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Hepzibeth Woman of Iron play

 Collection — Volume: 1
Identifier: S4515

Scope and Contents

The collection consists of a Master's thesis rewritten as a play about the life of Hephzibeth Merritt. The play is written from Hephzibeth's point of view during the time of the Merritt-Rockefeller court case, with tales of the past told to a granddaughter. Also included in the thesis are photocopies of quoted sources, a timeline of Hephzibeth Merritt's life, works cited page, and an annotated bibliography.


  • Creation: 1991


Conditions Governing Access

Open for use in the Kathryn A. Martin Library, Archives and Special Collections.

Conditions Governing Use

This collection may be protected by the Copyright Law of the United States (Title 17, U.S. Code). It is the user's responsibility to verify copyright ownership and to obtain all necessary permissions prior to the reproduction, publication, or other use of any portion of these materials. Researchers may quote from the collection under the fair use provision of the copyright law.

Biographical / Historical

Lauren L. Nickisch is the daughter of James and Marilyn Nickisch.  She is the great-great-great granddaughter through Leonidas/Lucien/Richard/Marilyn Merritt Nickisch.  She earned her Master’s degree from Goddard College. She is a music specialist at Riverside Elementary School in Pequot Lakes, Minnesota.

Hephzibeth Jewett Merritt was born October 4, 1812, in Massachusetts. She married Lewis H. Merritt in January, 1832. She came to Duluth for the first time in 1856. She was a central figure in local Duluth history and lore, and the matriarch of the Merritt family. She died in Duluth in April of 1906, at the age of 93.

The Merritt family is one of the most important families in the early history of Duluth and northeast Minnesota. Lewis Howell Merritt came to the Duluth area in 1855, accompanied by one son, Napoleon. They were joined the following year by Hephzibah, Lewis H. Merritt's wife, and five other sons: Jerome, Leonidas, Alfred A., Lewis J., Cassius, and Andrus. Most of the brothers found employment in lumbering, surveying and shipping though their interests turned to iron ore shortly before 1890. By 1893, they had claims on a significant portion of the Mesabi Iron Range and had built the Duluth, Missabe and Northern Railway. Financial conditions forced them to give up most of their wealth to John D. Rockefeller.

