The Flight of a Quarter Million

Please remember that the following was first published in 1909 under the title “Flight of a Quarter Million” and reflects the belief and attitudes of its time…

Two hundred and fifty years ago came the first white man to Duluth. Yet connected history runs back scarcely fifty years, and all that went before was wandering in the wilderness, of which only rough notes remain.

It was in 1679 that DuLuth first came this way, for the French were first in all this country.

The English had obtained a foothold on the coast, where a dozen starving settlements were clinging to the rocks. The Spaniards had been hanging Incas by the heels and hustling Aztecs for their mountains of gold. The Dutch had laid foundations for a colony at the mouth of the Hudson. Famine and King Philip were troubling New England and holding the settlers hard to their stockades.

Roundheads and Cavaliers were milling in England and Oliver Cromwell was supplying the kingdom with all the excitement it needed without seeking adventures across the ocean.

But the French, gay and gallant, were plunging into the wilderness, like children running through a field, with exclamations of surprise and delight. While English settlements crept foot by foot along the coast, the French adventurers were roving over Upper Canada and ranging to the Northwest, establishing posts at Mackinaw, the Soo, La Pointe; finding the paths to the Mississippi by way of the Fox and Wisconsin rivers, by the Illinois, and over the Brule and St. Croix.

It was the way they had with them that made their passage among the Indians possible. LaSalle or Joliet could ramble into any Indian village between Fort Frontenac and Arkansas sure of an invitation to breakfast. DuLuth stalked into the Indian camp where Hennepin was prisoner, demanding: “What do you mean by confining this man ?” 13 “Oh,” replied the Sioux, “beg pardon; didn’t know it was a friend of yours.” And let Hennepin go with amends.

To this day, travelers say, any Indian will give a cheerful response to a “boozhoo” which their great grandfathers learned from the Frenchmen, where “good morning” suggests nothing of friendliness to them.

Young gentlemen from France, sent on religious missions, lived with the Indians, shared their privations and adopted their ways. Traders with escorts of two or three savages set off on trips to last a half year or more. They took Indian wives, also, and before long little chaps were scampering through the woods who spoke two tongues with equal facility and came to be known as “bois brules,” meaning charcoal color.

For a hundred years after Columbus, England and Spain were running a race around the world. At the beginning of the seventeenth century Spain dropped out of the competition and France appeared in the chase, with an occasional sally of the Dutch sea captains. And during this century France took the lead in exploration and adventure. A royal colony was indeed established by the English in Virginia, while a more resolute and vigorous settlement on the Massachusetts shore was founded by men who were driven from England, rather than sent forth by England. The Puritans and Pilgrims rooted themselves slowly and did not run afield for adventures; France, on the other hand, was in a period of national expansion. Under brilliant leadership and with royal favor the early explorers pushed up the St. Lawrence and through the chain of lakes, while the English colonists clung doggedly to their hardy settlements on the coast.

Most of that time the English were too busy with the conflict between Roundheads and Cavaliers, the struggle over the Divine right of kings, the maintenance of the Commonwealth, the Civil War and the Restoration, the strife of churchmen and dissenters, crown and parliament-too busy with internal conflict of every sort-to spend themselves in spreading their domains.

The stake of England in America was small and chiefly partisan; the stake of France was splendid and national. Under two great kings called Louis, New France extended its borders, having the open highway of the lakes to follow. The French were fortifying Montreal in 1640, they saw the Mississippi in 1654, they reached the head of Lake Superior before 1680. They traced the route of the Fox and Wisconsin rivers, they knew the path by the Brule and St. Croix, they penetrated the St. Louis to the Mississippi, they portaged from Lake Superior into Rainy river, which led them to Winnipeg, they gained the Saskatchewan and journeyed to the foothills of the Rockies. All the Indian tribes of the West acknowledged themselves, in their vague, indefinite way, subject to the empire of France.

As long as the near-sighted Stuarts contended for petty greatness the winning of America went by default to the French.

But as soon as the English government was firmly established under the sagacious Prince of Orange, the French supremacy was challenged. And in the middle of the eighteenth century, when all Europe was divided in two camps by the wars of the Austrian succession and by the ambition of Frederick to make himself master of all Germany, England and France took occasion to fight it out in this corner of the world, that echo of European contentions-which we know as the French and Indian wars. The prize of India and the prize of America, in both of which France gained the start under Louis the Great, was wrested from Louis the weak in a few years. After 1756 all North America, from Florida to Labrador and from Newfoundland and Nova Scotia to the Mississippi, was under English control.

