Early St. Louis County Part 2

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Mail Facilities in 1855
News of the outside world did not reach the settlers with regularity or frequency in the winter of 1855-56. Carey wrote: Before the advent of a railroad, the mail facilities enjoyed by the settlements on the North Shore were not of the best. For the first two years- 1855-56-settlers were wholly dependent on Superior, Wisconsin, and the service there was few and far between. In 1855, a monthly mail service was allowed by the Government, from Taylor’s Falls to Superior, a distance of about 125 miles. The mail route was through the forest wilderness, on a blind trail. The mail was carried by packing it in regular Indian fashion, on the backs of the carriers. I remember that in the fall of 1855 one of the carriers on the route got lost in the woods, and wandered for a number of days exhausted and almost famished before he reached an outlet to civilization.

“In the summertime such a route was practically worthless.” However, the steamboats brought most of the mail during the open season.

A Hard Winter.-The winter of 1855-56 was a hard one for those who passed it in Superior; and probably a census would have shown that the majority of the nominal settlers of the North Shore places were in residence at Superior. Provender went to famine prices.

Flour was sold for as high as sixty cents a pound, and very little could be obtained at even that price. McLean writes: We finished the survey and returned to Superior about the first of April.

W. W. Kingsbury was one of the first men that I met on the street. He was keeping bachelor hall with the other boys from Endion. He said their flour was getting very low; there was no flour to be bought in Superior; that a Frenchman had brought some flour from the St. Croix and sold what he had to spare for fifty cents a pound. I knew flour had been brought from St. Croix, as I had met that same Frenchman on the trail near the St. Croix, with a big pack on his back. He told me that he had 100 pounds of flour in his pack, and as soon as he got to Superior he was coming back with his dog-team for another load. I did not see him on his second trip, but was told at the lumber camp that he had been there for more flour. Kingsbury told me that he had learned from some Indians that there was plenty of flour at Grand Portage. He wanted me to make the trip there with him.

I agreed to go. He got the use of a good-sized hand sleigh, my boat was over on Minnesota Point, and with the help of three of the other boys, we drew the boat on the ice down near Lester River, where there was open water, launched it and started for Grand Portage.

After passing French River, we saw no one until we reached Grand Marais. H. Godfrey, with two other young men, whom I had seen there in October, 1854, were still living there. At Grand Portage Henry Elliott, his wife and family, were the only white people to be found. Mr. Elliott was in charge of H. H. McCullough’s trading post, and had been … for three years. After saying “Bijou, Bijou,” a few times, we asked him if he had any flour that he could spare. He said: “Yes, I have a hundred barrels over there in the warehouse; you can have all you want.” “What are you asking for flour down here?” “Sixteen dollars a barrel.” We bought four barrels; that was all we could get into our boat, and leave room for rowing.

We were invited to take dinner with them, which invitation we readily accepted. Mrs. Elliott gave us a good square meal, suth as we hadn’t seen for a good many days. After spending an hour or two with them, we loaded our flour and started on our return trip. I learned from some Indians before leaving there that he was selling flour to them at $8.00 a barrel.

On reaching Beaver Bay we found Mr. Clark with three other men platting the town of Beaver Bay. We left one barrel of flour with them; the others we brought to Superior, and divided among those who were most in need of it.

The winter of 1855-56 was also a very cold one. Entry, Friday, January 11, 1856, in the diary of Rev. James Peet, then at St. Paul, 109reads: “This is said to be the coldest winter in Minnesota since white men have lived here.” The temperature ranged from 28° to 38° below for many days in Superior, noted Mr. Peet.

Scarcity of Everything but Wood.-On February 21, 1856, two days after he had arrived at Superior, Mr. Peet noted in his diary that there was “a scarcity of provisions and everything else but wood.” And again, on March 31st, he noted that “provisions are getting scarce here. It is feared that there will not be enough in the place to last until navigation opens. I learn that some twenty to forty men have left the place because of a scarcity of provisions, and more are going soon.” The Famine Ends.-The famine lasted until May 9th, when “at 5:30 P. M. a steamboat made its arrival and landed at Culver and Nettleton’s (Quebec) pier,” wrote Mr. Peet, adding that “she was hailed with cheers and shouts of joy by the citizens.” The next day another steamer arrived, Mr. Peet writing: The steamboat from Chicago, but a few passengers came, but both boats brought lots of provisions. … Flour had fallen from $60.00 to $9.50 per barrel within the last twenty-four hours.

The first steamer to arrive was the Manhattan; the other was the Superior.

Mr. Wise, pioneer editor at Superior, wrote, or spoke, of the same memorable occasion, saying: Though navigation (in the spring) on the lake was possible, we had little reason to look for boats from below, chiefly on account of the uncertainty in opening the Sault Canal. Our shortness of supplies continued, and the relief which overland trains had afforded was cut off by the breaking up of winter. We were subsisting as best we could from the limited resources of the little community, with occasional small quantities purchased from traders and others at neighboring points-flour sometimes $60 per barrel, and potatoes not to be had.

