Surviving the Panic of 1857 Part 1

For the ten years after the calamitous money shortage of 1857, “those who were left were forced to live by barter, like Indians,” states Castle. “The men who lived here during that period,” states Pardee, “and came out alive-that is not strange for the land was kind to them as it had been to the Indians-but also with courage unabated and faith undimmed, these are the men who conquer.” Regarding that time, Pardee further writes: The panic of ’57 flattened both towns (Duluth and Superior) completely, they having as yet no substance. … Superior kept a few stores open; on the Minnesota side there was not one place of business open. Then, and for ten years, the Duluth people did their necessary trading in Superior, by boat or on the ice.

Those who stayed did anything to keep alive. They trapped beaver and mink and even muskrat, which had a trading value. … After the first year or two, the settlers raised potatoes. And the lake was full of fish and the woods of rabbits. To this day, survivors of that period … are known as fish-eaters.

One instance, related by Carey, indicates how desolate must have been the head of Lake Superior during that decade of hard times.

In the words of Pardee: In 1865 Judge Carey for some reason decided to move from Oneota to Duluth. Change of climate perhaps. It was a very simple matter. He picked out the house he liked best and moved in. It happened to be the Jefferson House, but all were at his disposal. Every house in Duluth, but two, had stood open and unoccupied for three years. Only the Luce warehouse in Portland sheltered the public offices. This was a fearfully lonely place in a forgotten corner of the world, and both Duluth and Superior seemed deserted and Godforsaken.

Yet, some clung to the spot, and went hopefully forward with their plans to shake off poverty, and bring to the Head of the Lakes the prosperity they were convinced was the destiny of Duluth and Superior. “It was a toss-up,” writes Pardee, “whether these people who came to Duluth before 1870 were visionary or farsighted.” Those that Weathered the Storm.-Alfred Merritt, in his autobiography, written in 1917, gives what may be considered a true census of the settlements along the shore in Duluth waters as they were during the grim period of reconstruction, following the panic of ’57, and the exodus of three-fourths of the pioneers. He writes: As a boy, I knew every man and woman on this side of the state line.

In Minnesota, along the bay front, at the end of Minnesota Point, besides the lighthouse, there were eleven houses and sheds, in addition to Stuntz’s dock and warehouse. R. H. Barrett was in charge of the lighthouse, and I remember that a man by the name of Fargo lived in one of the houses.

Then, as you went to the base of the Point, there was not a house until you got nearly to where the canal now is. There were fifteen buildings, mostly small dwelling houses, and one old up-and-down sawmill, which had been run a little and which had been built by William Nettleton. On the main shore at the foot of Minnesota Point, east and west but almost all to the east of the Point, there were twelve houses, including Sidney Luce’s house and dock.

As you went west, there was one claim shanty, owned by F. A. Buckingham, on the west side of the creek by the same name. East of Chester Creek, there were only two houses, both of them claim shanties. At Tischer’s now Congdon’s, there was one house. There was no road up and down the north shore 139of Lake Superior, or St. Louis Bay, or the river to Fond du Lac-nothing but Indian trails.

As you went west, at the foot of Rice’s Point, on the rock west of Garfield Avenue, where the fire hall stands, was the Ellis house. At the foot of the Point, north, was Albert Posey’s house. A short way from the end of the Point, just north of the Northern Pacific bridge, was a two-story log house, built by Aueiss Rice, after whom the Point was named. He was a brother of Senator Rice, of Minnesota. When you left Rice’s Point, to the west there was one house at Coffey’s Creek, owned by L. B. Coffey, a brother of General Coffey, the Confederate.

Coffey’s Landing.-By the way, the Reverend Peet made several entries in his diary of 1856, recording sermons he preached at “Mr. Coffee’s house,” and referred one to “Coffee’s Landing.” The settlers in “Mr. Coffee’s neighborhood” would gather at the Coffey house for the religious services, as many as ten attending.

