How innocuous are Duluth’s historic white-guy statues?

The statue of Leif Erikson in Leif Erikson Park’s Rose Garden, July 2020. (Image: Zenith City Press)

Note: This article was written by Zenith City Press publisher as a “Local View” for the Duluth News Tribune and was first published online on July 6, 2020, and in print on July 7, 2020.


I always enjoy reading my friend Jim Heffernan’s columns in the Duluth News Tribune, which often take me back in time to a Duluth I never experienced. But I didn’t completely agree with his recent perspective that Duluth’s statues of historic white guys are all “innocuous,” or, in other words, not harmful or offensive (Jim Heffernan Column: “Statues in Duluth appear to be safe,” June 28).

Let’s first consider the statue of Leif Erikson in Leif Erikson Park. The work of Norwegian immigrant artist John Karl Daniels and donated by Duluth’s Norwegian American League in 1956, the Duluth monument is one of nine Erikson statues erected in the U.S. between 1887 and 1962. Many were created in response to the country’s myriad monuments to Christopher Columbus. The Duluth statue’s pedestal declares Erikson to be the “Discoverer of America 1000 A.D.” Of course, no one “discovered” America, which was populated with people long before Erikson got lost on his way to Greenland or Columbus accidentally ran into the West Indies. Saying so is a Euro-centric idea offensive to North America’s Indigenous people.

Leif Erikson Park was called Lake Shore Park until 1927, after the Leif Erikson replica boat sailed from Norway to Duluth. Norwegian furniture-store philanthropist Bert Enger purchased the boat and gave it to Duluth after a City Council resolution promised to permanently place the boat in the park and rename the park for the boat.

Is the monument innocuous? Not while it makes that “discoverer” claim. And not when we also consider that while Erikson and his fellow Vikings did not colonize North America or enslave Native Americans, they did enslave those who survived their raids, particularly women. [Read more about the history of the statue here.]

The statue of Daniel Greysolon Sieur du Lhut by Jacque Lipschitz at UMD’s Ordean Court. (Image: Zenith City Press)

What is now called Duluth was also populated for eons before anyone hung that name on it. This brings us to the Tweed Museum’s statue of the city’s namesake, Daniel Greysolon Sieur du Lhut, which stands in UMD’s Ordean Court. Erected in 1966, it was financed by a provision in banker Albert Ordean’s 1926 will, which also created Duluth’s Ordean Foundation.

The statue has been scrutinized because it depicts du Lhut as the city’s founder. He was not. Duluth was first organized as a town in 1856, 146 years after his death. The name was suggested by a Presbyterian minister who read about du Lhut in a book by French missionaries. In 1679, du Lhut purportedly crossed Minnesota Point along Onigamiinsing (“Little Portage,” now the site of the Duluth Ship Canal), and that helped convince the community’s early investors to select the anglicized name “Duluth.”

Du Lhut was an ambitious and often arrogant soldier obsessed with making a name for himself in part by bringing the Dakota and Ojibwe together, and indeed he has been credited for establishing a temporary peace between the two nations. But his diplomatic effort wasn’t just about harmony and reputation: It would also make fur trading easier and more profitable for the French.

So one could argue that du Lhut’s diplomatic efforts extended his country’s power and influence over other peoples. He was an imperialist. His behavior among Native Americans was also often paternalistic, such as when he took it upon himself to arrange marriages between Ojibwe and Dakota to help ensure, or “cement,” their newly established friendship.

Nobody knows what du Lhut actually looked liked. There are no existing images of him made during his lifetime. The statue’s creator, famed Cubist sculptor Jacques Lipschitz, admitted that he modeled the statue after costumes worn in the 1948 movie, “The Three Musketeers.” He dressed his subject in an outfit described as “a mixture of American Indian and Louis XIV style with plumed hat, Indian jacket, sword, beard, and wearing a long wig of nobility.” The Tweed calls the statue a blending of “fact and myth.”

Lipschitz also considered his work an image of “a builder, a man who looks at a place and says, ‘This is where I want a city.’” But du Lhut was not a builder, and there’s no evidence he ever envisioned a city named for himself.

Is the statue innocuous? Not to me. Its misrepresentation offends my passion to accurately interpret Duluth’s history. It has also long offended art critics. A University of Minnesota Duluth publication once described the statue as “The Michelin man holding a hot dog and missing his yo-yo.”