Finally one bright, sunny spring morning, while some citizens were trying to negotiate with a trader for a number of barrels of flour for which he asked an exhorbitant price, because of the exigencies of our situation, and when it seemed as if we had at least reached the end of our string, way off on the placid lake a slight cloud was noticed at the horizon. It looked as if it might be the smoke of an approaching steamer, and yet we had no information upon which. to expect one. Amid our hopes and fears and anxious speculations, the cloud-speck gradually developed until there could no longer be a doubt that it was the smoke of a steamer, coming to, our relief. As it steamed in through Superior entry and reached the pier, the whole populace, wild with excitement and joy, was there to receive her and welcome such of our friends as were among her passengers. Bells were rung, anvils were fired, and every possible manifestation of joy was indulged.

It was indeed a happy hour for the little settlement.

The boat brought everything in the provision line that could be desiredflour, pork, hams, butter, eggs, and indeed everything that our half-starved appetite could covet-even to a bountiful supply of lager beer, champagne, and stronger drinks. It was indeed a day of thanksgiving, rejoicing, and feasting. We feasted royally, too, and instead of sitting down to the inevitable dough cake, with possibly a few potatoes, or a piece of salt pork, we had everything the appetite could crave. The day was a veritable holiday. … It was the natural outburst and tribute which happy hearts and willing hands impulsively paid to our deliverance. The gloom of the morning was forgotten; men, women, and children ran about the streets, shouting their glad hurrahs, and having feasted, and been feasted, to their heart’s content, the western sun went down that evening upon truly the happiest little community to be found anywhere within the limits of civilization.

Progress on the North Shore in 1856.-The year 1856 saw much development in the settlements on the North Shore. Mr. Peet, on his first extensive tour along the North Shore, found “the land nearly 110all claimed, and a shanty built nearly every half mile” for twenty or thirty miles “below Superior.” He wrote: Wednesday, August 7th (1856). About 11 o’clock this A. M. I started in a small open rowboat, in company with four men, down the north shore of Lake Superior, made a portage across Minnesota Point, at Duluth, at 1 o’clock P. M., just called at Brother Martin’s claim, Mr. Talmage’s, or Clifton townsite, got supper at Sucker River, or the townsite of Montezuma, and at 9 oclock eve, we camped on the beach of the lake, near Knife River, twentyfive miles below Superior. The land is nearly all claimed, and a shanty built nearly every half mile. Some of the townsites have one or two families on them, others a few single men, and others not inhabited at all.

Not one of the townsites can, by this account, be imagined to have been at that time causing the proprietors of Superior any uneasiness. Superior was booming. It had about fifty houses in June, 1855; in January, 1856, it could boast of 155 houses, “and a number of shanties or stables”; and during 1856 building went forward so rapidly that by January, 1857, there were 350 houses in Superior.

Oneota.-Oneota, according to Folsom, was platted as a village in 1856, H. W. Wheeler being the surveyor. Mr. Ely moved his family from Superior to Oneota in April, at which time there was, and had been through the winter, quite a promising and active community at that part of the North Shore. Mr. Ely and his friends were prepared to, and did, spend a considerable sum of money to properly establish the town. On May 18, 1856, the Methodist minister, Mr. Peet, made his first visit to the Minnesota shore, writing: Sunday, May 18th, P. M. Walked around to the North Shore through the swamps and weeds to Oneota, but missed the hour of both my appointments.

Got to Mrs. Ely’s place about 5% P. M., and in evening preached at the Oneota Boarding House to ten adults and six or eight children. Oneota then had twenty inhabitants, three dwellings, two huts, a dock and a steam sawmill building, according to Mr. Peet.

Oneota Lumber Company.-The Oneota Lumber Company was to all intents and purposes the Oneota Townsite Company, and Mr. Ely was the manager and principal stockholder, the holdings being: J. W. Selby, one share; L. Marvin, one share; B. W. Raymond, one share; J. W. Bass, one share; H. W. Wheeler, one share; E. F. Ely, three shares; W. Southerworth, one share.

These stockholders were destined to suffer a very heavy loss in the failure of the enterprise, as will be related later in this chapter, but during 1856, and probably in 1855, their operations in establishing Oneota were substantial, and promising.

First Postoffice in St. Louis County.-The first postoffice in St. Louis County was established at Oneota in 1856. Carey writes: The first postoffice … was established at Oneota on June 17, 1856, with E. F. Ely as postmaster. The first quarterly account current, dated September 30, 1856, amounted to $2.46.

Truly a small revenue; yet there was not any appreciable increase during the next fourteen or fifteen years.

