You may or may not have heard the story of Martin McLeod. I’ve written about him several times, and if you’ve ever been to McLeod County Historical Museum, you’ll know that he is a rather important figure in the county that bears his name.
If you’ve never heard of him, or if you’re not familiar with his exploits, allow me to offer a short summary of the man and why he is a pillar in McLeod County history.
Martin McLeod was born in Canada. He was the son of Scottish immigrants and worked as a clerk in Montreal. In the summer of 1836, he chose to leave Montreal and travel west with an idealist young officer whose goal was to create an army, liberate a portion of the west from Mexico, and establish an all-indigenous civilization.
The liberating army quickly fell apart, and McLeod soon found himself employed in the fur trade. He spent much of this time in what would become Minnesota as well as North and South Dakota. He would eventually lead a party of settlers to an old Indian camp along Buffalo Creek and create a settlement that he named Glencoe after his parents’ hometown in Scotland. For his exploits, a county would be named in his honor.
Much of McLeod’s life in the fur trade has been documented and is known by area historians. What is often overlooked, however, are his latter years, after the fur trade, and why it came to be that he intended to lead settlers to Glencoe. The story starts, of course, with the fur trade.
The North American fur trade began in the early 16th century between Europe and the Native American nations with which they traded. North America was rich with fur-bearing animals, and Europe was rich with trade goods. Native American leaders learned fast that European goods, such as metal tools, blankets, dry goods and a myriad of other items, could greatly enhance their position in the political hierarchy that was prevalent in the Americas. That being the case, one of North America’s most sought-after natural resource was fur, and it was fur that Native American trappers used to barter for European goods.
The fur trade is certainly an important part of American history, but it was doomed to fail. Though fur from wild animals is a renewable resource, its rate of replenishment cannot always keep up when demand is as high as it was during this era. In addition, clothing styles change through time, thus providing no guarantee that fur will be in demand. By the mid-19th century, the availability and demand for fur began to rapidly decline. By the time McLeod entered the trade, the writing was on the wall saying the era would soon come to an end. McLeod, as well as others, hung on for as long as they could, but in the end were forced to abdicate their trade in favor of new avenues for wealth.
McLeod began looking to real estate. It was a sensible career as most fur traders had a working knowledge of the lay of the land, as well as the infrastructure that existed from the Native Americans and the now defunct fur trade. McLeod used his working knowledge of the region and began buying tracts of land that he could sell to land-hungry settlers who were pouring into Minnesota. Unfortunately for McLeod, however, he did not possess the initial principal to invest in land and was forced to do so on credit. To make matters worse, McLeod still owed debts from his fur-trading days, making his financial situation dreadful.
Though he was in debt, McLeod’s finances were likely manageable as he entered land speculation. In the early 1850s, land was a valuable resource. Immigrants were steadily flowing west in search of affordable land. That is until an economic crisis hit much of the western world in 1857.
The panic of 1857 had dire effects on immigration. A myriad of factors that included the sinking of a ship filled with gold and the end of a war in Russia created a global financial crisis that put many immigrants, as well as investors, in a tight spot. People wishing to move west could scarcely afford to do so, and those, like McLeod, who had invested large amounts of “borrowed” capital could not sell the land for a profit. McLeod no longer had money to invest in land and was unable to borrow to pay down his debts. He sat on more than 1,000 acres of land and 300 lots that he could not sell.
Though McLeod’s later years were lived in a sense of despondency, his wealth is unmatched in his legacy as few men in history have an entire county named for them. In addition, historians who study McLeod often remark on his exceptional quality as a human. While others looked to exploit the Native Americans during and after the fur trade, McLeod took an active interest in their livelihood. In many ways he became a legend in his own time.
However, his enduring legacy was not enough to lift him from his debts. Being indebted with little relief in sight, McLeod turned to alcohol. The stress, as well as his alcoholism eventually brought on his death in 1860. He was only 47 years old.