Ten years ago today — Dec. 30, 2009 — Richard Lee Armstrong released the album Pretty Dream Woman, featuring the track “Landlord of Duluth.” The song tells the story of Armstrong’s claim that he technically owns part of Downtown Duluth.
It’s a long and complex story dating back nearly two centuries, but the short version is this:
Benjamin G. Armstrong of Alabama was taken in by Ojibwe people at La Pointe, Wis. in 1835 and married the daughter of Chief Buffalo. He assisted the tribe in negotiating treaties and was granted, at he request of Chief Buffalo, a square mile of land for his services. Armstrong selected an area west of Lake Avenue, where buildings such as the Maurices headquarters and Duluth Public Library stand today. He later sold the land, but claimed he was duped by one of the buyers, which led to decades of confusion.
Much more information is at chiefbuffalo.com. For a medium-sized description, read the Duluth News Tribune article below, published Sept. 19, 1984.
Downtown might have new landlord
By Susan Stanich
Richard Lee Armstrong thinks there’s a slim possibility he owns downtown Duluth.
That’s right. Owns.
The country-western singer from Winona is a direct descendant of Benjamin Armstrong, the adopted son of Kitchi Waishke, “The Great Buffalo,” who in the mid-1850s was given by the government a portion of what is now Duluth.
The Great Buffalo — also known as Chief Buffalo — gave it to Benjamin Armstrong.
“I guess he sold it to somebody, and he never got payment for it,” Richard Armstrong, 41, said.
The land was not given to Benjamin Armstrong until after an all-night council of Lake Superior chiefs, at which Buffalo argued that Armstrong’s services as interpreter to the Ojibwe people deserved a gift.
The old chief, then in his 90s, and Armstrong canoed over to St. Louis Bay, waded ashore at a flat rock they christened “Buffalo Rock,” and Armstrong decided on property beginning at the “mouth of the St. Louis River, running easterly in the direction of Minnesota Point, taking in a mile square immediately northerly from the head of St. Louis Bay.”
But through a government error, the description’s starting point was changed to a rock “immediately above and adjoining Minnesota Point,” and then easterly one mile and inland one mile, which would include a good chunk of downtown Duluth.
Richard Armstrong graduated from Bemidji State University with a degree in political science. He ran across the information about the property while doing treaty research as an intern for an Indian attorney lobbyist in Washington D.C., he said Monday in Duluth.
He talked to the late Henry Buffalo, a historian at the Red Cliff Reservation near Bayfield, Wis., and learned his ancestor married a daughter of the chief, making Benjamin Armstrong both adopted son and son-in-law to the Great Buffalo.
This apparently would make him a direct descendant of the chief as well, and cousin to Fond du Lac Reservation attorney Henry Buffalo, son of the historian and also a direct descendant of Kitchi Waishke. According to the young Henry Buffalo, Benjamin Armstrong had lost his eyesight and, penniless, decided to sell his land so he could pay to have his sight restored.
“Armstrong was pretty specific in requesting that it be set aside without any restrictions whatever,” Buffalo said, referring to government restrictions on Indian-held property. Armstrong was white. The fact there were no restrictions means the land was clearly salable, and Armstrong had two buyers.
“One promised to pay, I think, $3,000; and (Armstrong) sold half interest to this (other) individual from Ontonagon, plus interest in whatever money he got from speculating … (Armstrong) did issue some instruments of sale to these two individuals,” Buffalo said.
But he never received the payments.
Richard Armstrong hopes that fact nullifies the sales, making him and other descendants owners of a good chunk of the city.
Buffalo said there’s not much chance of it, since the ownership has never been challenged and statutes of limitations probably would apply.
Richard Armstrong said when he first learned of the possibility of owning the land, he was eager to follow up on it — “I was going to get downtown Duluth, you know!” he laughed.
But on the other hand …
His smile vanished. “I’d be crazy not to look into it.”
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