First School in St. Louis County.-Oneota has right to this distinction also, the first school being organized in the winter of 1856 at Oneota. Alfred Merritt writes: The first public school on the North Shore of Lake Superior was held in the winter of 1856. The teacher was paid by the parents, in proportion to, the number of pupils sent. I was one of the scholars, and four of us boys went to the first school, five of Mr. Ely’s, two of Mr. Wheeler’s, and also Christian Hoffenbecker. … My brother Jerome was our teacher, and 111he was a very able teacher, as many of his pupils all over the states will testify.

Judge Carey is authority for the statement that the first school held in St. Louis County was that conducted by Miss N. C. Barnett, a sister of Rev. J. M. Barnett, of Superior. She taught a summer term at Oneota in 1856.

It is worthy of note here that the first public school opened at the head of the lakes was that established at Superior in January, 1856. Miss Barnett was the pioneer teacher, her brother, Rev. John M. Barnett, writing about the event thus: It was expected that the schoolhouse in Superior would be occupied January 6, 1856, for religious purposes, but on Saturday the paint, which had been put on green frozen wood, was not dry. Mr. J. B. Culver and I rubbed it off, so that on Monday morning, January 7, 1856, the first public school was opened, with seventeen pupils. Miss N. C. Barnett, my sister, was the first teacher. Mr. Thomas Clark, one of the directors, who was deeply interested in the school, was present, and at his request the first session was opened with prayer.

There probably was not a summer session in the Superior school, it being more the rule than the exception in those days to hold only a long winter session in elementary public schools. Therefore, Judge Carey’s statement is not inconsistent with Mr. Barnett’s. Also, it is quite possible that that summer school held in Oneota by Miss Barnett in 1856 was a private enterprise she undertook, to fill her vacation profitably, and that the first public school session, made possible by general assessment, was that referred to by Mr. Alfred Merritt.

The Indian Dog Feast on Minnesota Point.-Edward Hall, who came from St. Paul to Superior in early January, 1856, in company with Mr. E. F. Ely, “took charge of the general store of the Oneota Townsite Company” early in 1856. That store was virtually a trading post at that time, as there were still many Indians in the vicinity.

The account states that “he kept books as well as dispensed blankets, canned goods, ammunition, and guns, in exchange for furs in the long log cabin store, which was virtually a trading post at that time.” Mr. Hall told his interviewer (in 1916) that: In June, 1856, Indians who came to the store told of an annual dog feast to be held by the Indians on the point. F. A. Buckingham and I decided that we would take in the feast. We paddled across in a canoe, to find a big fire, before which strips of dog steak were roasting on pointed stakes, around which about twenty Indians, painted and feathered for the ritual, danced and then ate the meat. We were invited to join the feast and did so, in order not to offend our hosts. The meat was delicious.

One can now understand why the yelping hordes of curs noted by early travelers were tolerated by the Indians on Minnesota Point.

Surveyors Busy.-McLean writes: “During the month of May (1856), there was a big boom on for North Shore lands and townsites. Richard Relf, a civil engineer, surveyed and platted the village of Duluth, R. E. Jefferson and others, proprietors; Vose Palmer and others platted the town of Montezuma, at Sucker River; E. C. Clark, David A. Currier, Charles Hibbard, and others, surveyed and platted the town of Burlington. George R. Stuntz and others at Encampment; along in June, J. B. Bell finished building the house the Sunday picnickers of ’54 had started, and gave it the name of Bellville.

Josiah Talmadge, one of the stockholders of the R. B. Carlton Company, Ben Gates and Ed. Baker were to hold Clifton; Henry Smith, with two other Germans, took claims on Smith Creek; Samuel 112Palmer and wife, with Roswell Palmer, arrived about this time, and were taken to Sucker River.

“John Mayher and several others took claims on Sucker Bay and Stoney Point; John Morrison and family at Knife River; John Stewart, with fourteen other men, took claims on Stewart’s River and along the lake shore to Silver Creek; Hugh Montgomery and a man named Flood took claims on Flood’s Bay.

“The steamer Illinois, on one of her trips in June, brought up the Weiland brothers and several other families, with their horses, cows, and other stock, and landed them at Beaver Bay.

“In July, 1856, Fred Ryder, one of the pre-emptors around Duluth, built and occupied the first house built in the village of Duluth. … “In August, Commodore Saxton, Lyle Hutchins, and others, platted the town of Saxton, at Two Island River; in October, W. G. Cowell and others platted the town of Buchanan. The United States land office was to be located there. … Some time in November, R. E. Jefferson, Quince Allen, C. E. Martin, and J. B. Ellis were building the first houses in the village of Duluth. C. E. Martin and others platted the town of Endion at about the same time or it might have been later in December.” Those were the principal developments noted by R. B. McLean during 1856 along the North Shore, which route he traveled as first mail carrier.

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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