The Prentice Claim (1910)

Kechewaiske, aka Chief Buffalo or Great Buffalo, a leader of the Lake Superior Ojibwe. (Image: Chippewa Valley Museum)

Reference has been made to the special arrangement entered into with Chief Buffalo by which he was allowed four square miles of land, to be afterward located, as a reward for the special services of certain members of his tribe. The chief, with rare good judgment for an Indian, elected to take his land in what is now the heart of Duluth, but which at that time was a tract of land that was covered with a heavy growth of pine. It was probably the timber on it which guided the chief in his choice, for even at that early day lumber was lumber, and cash could be always obtained for timber when land had comparatively no value.

It was out of this allotment of land to the chief that the celebrated Prentice claims of later years sprang-claims that for many years hung as a disturbing element over property that had passed into the hands of many hundreds of different owners, and which, until they were finally disposed of by the courts, acted as a drag on the growth and progress of the city.

The treaty with the Indians in which Chief Buffalo figured was made in September, 1854, and very shortly after its ratification the chief decided where he would locate his claim and did so. It is more than possible that in making his choice he had the advantage of the advice of some of the original Duluth boomers, who were speculating on his necessities and were not indisposed to take some advantage of them. Be that as it may, however, in two years after the treaty the Chief Buffalo tract, as it has ever since been called, had passed out of the chief’s hands and was securely vested in that of Benjamin G. Armstrong and wife.

It would be interesting to know what the consideration was that passed for this control of the property, but of this the old records contain no information. That it was a mere bagatelle is a fore-gone conclusion, however. The land on which Duluth now stands had then little or no value, except to a few of the farsighted men of that time, who were generally looked upon by their fellows as visionaries and impractical dreamers.

In the course of the succeeding years this property passed into the hands of many hundreds of different owners. A large part of the tract had been acquired by the Western Land Association, which had platted its purchase and sold it off by lots.

Another large tract had been bought from Armstrong and his wife by John M. Gilman, who had pursued the same course with his land. In the early ’90s Gilman appears to have disposed of all his holdings, but the Western Land Association still owned a large part of the original Buffalo tract. On the part which had been sold to individuals Duluth’s business and a large part of its social life had centered. Banks, mercantile establishments, churches, the government building, the city and county buildings, schools, railroad depots, and some hundreds of residences had been constructed. The original tract then possessed a value of many millions of dollars for the land alone, to say nothing of the improvements that had been placed upon it, which probably exceeded the value of the land.

Along in the early ’90s the complacency of the owners of this property was sorely tried by the institution of suits by one Frederick D. Prentice, of New York, who brought a series of suits for ouster and an accounting against the holders of the property, claiming that he was the owner of an undivided onehalf interest in the property, which he had acquired from Armstrong and the latter’s wife in the latter part of 1856, the deeds for which had been properly recorded in the county’s books.

Prentice instituted twenty such suits at different times in the Federal court at Duluth, and kept up the litigation for several years. He would take a half-dozen or more individual owners of lots, for instance, group them in one case, and start suit. Generally he would claim damages in a certain sum and in addition pray for an accounting of the value of the land and an ousting of the holders in case they failed to settle.

The effect of these actions was to cast a cloud over the titles to all the land in this immensely valuable tract. The suits also came at a time when Duluth was experiencing a vigorous growth, when building and other improvement projects were numerous, and as a matter of course the vast majority of these projects centered in the disputed section, which was then and is now known as the Third Division of Duluth. The contest over the title called a halt for some years on these improvement projects. The owners of unimproved property had it on their hands and were afraid to spend money on improvements. It was also an impossibility to sell their holdings, as no lawyer in view of the contests could deliver a free and clear title to purchasers. There were plenty of prospective purchasers, who were ready to buy and spend large amounts on improvements, but they were uniformly deterred from doing so by their attorneys.

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Sources:

  • 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.