Alfred Merritt’s Review.-Continuing to quote from Mr. Merritt’s autobiography: There was on the west side of the stream (Coffey’s Creek), another claim shanty, owned by R. P. Miller. To the north of Coffey’s place John Rakowsky had a claim. A man by the name of Burk had a claim shanty just west of Miller’s Creek. There the rocks came out to the bay, and made a lee on either side of this point of rocks, so that when the wind was from the northeast, or southwest, you could lay with your small boat or canoe in perfect safety. I am sure that this is the landmark chosen by Chief Buffalo at the Indian Treaty at LaPointe in the fall of 1854, as the starting point. … The next claim shanty was built by Patrick Conner, an old Hudson Bay Company employee, and it was built at a place just east of the Mesaba Ore Dock. We called it Conner’s Slough. … I remember his (Conner) telling my brother Leonidas and myself in 1856 that he wintered on Rice’s Point fifty-four years before that time. He was a well-posted man. His wife was a Chippeway squaw, and they had a family of two boys and one girl.

One of his boys was named Patrick, the other Peter, and the daughter was named Elizabeth.

The next house belonged to Fred Lemargie, and was located west of where the ore docks are now-at about 38th Avenue West, and south of the Northern Pacific track. This piece of land was held by Michael S. Bright’s father, as a trading post.

We now come to the old townsite of Oneota, which was taken as a townsite, under the old townsite law. This land was located right after the Treaty of LaPointe, in the fall of 1854. Ryan (Dion) H. Bacon had a squatter’s right, and McCracken another squatter’s right to the west of Bacon’s. Edmund F. Ely bought their rights and, with some St. Paul men and eastern men also, started the town. Mr. H. W. Wheeler was one of them. There were twentyfour houses there in 1860. … As I have already stated, the number of houses on the old Oneota townsite was twenty-four, this including buildings of all kinds. The houses were almost all, on Oneota Street, and between 39th Avenue West and 47th Avenue West. The old sawmill stood on the bay front, between 44th and 45th Avenue West. During the year 1857, there was built at 42nd Avenue West a frame schoolhouse, and this was the first frame building built in northeastern Minnesota for a schoolhouse. At Fon-du-Lac, now western Duluth, there was a mission school held for a while, but this was the first district school between Sunrise, Minnesota, and Grand Portage, on the north shore of Lake Superior.

After you left Oneota, going west, you came to Hayes’ clearing, and then to Freeman Keene’s clearing, on Keene’s Creek. The next was Milford, where there was a sawmill and four houses. The next was Crosier’s Point, owned by Aaron Crosier and wife. Kingsbury lived next, on land which is now a part of Fairmont Park. He built a sawmill on his land, but while the mill was fully completed, it was never run. Next came Nolton’s place, then Marshall’s place, and adjoining this was Permonkey’s place. The place now called Swenson’s place at Spirit Lake was originally taken by John Little John. Peter Carroll had a place at the entrance of Spirit Lake. A man by the name of John Langley had a claim west of Carroll. Tommy Hayes owned what we called Sebastopol, which is right where the Spirit Lake Branch of the Boat Club and Morgan Park are now. Peter Gerno owned what is now the John 140Smith place, now a part of New Duluth and the Steel Plant. John LaGuard lived just in front of John Smith’s old place on the island.

The next house was Sargent’s place, on what we called Sargent Lake, just west of Sargent’s Creek. Andrew Reefer had a claim, to the west of Fondu- Lac, about one mile.

At Fon-du-Lac there were fourteen buildings, all told. A warehouse stood near the river. It was built by John Jacob Astor, or the Northwest Fur Company. It was in good shape in 1856, and Captain Peterson used it for a barn for many years. There lived, at the time, at Fon-du-Lac: R. B. Carlton and wife, and one son, Webb Carlton. Carlton County and Carlton Peak, on the north shore of Lake Superior, were named after R. B. Carlton. He was called Colonel Carlton; Mr. Rausau (Roussain) and family; George Wheeler’s family; and Mr. Peterson and family. … In the foregoing, I have only named the residences of those who lived on the bay front, or river front. All told, including Minnesota Point, and the North Shore, from Lester River to Fon-du-Lac, there was a total of 101 buildings.