More seriously and importantly, it is not innocuous to those who resent the idea of any European being praised as the founder of a community developed on traditional, ancestral, and contemporary lands of Indigenous people. [Read a biography of du Lhut written in 1920 by former Duluth Mayor Trevanion Hugo here.]

NOTE: The plaque on the statue’s pedestal does not refer to du Lhut as the city’s founder but states “for whom the city of Duluth was named.”

Like du Lhut, Jay Cooke was also arrogant, calling himself “God’s chosen instrument” for his work financing the Union war effort during the Civil War. Unlike du Lhut, Cooke did play a significant role in the city’s history. The statue of Cooke in Jay Cooke Plaza, made by sculptor Henry Shady in 1921, was the gift of the subject’s friend Horace Harding. It proclaims Cooke “Patriot-Pioneer-Financier.”

Cooke almost single-handedly created Duluth’s great boom between 1869 and 1873 by terminating his railroads in Duluth and financing most of the city’s early construction, including the ship canal. Newspapers called Duluth “Jay Cooke’s Town,” and it would not be the city it is today without his investment. Property he purchased in the 1860s was later used to create Thomson Dam on the St. Louis River and much of it is now Jay Cooke State Park. [Read more about  Jay Cooke’s influence on Duluth here, his rare visits to Duluth here, and the statue’s 1921 dedication here.]

While Cooke is an extremely important figure in Duluth’s history, his investments also consequently made life more difficult for local Ojibwe. From 1856 to 1868, more Ojibwe lived in Duluth than those of European descent. But in 1869, thousands of Europeans immigrated to Duluth, recruited to build Cooke’s railroads and establish farms. Because of articles and books depicting Native Americans as savages, most newcomers refused to work with local Ojibwe. As a result, nearly all Ojibwe relocated outside the city’s borders. Further, the land Cooke purchased and developed had essentially been taken from the Ojibwe in the 1854 Treaty of LaPointe.

Cooke has been described as ethically ambiguous. He was deeply religious, considered theft a sin, and donated generously to the poor. Yet, as biographer M. John Lubetkin points out, he also bribed hundreds of government officials. As a boy he helped his father shelter escaped slaves fleeing to Canada, yet during the Civil War he refused to allow African Americans, including uniformed soldiers, to ride on his Washington, D.C., trolley car system.

Lubetkin also notes that while Cooke’s attitude toward Native Americans was “progressive for that era,” corrupt administrators of his Northern Pacific Railroad “routinely encroached on or gobbled up huge swaths of reservation land.”

Is the statue innocuous? Perhaps if you consider the statue a memorial to a philanthropic man whose investment was paramount to our city’s creation, but not if you think it celebrates a morally ambivalent man whose railroad interests displaced thousands of Native Americans.

And that’s the larger point here: The question of whether Duluth’s statues of historic white guys are all innocuous depends on perspective. What they represent isn’t nearly as clear as what monuments to the Confederacy stand for.

Duluth’s replica of the Woolson Memorial photographed in July, 2020. (Image: Zenith City Press)

Perhaps the only clearly innocuous Duluth statue of a historic white guy is the replica of the Gettysburg National Military Park’s Woolson Memorial outside the Depot. Albert Woolson enlisted in the Union Army when he was a teenager and never participated in a battle. But the Duluthian lived to be 109 years old, which made him the last-surviving Union soldier. [Learn more about Woolson here.]

According to the Civil War Institute, the Woolson Monument “represents far more than the celebration of one man … and no individual’s contributions to the war or its legacy was more important than his comrades.” So while it depicts an actual person, the Woolson statue symbolizes all those who fought to end slavery and preserve the Union.

Is the statue innocuous? From my perspective it is, although I do hope it deeply offends those who want to fly Confederate flags, retain the names of traitors on military bases, and protect monuments to defenders of slavery.

As for Duluth’s statues of those other three white guys, I am not suggesting we remove them, nor am I aware of any organized efforts to take them down. Rather, I am hoping this article starts a civil and thoughtful public discussion about them. Prominent public art reflects a community’s values, telling the rest of the world what it thinks of itself. It is time for us to carefully determine what these statues say about Duluth and then address the issue of their future.

Perhaps we’ll decide one or more should go, or maybe we’ll develop ways to render them innocuous to all. Whatever the result, let’s not trip over ourselves in a rush to be politically correct but rather take a slow and deliberate walk toward solutions that consider a variety of perspectives.

Duluth author Tony Dierckins is publisher of Zenith City Press. His new book, Duluth: An Urban Biography (2020 Minnesota Historical Society Press), is available here.

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