Park makes its mark with rich fur-trading history

Tonight, the Duluth City Council is expected to bestow landmark status and protections on a small Fond du Lac property that played a huge role in the non-native settlement of the area.

Duluth park plaque
A plaque at Duluth's historical park recounts the history of the Fond du Lac site, which may receive landmark status from the Duluth City Council tonight. (Steve Kuchera /

Tonight, the Duluth City Council is expected to bestow landmark status and protections on a small Fond du Lac property that played a huge role in the non-native settlement of the area.

John Jacob Astor Park, once home to the American Fur Trading Co.'s headquarters and main trading post, officially became a park just three years ago, when the Daughters of the American Revolution deeded the property to the city.

The tiny riverside park has a fascinating story to tell, said Dan Hartman, a Duluth city councilor, UMD history major and program director for Veterans' Memorial Hall.

"It was a pivotal location in the early history of our city," Hartman said of the quiet little park at 133rd Avenue West and West Second Street.

The American Fur Trading Co. probably built its Fond du Lac outpost on the site in 1817.


But even before the advent of the fur trade, the area was home to American Indians.

Indeed, a neighboring Ojibwe village co-existed with the fur post on the St. Louis River for many years.

David Woodward, an instructor of anthropology and archaeology at Lake Superior College, suspects human habitation of the area probably dates back at least 2,000 years

"Native Americans really made the post happen, because without them, there wouldn't have been the fur supply," he said. American Indians routinely traded animal pelts for all sorts of goods and products.

While this trade brought useful items such as metal pots and guns to the local Ojibwe, Christine Carlson, a local historian, noted that contact with fur traders also introduced problems, including alcohol and deadly disease, such as small pox.

Carlson said American Indians often were inadequately compensated.

"There are stories of Ojibwe people selling 100 furs for a bolt of cotton cloth," she said.

Meanwhile, John J. Astor, the founder of the American Fur Trading Co., amassed tremendous wealth, becoming the nation's first multimillionaire. At the time of his death in 1848, Astor's estate had an estimated value of at least $20 million. To put Astor's wealth in perspective, Forbes magazine figures that the chunk of the gross domestic product he controlled at the time would have a present value well in excess of $100 billion. This earns Astor a No. 4 spot on the magazine's all-time list of the most affluent Americans.


To be fair, not all Astor's wealth came from fur. He also made handsome profits from deals involving real estate to opium. But a major share of his fortune came from Northland trap lines.

Fur traders used the St. Louis River as a leaping-off point for forays deep into the wilderness, after an arduous 7-mile portage around rapids and waterfalls just a short distance upstream of the post. From there, they could head north to Lake Vermilion or southwest to the Mississippi.

"The St. Louis River was like I-35 for them back in those days," Carlson said.

Woodward said crews pushed from the St. Louis River north clear into the Canadian border lakes, thereby bypassing taxes that were being charged to other traders who made use of Grand Portage to reach Canadian markets where furs were ultimately sold to European dealers.

Jerome Blazevic, a local historian and 85-year-old native of Gary-New Duluth, said the outpost on the St. Louis River handled a higher volume of pelts than other operations that are better known to the public today.

"More fur came out of Fond du Lac than Grand Portage," he said.

The fur market collapsed in the late 1840s, after years of aggressive trapping depleted the population of beaver and other quarry, and European fashions changed.

The wooden American Fur Trading Co. outpost was left to deteriorate and eventually collapse. In the 1930s, a replica of the fort was built on site by the Civil Conservation Corps, but it, too, languished and eventually was taken down in the 1960s.


Still, Woodward suspects the site has much yet to tell historians. He said the landmark status that the Duluth City Council is expected to approve for the John J. Astor Park tonight could help unlock details of the past.

He suggested the landmark designation could help the city access state or federal grant money that could be used for interpretive exhibits, preservation and possibly even a thorough archaeological survey of the site in the future.

American Fur Trading Co. headquarters
This drawing shows the 19th-century American Fur Trading Co. headquarters in Fond du Lac. (Illustration courtesy Northeast Minnesota Historical Center)

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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