My authority for this is the coast survey map made by George R. Meade, in 1860 and 1861.

The claims taken back of the water-front were practically all abandoned in 1857 and 1858. These years were very hard for every settler. … Rev. James Peet “Down-at-Heel.”-That those were indeed hard years for all the settlers at the Head of the Lakes can be well imagined from some of the entries made by Rev. James Peet in his diary for the year 1859. He wrote: Friday, June 24 (1859). We got six bundles of straw, to fill two beds, for twenty cents, the first straw we have slept on since coming to Lake Superior, having used pine shavings as a substitute.

At least one of the early settlers brought a feather bed with him, but the majority had to use pine shavings, or pine needles, laid upon pine boughs. Roofing, being also of pine boughs, at least in the first years, was not always weatherproof, one settler finding that he did not get so wet if he slept on the floor under his bed when rain was hard and persistent.

Another diary entry of Mr. Peet’s is even more significant. It reads: Saturday, June 25, 1859.-My boots are out at the sides, heel and toe, so I can run my hand in at the leg and out through the foot. In this condition I wear them to preach in, and expect to till I can get better, and I have no money to buy another pair with.

Apparently, Mr. Peet had to wait another three months for the necessary money, for the next mention of the subject of footwear was on October 12th, when he wrote: “Paid Mr. Brown $1.00 in advance towards a pair of boots.” It was getting late in the year to go almost barefooted; yet, snow was destined to fall before the minister got his long-needed whole footwear, for the diary reads: November 21st (1859). I got my new boots today that I ordered made some three months since; calfskin, $5.00.

That Mr. Peet passed five months in such a deplorable state seems hardly credible; if he did not possess a pair of boots worthy of that name during the period, he may have had mocassins. However, the diary entries show how scarce money then was at the Head of the Lakes.

Potatoes and Fish.-Some visitors to Superior in the early ’60s noted with surprise the grass-grown streets and the “lifeless settlement, with its deserted buildings,” and they interrogated Emerson Chase, who stood near.

“What in the name of Goodness,” they asked, “do the people of this place live on?” “Why we raise potatoes in the summer and catch fish in the winter,” was Chase’s solemn answer.

It described well the condition at the Head of the Lakes.

Latch String Always Out.-Yet even such a state of poverty had its consolations. Alfred Merritt writes: In those early days we were all neighbors, from Beaver Bay down the North Shore to Fon-du-Lac, and over into Superior, Wis. One cannot write about just one side of the state line, for in sickness and in joy there was no state line.

For a while there was no doctor, and Mrs. L. H. Merritt, “a natural-born nurse,” was often called upon. Andrus R. Merritt, writing of the same period, states: In those days the latch-stripg always hung out of the door. They were all hospitable and neighborly. In dealing with one another they seldom, if ever, made a written contract, for their word was as good as any one’s bond.

There were no divorces in those days in our country, as they did not marry each other for money, or a home, but for the old-fashioned reason that they loved each other.

The life was wholesome and honest, and wants simple, at the Head of the Lakes at that time. Which was fortunate, for not all were buoyed up by the optimism of one man of Oneota, who after he had heard that a railway project was under consideration felt that his potato land had increased $500,000 in value almost overnight.

Effect on the Churches.-The general poverty within the parishes of necessity seriously affected the condition of the church societies.

Reverend Barnett wrote: On the 7th December (1858) it was agreed by the three ministers present, Revs. Brooks, Peck, and Barnett, to hold three union meetings the next week, to pray for a revival of religion, and they agreed to be guided in regard to future meetings by the interest manifested. … There were some gains in membership to the churches, but these did not equal the losses, as many were moving away because of the hard times.