After England took the north country from the French, the Hudson Bay Company ruled this region. But it was still the voyageur and the Canadian who transacted what business was done with the Indians, the English never showing cleverness at making friends with the aborigines. And when the new government of the United States found it necessary to assert itself in the northwest and fight the revolution over again in 1812, the British companies were forbidden this territory and Astor’s company had a monopoly in Minnesota.

All this left the least possible monuments of permanent settlement.

Missionaries, too, had given their lives in all devotion.

The Jesuits acquitted themselves with their characteristic persistence and flaming zeal. But they founded no church. Congregational boards, Methodist societies, even Swiss parishes, sent their apostles to the heathen. But one after another gave up and left no congregations among the natives.

To the discoverers and conquerors, whether English, Spanish or French, America stood not so much for settlement as for exploitation. English kings might talk of plantations and grant 15 charters, but English explorers were hunting the northwest passage.

Spanish princes might plan vassal states, but the adventurers were looking for gold to shovel into their galleons. French statesmen might erect colonies on John Law’s paper structures, but the French in the field were occupied trading for fur with the Indians. For a hundred and fifty years the history of the northwest is the history of the fur trade. The fur traders discouraged settlement. The Northwest Company suppressed with violence the first attempts to colonize Manitoba. Even as late as 1840 the agents of the American Fur Company considered the settlers somewhat of an intrusion, and such far-sighted men as Sibley and Rice, before they assisted in founding the state of Minnesota, looked on this region as a trapping proposition and were inclined to decry the efforts for permanent settlement.

What the fur traders did accomplish was to reduce the Indians to dependance. The savages had contrived to get along after a fashion without the Europeans for some centuries. But the French had not been in this country ten years before the Indians were helpless without them. They looked to the French for arms and ammunition, for clothing, for food. The hatchets they got from the French made their tomahawks seem foolish.

The guns they got from the French made their bows and arrows trivial. But they could not shoot a gun without powder and bullets from France. They had never been very forehanded with their harvests. They came to depend on the supplies that the canoes brought from Montreal in exchange for their furs as the principal reliance, except fish and game, between themselves and famine. Every year the aborigines were less and less able to maintain themselves by their own rude arts, so that when finally the whites did come the Indians were ready to mortgage their claims on the land for subsistence, and because of their improvidence a large part of the money awarded them went to pay for advances made by the traders. Of the treaties by which the native claims were ceded one after another to the United States, there was not one in which the fur traders did not have an influential part, none in which they did not dictate or arrange a large share of the tenor, none in which there were not immense sums set apart to reimburse them for debts due from the Indians.

Furthermore, the Indians had been no wiser than the whites who followed them in supposing the bounties of nature were inexhaustible.

As we have seen the fields of southern Minnesota robbed of their fertility by imprudent cropping as we have seen the forests destroyed, under the notion that there was no end to the timber, so the Indians seem to have slain the wild creatures to their own undoing. There is reason to suppose that the woods had been pretty well thinned out during a century and a half of fur havoc. Travelers in the middle of the nineteenth century tell of spending weeks in the forest with hardly a sight of a living thing.

Still, to the fur trade is due the opening of this country to permanent settlement early in the nineteenth century. To protect the frontier it was necessary to establish an outpost, and so a fort was built at the head of navigation on the Mississippi in 1819, afterwards known as Fort Snelling. A few settlers built cabins under the shelter of the fort, including a broken handful from the ill-fated Selkirk colony on the Red river.

Lumbermen came also and the advance guard of the tide sweep.

By the time Wisconsin became a state in 1849 there were enough people in the discarded western fringe of Wisconsin territory to ask recognition of the government, and by persistence, stretching the facts a little, Congress was importuned into creating Minnesota a territory in 1849. If the creation of the territory was hardly warranted when it was done, it was amply justified by the event. In the next ten years the overflow of the great western migration poured into Minnesota by tens of thousands.
The ink was hardly dry on the territorial charter before statehood agitation began. Just before the Civil War Minnesota was admitted as a state with a population of 200,000 and increasing hourly.

Even then Duluth was not established nor conceived. All this part of the state was Indian territory where no white man could stay except on a trader’s license, and where there were no titles to lands, nor markets nor access to them. The Indians ceded this land in 1854 and not till then was this country open to inspection.

