Duluth’s First Murder

Ans Northrup, whose violent life was reflected in the death of his sons, one of whom was Duluth’s first murder victim. (Image: Public Domain)

In the summer of 1869, Duluth was a dirty town of mud and stumps, tarpaper shacks, saloons, and treacherous plank sidewalks. The Fisheaters who’d survived the earliest bust were on their way up again, sure that this time the world would see the Zenith City’s full potential as the center of North American commerce. The place was swimming in heady optimism, but just underneath, there was the tang of sweaty desperation.

That May, the Transcontinental Railroad had driven its last spike, connecting the post-war country from sea to shining sea. And so, Duluth was focused on laying track for the Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad, which would connect it definitively with St. Paul and further economic prosperity.

To that end, city fathers had set their sights on wooing Philadelphia and its moneymen to be their new best friends. The Duluth Minnesotian was full of chatter about the “Philadelphia Excursionists” and who might come visiting over the lakes via Erie, Pennsylvania. On August 14, Mrs. Pitt Cooke arrived with others from the City of Brotherly Love, anticipating the imminent arrival of her husband and others who would spur the economy with their big bucks. The Cooke brothers were the most important Philadelphians of all, as far as Duluth was concerned, for their pockets were deeper than anyone’s.

But these notable personages weren’t the only ones hopping steamers in Erie to check out the opportunities at the Head of the Lakes. In July, there had been an influx of roughnecks, initially nicknamed the “Immortal 300.” They had been persuaded by smooth-talking boosters in Philadelphia into coming to work on the LS&MRR.

Unfortunately, according to the Minnesotian, these “Philadelphia roughs” were not only unsuited to the hard work required by railroad builders, but simply unneeded. A July 31 editorial complained that their arrival was a “blunder of the most serious and expensive description” and decried their “unruly character.” Many of the men soon abandoned Duluth, finding their way to St. Paul. The St. Paul Pioneer described them as “very dilapidated in appearance. Their hands and faces look as if they had been afflicted with the itch. There is not one part of their persons that was left exposed that is not brim full of mosquito bites. Some of them were begging yesterday, for the privilege of sleeping in the City Hall.”

Those who stayed became the sort of newcomers locals have always dreaded—loud, drunk, and eager to occupy every empty spot at the rail of every saloon in town. Out of this tension came the inevitable bar fights. And out of those bar fights came Duluth’s first official murder.

St. Louis County Criminal Case #1 might have been only a blip on the history books, except for one coincidental fact: it involved two not-so-important sons of two very important fathers.

Frontiersman & Sons

Old Anson Northrup was a near-mythological figure of early Minnesota. At 23, he drove the first herd of oxen into the north country, became one of its first lumbermen and river boatmen, and eventually built sorely needed pioneer hotels in various boom towns across Minnesota, buying up real estate as he went.

While he also served on Minnesota’s first legislature, Northrup’s fame primarily revolved around his violent escapades during the Dakota Uprising. Early Duluth storyteller Jerome Cooley wrote that “Anse” was part of the cabal that captured the Indians near Mankato “for massacring settlers” and hanged them all. “The commanding officer asked Anse if he tried them. He said he was too busy, but would as soon as he got back to Fort Snelling.”

While this tale may be apocryphal, there’s no doubt that Old Anse was famous as an Indian killer. He’d been serving in the Civil War as a wagonmaster, with his two sons, George and Charles, in tow. When word of the uprising reached them, Anse promptly packed up and returned to Minnesota to fight, serving as a valuable leader.

One tale is recounted in the History of St. Croix County by a fellow member of Company C. The Eighth Regiment had reached the Badlands, and the soldiers had run out of water. However, they did have whiskey. A group of Dakota were firing at them from wooded cover nearby, and this frustrated a drunken Anson Northrup, who begged the lieutenant to give him a detail to “annihilate every damned Indian skulking there…” The lieutenant refused, calling it too hazardous.

Now Anson was by nature a fighter under any and all circumstances, and when inflamed by liquor he was daring even to the extreme of recklessness.

“Then I will do it alone,” he shouted and turning his horse, he rode away down the hill full tilt at the enemy. His oldest son was present, vainly endeavoring to dissuade his father from such a foolhardy attack. Seeing the old veteran ride away, young Northrup decided to accompany him and dashed down the descent in close pursuit. That they would both be slaughtered nobody entertained a doubt, but in due time they appeared, Anson swinging the scalp of an Indian over his head and shouting loud paeans of victory.

In the summer of 1869, Anson Northrup had just purchased General Sargent’s large cottage on the Duluth hillside for his family, and he along with his two oldest sons were working on the railroad. Their reputation for being a “hard-boiled” bunch—even to the point of being casually called a “gang”—followed them. George, older than Charles by two years, always had his little brother’s back. They were now in their late twenties, and working hard under the tutelage of their tough old man, just as they always had.

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Story by Heidi Bakk-Hansen. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Heidi Bakk-Hansen.