In 1861, the Presbyterian Church had dwindled to such a small membership that the Reverend Barnett was forced to leave. He wrote: After being absent four months, I returned to Superior and preached in my own church September 8, 1861, to a congregation that now reached over sixty to seventy. -I took up the work and continued preaching at Superior, Superior City, Oneota, and Duluth, as weather permitting, until November 2nd, 1861, when I finally left the field. The hard times were pressing very heavily on all; the population was reduced to almost what it was six years before, and in consequence the membership of all the churches had greatly diminished. My own little flock suffered more perhaps than any other. It was with great regret that I left the field.

Readjustment Slow Process.-It took the settlers quite a long time to readjust their condition, and mode of living, after the panic.

Formerly, most of the pioneers had felt that they were part of the future metropolis, and that city conditions would prevail. After the panic, they knew that they must, in reality, get “back to the land.” Townsite lots would not feed them; development of agricultural land would.

First Agricultural Society on North Shore.-The trend of thought in this readjustment period is indicated by one or two entries in Mr.

Peet’s diary. One, August 4, 1859, reads: “Evening, at the organization of an Agricultural Society at Oneota, of which I was made a committeeman, as well as a member.” That, undoubtedly, was the first agricultural society organized in St. Louis County, and the settlers at that time realized that in great measure their living depended upon the degree of their application to the tillage of the soil.

First Pork Fattened and Killed on North Shore.-Mr. L. H.

Merritt, it appears, raised the first hog slaughtered on the North Shore. Mr. Peet’s diary supplies the information that on November 17, 1859, “Brother Merritt butchered a hog,” Mr. Peet believing it to be “the first pork that has ever been fattened and killed in this town, and perhaps on the North Shore.” In the previous winter, the Merritts, in common with most of the families, had been altogether without meat. The prospects of 1859 must have looked better to the lusty sons of Mr. and Mrs.

Merritt after that hog had been killed and salted.

Epidemic of Scarlet Fever.-Disease invariably follows famine The leanness of living in 1857 and 1858 had its aftermath .in an epidemic of scarlet fever, which spread with rapidity among the little communities at the Head of the Lakes during the winter of 1859-60. And it is not surprising, when one reads of it in the diary of the Methodist minister. They seemed to have had little knowledge of the necessity for isolation of patients. Mr. Peet’s own sons, Olin and Robert, were stricken with it, the latter succumbing to its ravages.

Yet, though he nursed his children during the day, he would in the evenings go to prayer meeting, and tried not to miss his Sunday services. Probably others were just as careless, otherwise one would be inclined to think that Mr. Peet was the principal carrier of the disease. On December 18, 1859, he writes: Olin sick this morning. I preached at Oneota in A. M. to thirty-nine persons … then four of us had class meeting; P. M., I did not go to Portland appointment, but doctored my sick boy; in the evening I attended the prayer meeting.

Next day he “spent the day at home,” taking care of the sick child, but in the evening he “was out late to a meeting of the Town Council.” Entry, next day, reads, in part: “I had Dr. Thompson call and see him. He says he has scarlet fever, which is what I have been doctoring him for.” A few days later was Christmas Day, and his two sons were then struggling with the disease. The minister writes: Robert had a very restless night. We were up with him most of the time. A. M., at Oneota I preached a Christmas sermon … to twentyfive persons. … ; P. M., I walked to Portland and preached … to eight persons in Mr. Martin’s house; distributed some tract papers.

On December 30th Robert was buried, and Mr. Peet seemed to think it necessary to explain why only eleven persons attended the funeral, it being “a bitter cold, windy day.” One hardly wonders that six weeks later an entry was made in the diary to this effect: Friday, February Eighteenth (1860). … There are one or more sick in almost every family in Oneota, five or six in one family, mostly scarlet fever among the children.

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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