The Lewis Colony in Duluth, Minnesota

A large number of Lewismen settled in Duluth, Minnesota in the 1870s and 1880s, many becoming prominent citizens in the town. The first was William L Maclennan (1834-1888), son of Donald Maclennan. This family seems to have originated in Kintail or Lochalsh; in 1841 Donald was a shepherd in Bunavoneadar, Harris, and soon thereafter became a small tenant at Kinlochresort, Uig. The family emigrated to Bruce County, Ontario in the 1850s. The following appeared in the Stornoway Gazette in the 1940s:

It is uncertain who were the first Lewismen at the Head of Lake Superior or when they came. It is a well-known fact that in the early days of the Hudson Bay Company, they preferred to recruit men for their service in the Isle of Lewis, as Lewismen were found to be very hardy and able to carry on in the severe work of trading, and it was also found that they were more capable of making friends with the Indians of Northwest America than was any other group of people. It is known that Morrison County, in the central part of Minnesota, was named for a descendant of the last Brieve of Lewis.

However, the first Lewisman who made his permanent home in Duluth was William L Maclennan, whose home in Lewis was near Loch Hamnaway. His family emigrated to Ontario in the ‘fifties. After a short period there, Mr Maclennan conceived the idea that there might be better opportunities for a young man in the United States, so he moved to Duluth in the late ‘sixties. Duluth was then only a small pioneer town on the outskirts of civilisation. He went into several lines of business in the new town, principally contracting and real estate. He was the builder of the breakwater in Lake Superior that formed what was then the outside harbour of Duluth before the canal was opened to the main harbour.

After settling in Duluth, he brought Miss Julia Macleod to this country in 1872 to be his wife. She was a daughter of Roderick Macleod, a well-known builder in Stornoway at the time. Shortly after they were married, Mr Maclennan became one of the organisers of the first bank in Duluth. After organising the bank, the promoters were looking for a capable man to manage the new bank. Mrs Maclennan suggested Mr AR Macfarlane who at that time was in a bank at Toronto, Ontario. Mr Macfarlane, a native of Stornoway, got his early training in the banks there. Mr Macfarlane accepted the new position, and under his guidance the American Exchange Bank of Duluth grew to be one of the largest in the Northwest. Mr Alexander M Morrison of Stornoway, an acquaintance of Mrs Maclennan and Mr Macfarlane, moved to Duluth in the early ‘seventies. He entered the grocery business and made a success of it.

After this background, the Lewis colony in Duluth began to grow. Mrs Maclennan’s father, Mr Roderick Macleod, and family had moved to Kincardine, Ontario in 1873. After ten years of building there, in that part of Ontario, they moved to Duluth in 1883. Mr Ronald J Macleod, a member of the family, became one of the most prominent contractors in the city and many of the fine buildings and homes were built by him. Another son, John Macleod, engaged in building grain elevators in North Dakota and western Minnesota, and many of the farm country elevators where grains are stored were built by him.

The Macleod home was always a hospitable gathering place for all the Lewis folk of the vicinity. Three of the Macleod family still remain in Duluth, Misses Margaret and Jane Macleod who live in the old home and Mrs Thomas Gibson.

Among other Lewismen who came to Duluth in the early ‘eighties were Angus Macfarlane Jr, Malcolm Macdonald, Angus Nicolson, Donald Morrison, all from Ness; James Macrae, Miavaig; John Macleod, Roderick R Macfarlane, Donald Maciver, all from Stornoway and all in the grain business. Another family from Stornoway was the Andrew Gibson family. Mr Gibson was a wholesale fish merchant. Among the members of his family who made Duluth a permanent home was Thomas Gibson, who was for many years a leading grain merchant.

In 1884 perhaps the best known member of the Lewis colony, Simon Clark, came to Duluth. Mr Clark entered the grocery business. He was active and energetic in civic and welfare work, and with his sterling qualities was of inestimable value to the Lewis colony, to his community and to his adopted land. He was the principal organiser of Clan Stewart Number 50, Order of Scottish Clans, and served as Chief for three terms. He was also honoured by being elected Royal Chief of the Order of Scottish Clans in the United States and Canada in 1893.

Many more Lewismen followed these pioneers. Among them were Alexander Macrae, Miavaig; Donald Macleod and his sister Annie Macleod, George F Mackenzie, Alexander Maclean, Edward Macdonald, Malcolm Macaskill, Percival M Young and his wife, the former Murdina Montgomery, William Morrison, Alice Greenfield, Mrs George F Mackenzie, Mrs TF Upham (both members of the Greenfield family), all from Stornoway; Donald M Morrison, Ness; Angus G Macaulay, Kirkibost; Captain MA Maclennan, John H Matheson, Norman A Matheson, Valtos; John Morrison and his wife, Back; Malcolm Buchanan, Brenish; John Macdonald, Ness; John Mackay, Shawbost; Donald and Murdo Mackay, Garenin; John Macfarlane, Tong; John Graham, Ness; Donald Macphail, Benside; Kenneth D Smith and George Macaulay, Stornoway.

Besides these direct immigrants from Lewis, many descendants of Lewis parents made Duluth their home. They were usually as proud of their Lewis connections as were the native Lewis people.

In 1911, the Lewismen conceived the idea of forming a Lewis Society. The society was organised at a meeting held September 28, 1911. The first officers elected were: Honourary Presidents, DB Macdonald and Norman Macdonald (prominent citizens who were Canadian born of Lewis descent); President, Donald M Morrison; Vice-President, Alexander Macrae; Secretary-Treasurer, Percival M Young; Piper, Norman Maclean. The first banquet was held Janueary 5, 1912, and was a fine success.

