on their own account and chopped through the woods till the military road was theirs. On the trail thus blazed for sixty miles to Taylor’s Falls, the congressional allowance of $20, 000 was spent and Fond du Lac was still left in the woods, inconceivably remote from the lively settlement on the other side of the bay.

E. F. Ely at this time returned from St. Paul to the head of the lakes and took up land at Superior, having the advantage of acquaintance with the country and with the Indians, and also with the leading members of the St. Paul colony.

After the first territorial legislature in 1849 had established Itasca County, this corner of the state seems to have been forgotten.

Inasmuch as this was still closed territory, the active men in St. Paul who foresaw the creation of a city at this port turned their attention to Superior. The first townsite scheme for the present area of Duluth was hatched by W. G. LeDuc of Hastings, Henry M. Rice, who was all over Minnesota, Governor Ramsey and H. H. Sibley. They included John S. Watrous, Indian agent at Fond du Lac, and J. B. Culver, who had a trading post at the head of the lakes. They proposed in the winter of ‘53 to preempt Minnesota Point as their townsite.

LeDuc, on his way up the Mississippi to collect materials for the World’s Fair in New York, met Watrous, who told him it was others had incubated the Superior townsite, and the Minnesota all arranged. Meanwhile D. A. Robertson, John H. Baker and proposition was discarded till after the La Pointe Treaty. LeDuc still maintained an interest in this section and was father of the first railroad charter.

The legislature in 1855 heedlessly carved Doty county out of Itasca, named after James Doty, one-time secretary to Governor Cass, and Superior County, in the northeast triangle, afterwards changing the names of the counties to St. Louis and Newton, the latter named after the agent for the Superior townsite company.

In 1856 the legislature ignored these new counties and dealt with Itasca County as existing in its original form. Several officers named by the governor for these new counties had qualified in the meantime, but it does not appear that they ever transacted any public business.

St. Louis and Lake Counties were organized in 1856 on about their present boundaries, except that Cook County was set off from Lake eighteen years later. The boundaries of St. Louis and Lake were more definitely established in 1866 by a new act of the legislature.

Although its limits were vague and its population shadowy, the new district sent a member to the legislature in 1856, electing W. W. Kingsbury. Judge Carey says Kingsbury was in fact a resident of Wisconsin, but that was small matter in those days. He was elected the next year as a territorial delegate to Congress and in 1857 was elected, with R. H. Barrett, a member of the constitutional convention.

In the first state legislature this district was represented by R. B. Carlton and John S. Watrous in the Senate and House.

Carlton had been sent to Fond du Lac as Indian farmer and blacksmith in 1849, and was a man of considerable ability. Carlton County is named for him, and the lumber industry of Carlton was founded by him. He fathered the flood of Duluth bills in the first legislature and was one of the incorporators of many of the projects of that year. He was part owner of the townsite of Fond du Lac, and lived there till his death in 1863.

Watrous came from Ohio with the Nettletons. He had a striking personality and a quick mind. Though a newcomer, he was elected Speaker of the House. He was appointed register of the land office in 1859, but returned to Ohio the next year and died finally in California in 1897.

In the next legislature Thomas Clark was senator and William Nettleton representative. Clark was also to some extent a Superior resident, having come there in 1854 to survey the townsite.

Meanwhile he had located in Beaver Bay, where he claimed a domicile when he was elected. Nobody questioned his loyalty to Minnesota. He lived afterwards in Superior and died there.

In that year the legislature cut down the apportionment and St. Louis County, which had been one of four in its district, became an odd corner of a district that included nineteen counties, embracing nearly one-half the state. In this new district St. Louis was overshadowed by Stearns, Crow Wing, and Morrison, and it was ten years before a member was chosen from this region. After the railroad came Luke Marvin was elected to the House, and since then northeastern Minnesota has never been without some voice in the legislature.

The early elections were decidedly informal. Judge Carey recalls the first election in this territory, held in October, 1855, to elect a delegate to congress. Henry M. Rice and Alexander R. Marshall were the opposing candidates. According to his recollection there were 105 votes cast, 96 for Rice, Democrat, and 9 for Marshall, Republican.

The election for all Minnesota at the head of the lakes was held in George Nettleton’s shack near First Avenue East, and about 400 feet from the lake shore. It was a log house built under trading post privileges before the La Pointe Treaty. Carey was one of a boat load who came over from Superior, where they all lived, and, to avoid the marshes at the head of the bay, landed near the old Indian burying ground three miles down the point and walked through the sand to the polling place.

There was an odd assembly from all parts of the United States, a number of Canadians and not a few Indians. The Indians were permitted to vote freely so long as they wore trousers instead of blankets. Several jugs of whisky in the bushes furnished eloquence, which, says Carey, related more to relative merits of townsites than to partisan argument, for here were advocates of Oneota, Portland, Fond du Lac, Duluth, Endion and the rest.

In spite of the whisky and notwithstanding the absence of sheriff and constable, the election passed off without disorder.

There were no challenges, and it was considered rather a compliment than otherwise that the citizens of Superior should take part in the Minnesota election. Anything that swelled the vote was welcome.

Township elections of that period were equally informal and county affairs were delightfully free and easy.

Indeed, as recently as 1886 a good-natured contractor on the Iron Range road furnished a gang of tracklayers to oblige a friend who was candidate for county office, and they all voted without hindrance in Duluth.

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


  • 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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