Kittson County Historical Society

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Kittson, Norman Wolfred

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Kittson, Norman Wolfred

The background of a remarkable Minnesota pioneer who gave our County its name.

Members: 2
Latest Activity: Mar 27, 2010

Fur trader
The eighth of nine children of George Kittson and Ann Tucker, Norman Wolfred Kittson was born the 6th of March 1814 in Chambly and baptized on the 23 of March 1814 in Sorel, his hometown, Quebec (then Lower Canada) His parents were both children of non-commissioned officers of the British Army who had come to Canada in 1776. The middle name Wolfred was given to him to honour a family friend, Dr. Wolfred Nelson a Sorel physician who would later become a political leader to the 1837 Rebellion in Canada. His paternal grandmother's second husband was Alexander Henry.
As a 16 year old, Norman Kittson went to Northern Michigan, Michilimackinac County, in 1830 to find employment, likely with a contingent of other youths from Sorel, mostly French-Canadians. Northern Michigan was a favorite destination for the unemployed youths of the Sorel area. He was hired as an apprentice with the American Fur Company, and served at various posts in what became Minnesota Territory in the United States.
In 1833 Kittson left the American Fur Company and became suttler's clerk at Fort Snelling until 1839. He then went into business for himself at Cold Lake, near Fort Snelling, as a fur trader and supply merchant. In 1843, Henry H. Sibley, a friend of Kittson, who had become the managing agent of the American Fur Co. offered Kittson a partnership. Kittson accepted and in 1844 established a permanent post at Pembina, at the border with Canada. Here he remained for 10 years in the fur trading and supply business with the Canadians north of the border, in competition with the Hudson Bay Company. The regions in which he first operated, the Red River Valley in modern North Dakota and Minnesota, were successively part of Michigan Territory, then Wisconsin Territory, and finally Minnesota Territory, which extended as far west as the Missouri River. He used Pembina (now in North Dakota) as a base of his increasingly independent fur-trading operations. Pembina was only approximately 100 km south of the Hudson’s Bay Company-controlled Red River Settlement in Rupert’s Land, and Kittson's operation was by the 1840s threatening the trade monopoly exerted by the HBC. He established strong connections to the local French-Canadians and married one, and traded extensively with the Metis. This trade was instrumental in the end of the HBC monopoly in 1849, as it was with Kittson that trapper Guillaume Sayer was trading prior to his trial that effectively broke the monopoly.
In 1852 Kittson relocated his main post from Pembina to St. Joseph to avoid the periodic flooding of the Red River. In 1855, Kittson moved to St. Paul, where he operated a fur and goods business. Before going to Pembina in 1843, he had purchased property in St. Paul and by 1848 he had increased his holdings to include part of what is now St. Paul’s downtown area. From 1858 – 1859 he served as mayor. During this period, his business interests extended into the Red River Settlement, including a store in St. Boniface, now modern Winnipeg, Manitoba. Kittson was a long-time operator of Red River cart brigades on the Red River Trails between the Red River Colony and St. Paul, which served his trading businesses.
Transportation enterpreneur
By 1872, Kittson joined with former competitor James Jerome Hill to establish the Red River Transportation Company, which owned five steamboats and exerted an effective monopoly on traffic on the Red River between the railhead and the Manitoba settlements.
In 1874, Kittson became a railway entrepreneur when he joined forces with Hill, HBC representative Donald Alexander Smith and banker George Stephen to purchase the financially troubled St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, which they reorganized into the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railway. This railway established the first rail link between St. Boniface and St. Paul, and was financially successful — the sale of his shares in 1881 made Kittson a very wealthy man. These same three men later formed the nucleus of a syndicate established in 1880 that led to the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

Thoroughbred racing
Kittson was an owner of thoroughbred racehorses, and his filly Glidelia won the 1880 Alabama Stakes. In 1882 Kittson and his brother James purchased Arisides Welch’s renowned Erdenheim Stud farm and the bulk of its bloodstock at Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania. In 1884, Kittson's colt Rataplan won the prestigious Travers Stakes at the Saratoga Race Course. Following his death, in November of 1888 his estate sold the Erdenheim Stud.
Marriages
Kittson married three times, first to Élise Marion from the Red River settlement in what would become the province of Manitoba, then Sophie Perry and finally Mary Cochrane. In his will he mentions eleven children, five of them were by Mary Kittson, but according to a genealogical chart made by a grandson , he actually fathered twenty-six children
Death and legacy
Kittson died 10 May 1888 at age 74, in a dining car after ordering dinner while traveling on the Chicago and North Western Railway towards St. Paul.
In 1878 Kittson County in northwestern Minnesota was named for him.

With thanks to Wikipedia and an article by Dr. Clarence W. Rife, professor at Hamline University, St. Paul.

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Comment by Glenn Browne on March 14, 2010 at 7:38pm

A photo of Norman Kittson taken in 1856 when he was about 42 years old.
It was at this time that he had moved from Pembina to St. Paul. He became mayor of St. Paul in 1858 when he was aged 44.

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