The Saga of the Prentice Claim—aka “The Buffalo Tract
The Prentice Claim
From Dwight Woodbridge & John Pardee’s History of Duluth and St. Louis County Past and Present Vols. 1 – 2. C. F. Cooper & Company. Chicago: 1910. Available at the Duluth Public Library.
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.
The situation became so intolerable that one group of defendants to the Prentice suits, consisting of Ellen D. Olmstead, August Kehtel, Edmund Hein, Gideon Schelin, Lewis Reitz and Ada M.
Adsit, filed an action in the circuit court of St. Louis county, in which they prayed for a perpetual injunction against Prentice, restraining him from attacking their title and asking that their claims to the property be freed from the cloud cast upon it by his suits. The papers were served upon Prentice and he was ordered to appear and defend the action by a certain date. In his reply to the summons Prentice reasserted his claim to the property by deed from Armstrong and wife, which he described as follows: “One undivided half of all the following described piece or parcel of land, situated in the county of St. Louis and territory of Minnesota, and known and described as follows, to wit: Beginning at a large stone or rock at the head of St. Louis river bay, nearly adjoining Minnesota Point; commencing at said rock and running east one mile, north one mile, west one mile, south one mile to the place of beginning, and being the land set off to the Indian Chief Buffalo at the Indian treaty of September 30, 1854, and was afterwards disposed of by said Buffalo to said Armstrong and is now recorded with the Government documents.” In his reply Prentice also set up that he was a resident and citizen of the state of New York and therefore prayed that the action be transferred to the Federal court. Judge Ensign, of the circuit court, before whom the prayer of the petitioners had been brought, had no other recourse but to allow the transference of the case, which he did on the stipulation that Prentice should furnish a bond of $1, 000. This Prentice did, obtaining as his sureties two of his friends in Ashland, Wis.
n the action brought by Prentice against the Western Land Association, which had purchased part of its holding from John Mf. Gilman, he asked for $10, 000 damages, an accounting for the value of the lands, and a settlement or ouster. His attorneys were Kitchell, Cohen and Shaw, and among his counsel were Dillon & Swayne, of New York. Dillon was a famous lawyer in New York and had formerly been a Federal judge in Kansas, but had resigned his place on the bench to go to New York as counsel for Jay Gould and his interests. The Western Land Association was represented by Walter Ayers.
The Western Land Association in its answer to Prentice’s action boldly attacked his claims to the property. It pointed out that the deed from Armstrong to Prentice, under which he claimed title, even if genuine, was invalid, because certain formalities prescribed by the law had not been observed at the time of filing. The court was therefore asked to decree this deed invalid. But further than that, the association set up the defense that Prentice had not asserted his claim in more than twenty years; that he had never paid any assessments or taxes on the property; that the association had bought the property in good’ faith from Gilman and had been in undisputed possession for more than twenty years, and that therefore its title had been perfected under the laws of the state. Gilman at that time was a resident of St. Paul and it was necessary to send there and have his deposition taken before a master in chancery, and this deposition was attached to the association’s answer. Gilman testified that he had bought the lands from Armstrong in 1864, and that he had never heard of the Prentice claim. The price he paid Armstrong for the land was $500 cash. That was probably a good price for those days, but considering that the land and the improvements upon it are now worth anywhere from $20, 000, 000 to $25, 000, 000, it seems a ridiculously small sum.
The figures are interesting, however, as illustrating the marvelous growth of Duluth since those days.
In all the suits which Prentice brought in Duluth he never appeared to prosecute one. At every term of court for some years it could be confidently counted upon that there would be at least one Prentice case on the docket, and when this was called, ‘ the plaintiff not being present, judgment was given for the defendant, with costs. The case against the Western Land Association took this course. It was on the calendar of Judge 95 R. R. Nelson, of the Federal circuit court at the October term, 1894. The plaintiff failed to appear and the case was dismissed with costs to the defendant of $41.22. In the twenty suits which Prentice instituted in St. Louis county his costs must have approached close to $1, 000, exclusive of the fees which he paid to his attorneys. This was not all wasted money, however.
Many of the defendants, it is said, became scared over the litigation and made private settlements with Prentice by which the title to the property they held was rendered flawless and they could sell it or improve it without fear of after loss. How much was thus paid to him there is no means of knowing, but it undoubtedly was a large sum in the aggregate.
The final effort of Prentice in his assertion of claim to this property was brought before the Federal circuit court in St.
Paul, and in this case he did appear and try to substantiate his claims. The court, however, decided against him on every contention he set up, and thus a claim that had lowered like a black cloud over Duluth property for years was lifted for good, and the plans for improvement have ever since then gone on apace.
‘There have been other and minor claims, of course, growing out of the transactions of those early days, but none of them has ever been of the vast importance to the city that the Prentice claim was.
