Julia Nettleton

Julia Nettleton [Mrs. George Nettleton], whose husband afterward became prominent in the affairs of Duluth, was one of the few white women at the head of the lakes in the early days and describes her experiences as follows:


I was married on August 11, 1852, at Ashtabula, Ohio, which was my native place. I was born and reared there. My husband had been an Indian trader for several years on Madeline Island, one of the Apostle group. About ten days after our marriage 203  we left Cleveland on the steamer North Star, commanded by Commodore Sweet, for our home at the Crow Wing Agency, Minnesota. Our first stop was at the Sault, where they were then blasting for the first canal. From the Soo we took the steamer Manhattan to Madeline Island (La Pointe). We made the acquaintance there of Rev. Mr. Hall, who was a missionary to the Indians, and found him a charming man with a very interesting family. He had been there a good many years, and I found to my surprise that in all the time he had labored among the Indians he had only made one or two converts. After remaining there about a week or ten days, Mr. Nettleton packed his goods that he had in the store in a batteau and we left Madeline Island, with eight or ten men to row and sail the batteau. We made our first landing at Iron river, camped over night, landing the next day on Minnesota Point, over near the Superior entry, and camped there over night.

There was no one in Superior at that time, and my husband said there must be a large city at the head of this lake some time.

We couldn’t tell whether it would be on the Minnesota side or on the Wisconsin side, but at that time there was nothing but a wilderness on the Superior shore.

The next morning we started up the river. Colonel Carlton came down with a canoe to meet us at Minnesota Point and we went home with him to Fond du Lac. Colonel Carlton lived in a hewed log house, just two rooms, near the river. We were entertained by Colonel Carlton and his family at Fond du Lac for two weeks, and the men camped on the banks of the river.

After that, for about ten miles, we went through the country, over hills and dales, to the Crow Wing Agency. The first ten miles I traveled on a horse and sometimes the position of the animal would be almost perpendicular. From the Agency we went to the Savannah river, where we had expected to take boats, but the river being dry, we walked the seventeen miles, which took us two days. There were fires in the forest along the river, and at one time we had to run quite a distance to escape the flames. The fire would sweep across the ground and all one day we had to walk through the burned grass. All the water we could get was from little pools along the way and these were scarce, nearly all having been dried up by the fire. The flames were just sweeping through the grass, which, in any places that had escaped the fire, was higher than my head. We had to go eight miles that day to reach some place where there was water before we could camp. At the Savannah river, when we found there were no boats and no water, we cached the provisions, except enough to take us through. When the men returned that way they would take what provisions they needed from the cache.

That is the way everybody did in those days.

The goods were carried on the men’s backs or on the backs of Indians. There was one old Indian, Zhe Bwa, who always went with my husband on a tramp, and then there was Frank, a white man, but I cannot recall what his last name was, unless it was Sheumah. He always went on these expeditions with my husband. Frank was a good tramper and there were few men who could keep up with him. The Rev. Mr. Hall accompanied our party from the Point to Crow Wing.

At night we were all tired out, both the men and I, because the loads they had to pack were so heavy, and we all thought that we could not possibly travel the next day. So Mr. Nettleton said he would go through to Sandy Lake and get a horse for me and get another packer to come back and help the men pack the goods. Sandy Lake was over nine miles from where we then were. In the morning, after Mr. Nettleton had gone and we hlad had our breakfast, we all felt a little better and I said to the men: ‘Pack up and we will go as far as we can.’ We finally traveled the whole day and at night, within about three miles of Sandy Lake, we met Mr. Nettleton coming back without a horse and with an Indian for a packer. The waters of the lake were very rough, the horses were on the other side, and it was impossible to get across.

From Sandy Lake we went in a canoe down to the Crow Wing Agency, and there we found an Indian agent, Major John L. Wallness. He was there with his family, and Benjamin Gates and his wife were also there. Benjamin Gates was a carpenter and William Nettleton was the Indian farmer, and we were the only white people there. We stayed there one year and in 1853 I went back to Ashtabula. Major Wallness was living in a log house when we got to the agency, but he put up a frame house soon afterward and that was burned in midwinter. I was never certain whether this house was not burned by the Indians or whether it caught fire from the ashes that we used to put in the woodshed.

Indians were everywhere. I never knew how many Indians there were there, but the country was full of them. My husband erected a store there and stocked it with goods. That fall he had ordered his goods sent up by the river and they were all frozen in at Hastings. We did not have a stock of drygoods all winter, and they had very few at St. Paul. All I saved the night of the fire in which the major’s house was burned was a skirt or two, a colored dress and one shoe. All I had to wear on my shoulders all that winter was an Indian blanket that I took from the store. There wasn’t any other wearing apparel there.

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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