Lewis Howell Merritt was born in 1809 and lived in Chautaugua County, New York as a carpenter. He married Hephzibah (Hephzibeth) Jewitt in 1831. Their first child, Jerome, was born in 1832 and was followed by Napoleon B., Lucien F., Leonidas, Alfred R. and Lewis J. Two other sons, Cassius and Andrus R., were born after the family moved to Warren County, Pennsylvania in 1849. By 1856, Hephzibah and five other sons had joined Lewis H. and Napoleon in Oneota (now part of Duluth) where Lewis H. worked in a sawmill operated by Henry W. Wheeler. Most of the family did not remain in Duluth. Jerome, Lewis J., and Andrus and their parents moved to Missouri in 1870, where Napoleon had lived since 1866. After the death of Lewis H. in 1880 and Jerome in 1878, the rest returned to Duluth. Lucien had remained in Ohio to become a minister. He served various pastorates in Pennsylvania until 1887, when he joined his family in Duluth. By 1890, Lucien had begun a pastorate at the Oneota Methodist Church of Duluth. Three brothers - Cassius, Alfred, and Leonidas - made Duluth their permanent home from the moment they first arrived. It was these three who had the greatest impact on the area. Cassius quickly involved himself in the lumber industry and became an expert timber cruiser and estimator. He held various public offices in the 1870's, including deputy county treasurer, deputy auditor and deputy register of deeds. Iron ore was found near Mountain iron while working on the development of a rail line from Duluth to Winnipeg in 1887. This discovery prompted the three brothers to begin exploration of the area in spite of the opinion of many geologists that ore could not be found in the Mesabi region. Like Cassius, Leonidas and Alfred found themselves involved in the lumber industry. They both worked as chainmen on Jay Cooke's Lake Superior and Mississippi Railway from 1867-1868. In 1869, they built the schooner "Chaska" and shipped goods around the area. Leonidas dissolved the partnership to begin Eaton & Merritt, a company for buying and selling pinelands. Alfred continued the shipping business while engaged in other ventures that included his brother Andrus. In 1886, Leonidas was appointed Surveyor General of the Fifth Lumber District and Alfred became St. Louis County Commissioner. Both brothers were instrumental in drafting a mineral lease law concerning state owned lands that eventually became the "Braden Bill," named after William Braden, Minnesota's Commissioner of Public Lands. This 1889 law enabled the brothers to gain control of much of the Mesabi mineral lands. By 1890, the three brothers and other members of the Merritt Family had shifted their assets from lumbering to mineral land investments. The next three years found the brothers engaged in fierce financial activity. The Mountain Iron Company was formed in 1890 and soon gained the support of K. D. Chase, a southern Minnesota banker. After a futile attempt to interest existing railroad companies to build lines to the Mesabi, the brothers organized the Duluth, Missabe and Northern Railway. K. D. Chase served as president, Leonidas, vice-president, and Cassius as treasurer. In 1892, Leonidas replaced K. D. Chase as president over a dispute about where to build the Duluth Missabe and Northern (D M & N) ore dock. Leonidas was determined to build the dock in Duluth rather than Superior, Wisconsin. The question of financing this construction brought in C. W. Wetmore of the American Steel Barge Company, a firm owned by John D. Rockefeller. During 1893, the Merritts suffered a number of financial problems that resulted in the loss of their holdings to John D. Rockefeller. Briefly stated, Wetmore's financial backing fell through, so the Merritts sought help from John D. Rockefeller through Frederick T. Gates, an agent of Rockefeller. As money grew tighter during the national financial panic of 1893, Leonidas sought security through a merger with Rockefeller in order to cover other loans. Rockefeller offered the brothers an option to repurchase the stock within a year, but they declined, with the exception of Lewis J. and his son, Hulett C. Merritt. Thus began a series of lawsuits that culminated with an out of court settlement on condition that they exonerate Rockefeller of all wrongdoing and end any further legal action. Wearied by the strain that claimed the life of his favorite brother Cassius, Leonidas and the rest of the family bitterly consented. This episode effectively wiped out the wealth of the family that was responsible for opening the Mountain Iron, Rathbun, Mesaba Mountain, Biwabik, and Great Northern mines. Alfred, Andrus, and Leonidas remained in Duluth to form the American Exploration Co., and searched Mexico, Canada, and the western U.S. for copper and silver ore. Lewis J. and Hulett, now the black sheep of the family for selling out for a very large sum to Rockefeller, moved to California and continued to develop their wealth. Leonidas later became involved in Duluth civic affairs, serving as Commissioner of Public Utilities (1913) and City Commissioner of Finance (1921). He was also appointed to the Minnesota Old Soldiers Home Board of Governors in 1920, and served on that board until his death in 1926. Alfred died the same year, and Andrus died in Los Angeles in 1939.

Even after the last of the Seven Iron Men had died, the Merritt Family's involvement in Duluth and the region remained. One of the Lucien's sons, Alva, continued in mining and served as Duluth's Public Works Commissioner. Others include Thomas A. Merritt (Duluth realtor, married to Ruth Merritt – Lon's daughter), Glen Merritt (Duluth postmaster), Thomas H., Callie (daughter of John E. Merritt) taught English at Denfeld High School, Edna - Callie's sister, taught 3rd grade in Hermantown. Aura Merritt, granddaughter of Jerome, taught at the Munger school (1959). Elizabeth Merritt Tenney was a librarian at UMD. Virginia Merritt Olson, Jerome's great granddaughter, taught school at one time in northern Minnesota.


1.00 Linear Feet

Language of Materials



The collection consists of a Master's thesis rewritten as a play about the life of Hephzibeth Merritt.

Physical Location

This collection is located at the University of Minnesota Duluth Archives. For more information about this collection or to make an appointment, contact us at or 218-726-8526.


This collection is part of the Northeast Minnesota Historical Collections, which are housed in the University of Minnesota Duluth Archives at the Kathryn A. Martin Library.

Guide to the Hepzibeth Woman of Iron play
Finding Aid Authors: P. Maus.
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Collecting Area Details

Contact The University of Minnesota Duluth Archives and Special Collections Collecting Area

Kathryn A. Martin Library
University of Minnesota Duluth
416 Library Drive
Duluth MN 55812-3001
(218) 726-8526