The Prentice Claim
From Walter Van Brunt’s Duluth and St. Louis County, Minnesota Vols. 1 – 3. The American Historical Society. Chicago: 1922. Available at the Duluth Public Library.
Chief Buffalo, of Ontonagon; D. S. Cash and His Partner, W. W. Spaulding; The Prentiss Claim.-One clause in particular of the Treaty of La Pointe must be referred to, because of its subsequent bearing on Duluth realty. Chief Buffalo, of Ontonagon, secured “a special reservation of four sections of land to be picked out at his leisure, anywhere in the seceded territory and conveyed, under the direction of the President, by the United States to such person or persons as he might direct.” Chief Buffalo, it was stated was “desirous to provide for some of his connections who have rendered his people important services.” It will be noted that D. S. Cash was one of the witnesses to the signing of the treaty. The same Mr. Cash, with his mining partner and nephew, W. W. Spaulding, two years later sent (“fitted out or grubstaked”) some men from Ontonagon “to the head of the lake, about Duluth, to make homesteads or pre-emption claims.” And many years afterwards, W. W. Spaulding himself explained fully and frankly the interest of D. S. Cash in the Buffalo clause of the treaty. He wrote as follows: In September, of 1854, a treaty was held at La Pointe, by commissioners appointed by the General Government, with chiefs of the Chippewa Indians.
… Mr. D. S. Cash was present at the treaty, to try and secure a claim which we had against Benjamin J. Armstrong, a trader at La Pointe, who was married to a daughter of Chief Buffalo. Armstrong had gotten deeply in debt to us for goods which he had furnished to the Indians. Mr. Cash was acquainted with Chief Buffalo, Negaunul, Cundeeun, and many others, and consulted and advised them. The commissioners tried for several days to treat with the Indian chiefs, but could not agree, and were about ready to quit in disgust when Mr. Cash went to them, and disclosed the terms upon which they could agree with the chiefs, and got them to sign it. It was in effect to sign certain reserves to different bands, and one of them at Duluth to Chief Buffalo and his heirs, B. J. Armstrong and his wife Madelaine. We had an agreement with Armstrong to deed to D. S. Cash and Company and’ James H.
Kelly two-thirds of all the land so obtained. This land is what is now known as the 3rd Division of Duluth.
Eventually, the Spaulding hotel was built upon part of the Cash- Spaulding-Kelly interest in the Buffalo-Armstrong land in Duluth, but the third division of that city was destined for many years to keep occupiers of realty thereon in a state of uncertainty, as to title 61and indirectly to reflect detrimentally upon Duluth real estate, as a whole. Indeed, Mr. Spaulding (who lived to follow the intricacies of the case to the end, whereas Mr. Cash died in 1863) must have wondered at times whether he and his partner would benefit at all by the Buffalo clause of the treaty, for it was found subsequently that the Buffalo tract, according to the treaty papers, was well out into Lake Superior. Alfred Merritt, in his autobiography, makes reference to the subject thus: A man by the name of Burk had a claim shanty (in 1857) just west of Miller’s Creek. Here 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 northwest, 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 La Pointe, in the fall of 1854, as the starting point, the line to run one mile north, one mile east, one mile south, and one mile west, back to the point of starting. This would have taken in the old burial ground at the foot of Rice’s Point. … The treaty was tampered with, unquestionably, by interested parties. In fact, when his land was looked up, according to the treaty papers it was found to be located six miles out in Lake Superior. This however was rectified to some extent, and when Chief Buffalo died, his son-in-law, Ben Armstrong, fell heir to Chief Buffalo’s interest, and he sold this interest to W. W. Spaulding, then of Ontonagon, Michigan, later of Duluth; and the Spaulding House stands on some of this land now.
That, however, was not the only difficulty that arose in regard to the third division of Duluth. In the ’90s case after case came into the local courts, instituted in each instance by Frederick D. Prentice of New York, who brought, and for some years continued to bring, suits for ouster and an accounting against holders of property in the Chief-Buffalo tract, Prentice claiming that he owned an undivided one-half 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 were properly recorded in the county’s books. Prentice did not succeed in any of the cases; indeed, he only appeared to prosecute one, but he nevertheless continued to institute cases for several years, until practically all real estate transactions in that division practically ceased. The Western Land Association was largely interested in real estate in that part of Duluth, and eventually was forced to carry the fight to Prentice, finally securing favorable legal decision. The land they contested Prentice’s right to had been acquired from a certain John M. Gilman, of St. Paul, who had bought the lands from Armstrong in 1864, paying him $500 for land now worth probably more than $25,000,000.
Such has been the development of Duluth in scarcely more than half a century. Probably, the worthy pioneers who will be referred to in the next chapter were never so extravagant in their sane hopes for the city, roseate though their dreams were.