The Mysterious “Jean Duluth” of Jean Duluth Road

Daniel Greysolon Sieur du Lhut depicted in his hometown of Saint-Germain-Laval, France, in this painting by Duluth artist David Ericson. (Image: Duluth Public Library)

Go ahead and ask Duluthians about where the name of Jean Duluth Road comes from, and they will squint their eyes and answer you after a moment’s thought… “It’s that French voyageur, right? I guess we don’t say his name the French way anymore.” Sure, Jean Duluth. Like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, except now we’ve Americanized it like so many American places and pronounce it Jeen instead of Dzahn.

There is a problem, however: the French trader who visited this area around 1679 was named Dan. Daniel Greysolon Sieur du Lhut, to be precise. (Or, sometimes “Grisolon.” Or “du Luht,” or “du Lud,” but most definitely Daniel.)

So who’s this Jean guy?

Circa 1910, the Duluth News-Tribune had a regular column called “Jean Duluth’s Journal.” It was a sort of editorial front—the writer was supposed to be our namesake’s ghost, commenting wryly on the political and cultural issues of the day.

On August 7, 1910, the editor of the Duluth News-Tribune received an anonymous letter on Kitchi Gammi Club stationery:

Will you explain to your readers who Jean Duluth was? And can you give any reason why, in editorials and articles, this name is ever used?

I protest against educating the public into the false impression that Duluth, for whom this city is named, was called “Jean,” when his name was Daniel Greysolon Duluth, and no such person as “Jean Duluth” is known to history.

It seems to me that your paper owes it to the people of Duluth to correct a false impression that it has persistently fostered and do what is possible to prevent the citizens of Duluth from appearing in the ridiculous light of not knowing the name of the man for whom their city was named.

The editor responds with some sarcasm about the fancy-pants Kitch, and that it’s obviously a nickname, you rich so-and-so. Then he cites a few supposedly reliable sources, including the entries for Duluth in the Encyclopedia Britannica and Johnson’s Universal Cyclopedia.

The 1876 edition of Johnson’s Universal Cyclopaedia, which was widely distributed into American homes, does indeed include this tidbit: “The place is named after Capt. John Duluth, a French traveler, who visited the country and built a hut in 1760.” Under the entry, the writer is identified as R. D’Unger, the editor of the Duluth Herald.

[Editor’s Note: New research of early Duluth newspapers shows that “John Duluth” appears in print as early as August 14, 1869, when George Sargent was building a new hotel he considered naming “The John Duluth House.”]

It is true that the man was a Captain. We won’t quibble on the hut, since it’s theoretically possible, though there is no record of Du Lhut actually building anything here. (Fond du Lac—the Duluth neighborhood—began as an Ojibwe village that eventually gained a trading post. Not, as far as we know, as early as 1670.) The date appears to be a simple printing error, transposing 1670 to 1760.

This is where things start to look strikingly like modern Internet times, when dubious sources quote supposedly reliable sources, and you end up shaking your fist at Wikipedia for leading you astray.

The “John Duluth” entry was in Johnson’s until 1890. In 1897, three different encyclopedias practically plagiarized the sentence from Johnson’s. That same year, the Encyclopedia Britannica invented a son for the childless Daniel Greysolon Du Lhut: “His son Jean Du Lhut was the founder of the city of Duluth in 1760.”

The defender of “Jean Duluth’s Journal” gave one final leg of support for the Jean appellation—Edward D. Neill. Neill was an eminent Minnesota historian, providing definitive tomes starting with The History of Minnesota: From the Earliest French Explorations to the Present Time (1858). In the book, Neill quotes a letter from Du Lhut regarding a saintly intercession that temporarily cures his chronic gout, signed “J. de Luth.”

Another misprint? Without seeing the original document, it’s hard to be sure, but the same quote shows up in other books by other authors as far back as 1819.

In the 1910 Duluth News Tribune, the editor continues, “We submit that the gentleman must have known his own name, and that the ‘J’ more probably stood for ‘Jean’ or ‘John’ than for ‘Jacob’ or ‘Jeremiah.’ Anyway, we like Jean better than his other name, Dan.”

The belief in the existence of “Captain John Duluth,” therefore, was quite widespread before 1920. He shows up in boosterish magazine articles and commercial speeches. Sometimes, he is explained as Daniel’s son, and sometimes morphs into Daniel’s brother. (Du Lhut did have a younger brother who accompanied him on his travels, but his name was Claude Greysolon de la Tourette.)

The only present-day remnant of this magically expanding letter J is the road. Jean Duluth Road takes its name in turn from Jean Du Luth Farm, which was founded in the late 1800s in tandem with Greysolon Farms by Charles Craig and John G. Williams. The farm was the showpiece of the Homecroft Movement, an early Locavore idea that petered out after World War I. By the first decade of the Twentieth Century, a large farming area of many thousands of acres near the current intersection of Jean Duluth Road and Martin Road was called the Jean DuLuth District, and the name of the road was changed from the rather ponderous East Duluth and Lester River Road.

Think of it as a road dedicated to the idea that You Can’t Believe Everything You Read.

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