St. Louis County Judiciary: Bench & Bar (1922)

The first court held in St. Louis County has been referred to in an earlier chapter. For two or three terms after that, the court was held in a schoolhouse, but when Duluth had advanced so far in metropolitan dignity as to have “a brick building,” court sessions were transferred to that structure.

Following the pioneer judge (S. J. R. McMillan, who first held court in Duluth in 1859, when St. Louis County was in the First Judicial District of Minnesota), Judge James M. McKelvey presided over the local sessions until August, 1874, when Col. O. P. Steams was appointed. Duluth became part of the Seventh Judicial District in March, 1870, the district embracing the counties of Stearns, Sherburne, Benton, Morrison, Crow Wing, Aitkin, Cass, Douglas, Todd, Mill Lacs, Polk, Stevens, Traverse, Pembina, Clay, Wilkins, Grant, Otter Tail, Wadena, Becker, Pope, St. Louis, Carlton, Itasca, and Lake counties, a vast territory for one justice to cover. On March 5, 1874, the Eleventh District was organized, and embraced the counties of Crow Wing, Aitkin, Cass, Polk, Pembina, Clay, Wadena, Becker, St. Louis, Carlton, Itasca, Beltrami, Lake, and Traverse, a territory sufficiently extensive to make it possible to appreciate Judge Steam’s description of some of the difficulties he experienced in carrying out the functions of his offce. He said: When I went on the bench of the Eleventh District there was not a full set of “Minnesota Reports” west of Duluth, and there was not a courthouse in the district. We held court where we could-in churches, in stores, schoolhouses and sometimes in places not so respected. I remember, at Detroit, once we used a saloon, a sort of double-barreled saloon that had liquors in the front room and another room back. We took hold and moved the liquors into the back room and held court in the front-close by-a very convenient arrangement for some of the attorneys. As we had no libraries or books, only what we carried in our hands, it was a rough kind of justice we dispensed, but I am glad to say, looking back over the short space that has shown so marvelous a development, that it was, I believe, a fair justice that we administered. When we had no law, we simply did the best we could and relied on our hearts and our heads to do the right and just thing, and to reach just equity between man and man. Mr. Comstock used to say that there was no lawyer among us who knew enough to take an appeal and therefore ours was a court of last resort.

Judge Stearns’ conviction that the close proximity to a saloon was “a very convenient arrangement for some of the attorneys” brings to mind an anecdote regarding one of the pioneer members of the Duluth bar (not Judge Stearns, by the way) who was so methodical that, although entrusted with the adjudication of an important case, found that he could .not, during the hearing of the case, suspend his regular and frequent bibulous habits. On the contrary, as the clock struck the hour he found it necessary to postpone the processes of law by making the following announcement: Gentlemen, the court will now take a recess, to enable it to take a drink, and the defendant will foot the bill.

The report has it that the case was “somewhat extended,” and that the referee found many recessions necessary.

Judge Stearns came to Duluth in 1871, and in 1872 became a law-partner of J. D. Ensign, whose subsequent connection with the judiciary was destined to be of such long duration, and so honorable.

Both were professionally prominent in the litigation that developed because of the construction of the Duluth Canal.

Samuel Badger, First Lawyer in St. Louis County
Of the pioneer attorneys, it may be permissible here to introduce a paper read by Judge Ensign several years ago at a meeting of the local bar association. He then said: It may be a matter of interest to the many attorneys of our bar to know something of the first attorney in this county. His name was Samuel Badger. He was a member of a North Carolina family, a very wealthy and influential family in that state. One of the family was once governor of that state; another represented the state in the Senate of the United States, and held other offices under the Government. … Samuel was sent early in his life to Philadelphia. He was there educated; there he read law and was admitted to the bar, commencing his practice in that city. His father died about the time that he commenced hrs practice, and he received a very large fortune from the estate.

He was quite a society man, was well received everywhere by the best people of Philadelphia, and was married there to a very refined, beautiful and intelligent woman, who also possessed great wealth.

Soon after the marriage, the habits of Mr. Badger changed. He began to drink and gamble. He drank and gambled until his fortune, and that of his wife, dissipated, and on account of his habits his wife left him.

This was in 1849 or 1850, when the excitement of the discovery of gold in California affected the whole east. Badger, reduced to poverty, abandoned by his wife, went to California to revive his fortune.

As to what he did in California I can only give his own statements, made to the old citizens of our county. He went across the isthmus and landed in San Francisco with 17 cents in his pocket. He invested the 11 cents in peanuts and sold them in the streets. He invested the proceeds and became a peddler of peanuts upon the streets of San Francisco, until he had accumulated about $100.

During that time he got acquainted with a lawyer of San Francisco, who finally gave him a clerkship in his office. This was in 1852. He continuedfor some time in that office, and was finally taken in as a partner. The firm prosecuted some large and very profitable cases. Within two years after he was a member of the firm his share of the proceeds was about $10,000.

He then sold out his interests in the firm and received $10,000 therefor, and departed for some place in Nevada, where he bought a mine which he soon after sold and realized quite a profit. He then went to Montana and afterwards to Omaha. … He went from Omaha to St. Paul.

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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