The Society has continued to carry on during these years, but its membership has been greatly depleted by the Grim Reaper, and new members are not coming from Lewis in recent years. However, those left are steadfast and loyal and endeavouring to carry on the traditions and memory of the homeland.

William was the father of Donald R Maclennan, of Marsh & Maclennan, who was described as “the leading general insurance man in the United States” at his death in 1944 – an obvious parallel to TB Macaulay of Sun Life in Montreal, but in contrast to TB, DR is barely remembered in Lewis.  Of course, unlike TB, he didn’t visit, endow the hospital, start an experimental farm or donate 14 henhouses to Valtos.  More DR later.

16 thoughts on “The Lewis Colony in Duluth, Minnesota

  1. My grandfather was Donald R. McLennan, co-founder of Marsh&McLennan. To my knowlege he never had the pleasure of returning to the Highlands and perhaps had limited information of his heritage being he was only 15 years old when his father, William, died in Duluth, MN. Our understanding is William was born in Lochalsh (1834) but his family relocated to Bunvidra, Uig, Isle of Harris. The family departed there to Bruce Co, Ontario, Canada about 1851 where he joined his Uncle Finlay’s family.Letters indicated close contact was maintained with the Canadian cousins and a few from Kyle of Lochalsh. Would be most interested to hear from anyone who thinks they are related to this McLennan family. My thanks.

  2. Hi Katherine – great that you got in touch. We know a bit about Donald and I think you’re right, he never returned to Lewis. I’ll do a story about him for the front page. Bunvidra is Bunavoneadar I think – here.

  3. I found my Grandfather’s name on this page. He was a Scottish Gaelic singer, and I recently obtained his recordings from the Library of Congress. Unfortunately, I’m still having trouble finding some of the Gaelic lyrics.
    Are there any interpreters out there???

  4. My Great-Grandfather was Donald M. Morrison, a Lewisman who lived in Duluth during this time period. He was a member of the Clan Morrison Society, worked in and then ran his own business in the commercial shirt industry, and was also a considerable Gaelic Bard, leaving his music with family back home during several visits and well as in correspondance. He was the writer of many well-known Lewis folk songs, including “Bailig an Iasgich” (The Fisher Lads)and “Eilean Beag Donn a’Chain” (Little Brown Island by the Sea). I am not sure if he is the same Donald M. Morrison listed in this article, as he hailed from Bragar on the west side, a few miles south of Ness. His brother Murdo returned to Lewis with some money, became Postmaster at Bragar and built the now famous Whalebone Arch at Bragar from the jawbone of a whale that washed up on the shore, as a gateway to his house there.

    If anyone has any Duluth-related info or photos of DM or his brother Murdo Morrison please post here. Ms. Keene, do you know if your Grandfathers recording included any ballads by Donald M. Morrison? We have translations of many of those.

  5. I recently discovered that my Great-Grandfather was Malcolm Macaskill and he was born in Stornoway around 1855. He was a member of the Lewis Society in Duluth up until his dath in 1943. Our family would love to find out more about our Scottish heritage. Does anyone have any information on my Great-grandfather and what clans come from Stornoway? We know that he was a tailor and his parents were named John and Mary (Mckillop) Macaskill. Thanks,
    Mary Cannon

  6. For Mary Macaskill Cannon

    My mother’s family is from Duluth. Her grandfather was a Malcolm Macaskill who fits your informantion to a tee. Can you tell if you had a grandparent named George, Ann, or Lil? There were two other sisters, Mina and Mary, but I can account for their children.
    By the way, interesting, but pretty sure no relation…my mother’s maiden name was Cannon.

  7. Linda,
    My grandfather was named George Macaskill and he had 5 sisters- one named Daisy. Malcolm and Jean Amour Scott were my Great-grandparents and they live in Duluth. Would like to find out more about them. Great news! Mary

  8. Hi my Great Granfather was Malcolm Macaskill from Strnoway and i wonder if anyone had any information of him as i would like to find out more. Thanks

  9. I am Donna Morrison’s daughter, Donald M Morrison’s granddaughter. From Duluth, Mn

  10. I was researching for a friend who is a descendant of William MacLeod of Stornoway, tailor. She descends from his son John, Commission Agent, born c 1849, died 1916. His sister, Jessie born c 1859, married in 1887 Angus Macfarlane who was a Commission Agent in Duluth. He was born c 1856 to parents Angus Macfarlane and Margaret MacLeod. There is an Angus mentioned in your description of Duluth above, and I wondered if anyone could send me details of this family, and what happened to Jessie. She appears in Stornoway again in 1891 census with a daughter Margaret born c 1888 in Duluth. Her brother, John, mentions Jessie in his Will in 1900 living in Peebles in the Borders of Scotland, being a widow. However, I wondered if she had returned to the USA, and her death might be back there. Are there any descendants of her family?

  11. You may not be on this sight any longer…..I just stumbled back on it. f I you see this , the sister Daisy was my grandmother, married to Charles Cannon. I don’t remember her, as she died when I was three. When I was young I knew all the sisters but I never met George. The story I got was he was the black sheep because he married a Catholic. Some people were weird about that in those days. Guess that makes us distant cousins. My father’s mother was born in Duluth to John and Mary Macaulay McLeod. They also came from Lewis, but didn’t meet until Duluth. My great grandfather was with the Life Saving Service (pre Coast Guard) saving waterman on Lake Superior. One of mother’s cousins visited Macaskill relatives on Lewis some years ago. Have been to Lewis twice and know several of my Macaulay clan. If you’ve never gone, do put it on you “bucket list” It’s beautiful, and the people couldn’t be nicer.

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