The Recollections of Edmund F. Ely

Reverend Edmund F. Ely. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

Among the pioneers of Duluth and the head of the lakes undoubtedly the one man whose associations went farther back than all the rest of those that made it their home was E. F. Ely, who as early as 1833, long years before the wilderness was broken for the building of either Duluth or Superior, came here and made this section one of his visiting points as a missionary and catechist among the Chippewa Indians.

Mr. Ely was born August 3, 1809, in Wilbraham, Mass., and he came to this section from Albany, N. Y., in 1833.

He was connected with the. American board of foreign missions in his journeys through the Lake Superior country, and his life was full of incidents that make the collection of his diaries in the possession of his family of great interest. He spent the years from 1833 up to 1849 at different stations, preaching the gospel and bringing the glad tidings to the Indians at Fond 273  du Lac, Sandy lake, Leech lake, Lake Pokegama, near where Pine City now stands, and other points. By canoe and snow shoes he traveled for hundreds of miles, pursuing his duties as missionary and teacher.

In 1849 he removed to St. Paul and settled, and he died in Santa Rosa, Cal., in 1882.

When he left the missionary field and moved to St. Paul, however, he did not abandon this section. In 1854 he made two trips here, and the Duluth Historical and Scientific Association has possession of a copy of one of his diaries, describing a trip from St. Paul to the head of Lake Superior in March of that year.

The trip was the second one that year. Below will be found, as nearly as may be, a narration of the events of that trip, as taken from the facts in the diary, assisted by the recollections of men who remember those days. It must be remembered that at that time Duluth was not. It was not until the following September that a treaty was made at La Pointe with the Chippewas, by which the site of Duluth was ceded. The section west of the lake, including the site of the Superiors, had been ceded in August, 1847, and at the time of Mr. Ely’s visit the townsite of Old Superior was just being surveyed and located upon. For the sake of convenience, the personal form of the diary will be maintained in the narration, which follows.


I left St. Paul at noon on March 17 with Frank (a son who died in 1888). It was very cold, and a heavy, raw wind made driving very uncomfortable. During the day we came to Brother Boutwell’s, and the next day we continued our journey, dining at Otis’. Two miles beyond Frank turned back to Boutwell’s and I continued to Lyman’s, at the boom house, where I spent the Sabbath.

At 4:30 o’clock on the morning of the 20th I started on, and at 7:30 o’clock I arrived at Taylor’s Falls. After breakfast, at Folsom’s hotel, I attempted to cross the river (St. Croix), but the ice gave way and I went in nearly to my armpits. My pack was on my back, weighting me down, so I had to get it off with one hand, while I clung to the ice with the other. After that I got out without much difficulty, but the accident delayed me until 9:30 o’clock. After getting tolerably dry I again essayed the river, this time getting over in a boat near the mill. I called on Dr. Smith to get some vaccine matter. As he was not at home I left word for him to forward some to Fond du Lac.

At 2 o’clock that afternoon I reached Rowley’s, and went on after remaining there an hour. Half a mile beyond the site of our camp of February 13 I encamped and made a supper from bread and butter, apple pie, cookies, cheese and crackers, from Folsom’s, and biscuit. coffee and suger from Rowley’s. Rohrer’s tin cup was my kettle, my jacknife was my spoon. While it was cold when I started from St. Paul, I suffered from heat on this day. I left camp on the morning of the 21st, at 5:30, and reached Ayers’ (one of the first lumber camps of the Minnesota pineries) at 8:45. After breakfasting there I started at 9:30 o’clock on my way, but soon it began to rain. I covered my shoulders and pack with my rubber coat, but the storm increased steadily.

About 2 o’clock that afternoon it turned to a clammy snow. The wind was in my face, to add to my discomfort, and when I arrived at Tuttle’s, about 6 o’clock, I was pretty thoroughly wet. There I found Orrin Rice, just arrived from Chase’s camp, on his way to St. Paul. (Orrin Rice was one of the first settlers on Rice’s Point, and its name was taken from him). Next morning, though it was cloudy, the rain had ceased, and I left about 8, taking a blind trail to Yellow lake. I forded Yellow river, which had about two and a half feet of water in it, and arrived at Chase’s at 5 o’clock. I crossed on the ice, but could not get ashore without a boat. I remained at Chase’s over night, but at 7 o’clock next morning, the 23rd, I continued on my way, my pack heavier by thirty pounds of provisions, intended to last for three days.

After doing twenty-seven miles I made a pleasant camp that night, with dry poplar for fuel, and my fire on the east side of the road and my bed on the west side. It was cloudy that evening, but the next day dawned bright and cool, and I arrived at the entry (to Superior bay) at 5 o’clock. I stopped with John Morgan. Dr. Marsh also lodges there, but boards with William Herbatt. Edward C. Becker, brother of the former member of the state railroad and warehouse commission, George L. Becker, also stops close by with George Perry.

On the next day I went to see R. F. Slaughter and B. W. Brunson, but found that all of the good claims were taken up.

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  • 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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