Skip to main content

Merritt family papers

 Collection — Multiple Containers
Identifier: S3120

Scope and Contents

The collection contains personal and financial correspondence, letterpress books, scrapbooks, newspaper clippings, manuscripts written about local and family history, financial records, legal papers, maps, photographs, one audio cassette of an interview, and reference materials.

Most of the records pertain to Leodnidas, Alfred, and Andrus Merritt; other family members that are also well-represented in the collection include Alva, Cassius, Elizabeth (Wheeler), Hephzibah, Hulett C., John E., Leondias' children Ruth, Lucien, and Harry, Lewis H., Lewis J., Lucien F., Napoleon B. and T. H. "Bert" Merritt. There is little material on Jerome Merritt. The body of the collection covers the activities of the Merritts in Minnesota from their arrival in Oneota to approximately 1930.

Leonidas Merritt, probably the most prominent member of the family, is the central figure of these records and the collection has been constructed around that precept. While the collection represents the most comprehensive single group of records about the Merritt Family, there are some noticeable gaps in the correspondence and of the information contained in this collection about the Merritts, northeastern Minnesota, and early iron ore exploration.

Little remains known about the provenance of the portions of the collection that were donated to the St. Louis County Historical Society, and some records, particularly financial journals and ledgers, remain unidentifiable. Other records were donated to the Northeast Minnesota Historical Center.

The collection has been divided into the following series:

Personal Records

Letterpress Books

Financial Records

Legal Papers


Rockefeller materials


Northeast Minnesota Historical Center records


  • 1823-1992


Conditions Governing Access:

Restricted until 1989 for most papers. See inventory.

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

The Merritt family is one of the most important families in the early history of Duluth and northeast Minnesota. Members of this family are credited with the discovery and development of the Mesabi Iron Range during the 1890s, and they were influential in the early development of the city of Duluth, Minnesota.

Later referred to as the Seven Iron Men were four Merritt brothers and three of their sons. Brothers: Alfred, Leonidas, Cassius, and Andrus. Sons: Wilbur J. and Bert (Jerome’s sons) and John E. (Lucien’s son).

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.

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.

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 1870s, including deputy county treasurer, deputy auditor and deputy register of deeds. Cassius found iron ore near Mountain Iron while working on the development of a rail line from Duluth to Winnipeg in 1887. Cassius' 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 (DM&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" to Rockefeller, moved to California. 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 Lucien's sons, Alva, continued in mining and served as Duluth's Public Works Commissioner. Others include Thomas A. Merritt, a Duluth realtor, married to Ruth Merritt – Lon's daughter; Glen Merritt, a Duluth postmaster; Thomas H.; Callie, daughter of John E. Merritt, who taught English at Denfeld High School; Edna, Callie's sister, who taught 3rd grade in Hermantown; and Bess Merritt, Mrs. Frank Tenney.


24.50 Linear Feet

Language of Materials



The collection contains personal and financial correspondence, letterpress books, scrapbooks, newspaper clippings, manuscripts written about local and family history, financial records, legal papers, maps, photographs, one audio cassette of an interview, and reference materials.

Arrangement of Materials:

The collection has been divided into eight groups, see digital content for a detailed description of the scope and contents of each series.

Personal Records

Letterpress Books

Financial Records

Legal Papers


Rockefeller materials


Northeast Minnesota Historical Center records

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.

Related Materials:

NEMHC Archival Collections S2330 Albert Seip letter

NEMHC Archival Collections S4454 Joseph B. Cotton Merritt v. Rockefeller scrapbook

NEMHC Archival Collections S4595 Beukema mining collection


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, and are on permanent loan from the St. Louis County Historical Society.

Guide to the Merritt family papers
Finding Aid Authors: B.H. Bruemmer.
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