Long before that the head of Lake Superior had been marked for the site of a great city. As soon as anyone comprehended that the West would some day be a settled region it followed instantly that here must be one of the ports of the new empire.
So it came to pass that while white men were waiting for the Indian country of northern Minnesota to be opened, a town was 17 projected and grew to considerable note on Wisconsin territory at the head of the lake. Superior was a lively and promising venture in 1854.

Duluth began a settled existence in 1856, corporate life in 1857. And the few people who had faith sat down to wait for the railroad bringing principality and power. Duluth and Superior in those years were occupied largely with infant jealousies which seem droll enough at this distance of time, while schemes and counter schemes for the railroad were carried over their heads.
Congressional land grants and state land grants and terminal land grants were sought. Finally the promoters of the Minnesota line got the necessary largesse, obtained the essential sanction of capital, and in 11870 the first railroad was opened from the Mississippi to Lake Superior.

From the day actual construction began Duluth took on new life and Superior languished. Where there were scarcely 100 people here in 1868, in 1870 there were above 3,000. Where there had been a dozen shacks there rose hundreds of houses, several hotels, banks, stores, warehouses, all the accessories of a thriving port.

Concurrently with the coming of the railroad, a dramatic struggle was engaged in between the two infants for control of the harbor. The natural entry opposite Superior was devious and uncertain. The habit of the lake was to throw sandbars across it, and whenever there was a northeaster it was blocked by shoals till the river had worn a new way through.

Duluth, on the other hand, was exposed to storms, while the inner harbor was barred by Minnesota Point. It early occurred to the people that to cut a canal through the Point would give them a beautiful and safe haven. To which Superior responded in alarm that the canal would divert the river current, rob the bay of its waters and leave the natural channel to fill, obstructing navigation and defrauding the United States. Duluth did not believe it was quite so bad asthat and offered to build a dike across the harbor; Duluth didn’t want the river current anyway and would do its best to keep it away lest it make sandbars before the canal.

The quarrel lasted for years. United States engineers. Congress and the courts were invoked on both sides. Meanwhile Duluth built a mole into the lake to create an artificial harbor, which was unsatisfactory, then with the railroad’s help dug a channel along the inner bay from Superior, which was no great help, and finally went ahead slapdash, cutting the canal through Minnesota Point whether or no, amid a bombardment of injunctions.

It fixed Duluth, and to everyone’s surprise it rather improved the natural channel by establishing circular currents.

It also bankrupted Duluth, that and a few other investments made with the recklessness of youth.

Jay Cooke, who had backed the government in the Civil War, was also backer of the Lake Superior and Mississippi road.
As he committed himself to this venture he became interested in the Northern Pacific. In fact, it was the building of this road that gave the Pacific line countenance, and led men to consider it as a serious project and not a wild folly. As the last spike was driven on the road from the lake to the river, the first contract was let for the line from the lake to the ocean.

For three years things went famously. Then came the crash.

Jay Cooke & Company failed; the Northern Pacific railroad failed; Duluth and pretty much everyone in it failed. Population shrunk, business dwindled, real estate was a drug. Seven doleful years followed.

But Dakota began raising wheat on an enormous scale. The bonanza farmers deluged the markets with the harvests and the grain flowed through Duluth. The Northern Pacific pulled itself together and dragged its wounded length to the further sea. Minnesota drove through its hard times and found itself richer than before. The city redeemed itself from bankruptcy.

Iron mines were discovered and developed in Duluth’s back yard and in 1884 a railroad was built over the ridge to bring the ore to the vessel.

From 1880 to 1890 there was no holding Duluth. The city was bounding forward, thinking in millions, dealing in futures, depending on prospects, building on expectations, booming magnificently.

In 1890, when European markets were afflicted with an apoplectic stroke, Duluth rode high with the discovery of the Mesaba range and got out another set of figures in which millions were used as units. So that when finally the wheels stopped in 1893, Duluth spun along a little space in air and then-there were distressing times in Duluth.

Since then the commerce of Duluth has grown mightily; the foundations of the city’s business have been strengthened; expectations have been realized. With hopes as high as before, but  with steadier aim and a graver demeanor, Duluth is marching forward to a larger destiny.

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


  • Van Brunt, Walter, ed. Duluth and St. Louis County, Minnesota Vols. 1 – 3. The American Historical Society. Chicago: 1922.
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