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LeDuc, William Gates (1823–1917)

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William Gates LeDuc

William Gates LeDuc, ca. 1848.

William Gates LeDuc played a variety of parts in Minnesota’s transition from territory to statehood. A “jack of all trades” who never found great success in one endeavor, he counted former presidents, governors, generals, and supreme court justices among his friends by the time of his death in 1917.

LeDuc was born in 1823 to a family of farmers in south-central Ohio. Educated in Greek and Latin at Kenyon College, he met Mary Elizabeth Bronson at a picnic in 1848 and took a law clerkship in nearby Mount Vernon in hopes of running into her more often after he graduated. Mary and William shared a love of letters and wrote to each other for the next fifty years.

After marrying in the spring of 1851, William and Mary travelled by river to the small town of St. Paul, where William started a legal practice and Minnesota’s first bookstore. He befriended rising politicians like Alexander Ramsey and Henry Sibley and harnessed his Ohio connections to become a successful booster for Minnesota Territory. In 1853, he represented the territory at the World’s Fair in New York City and successfully lobbied for a railroad connecting St. Paul to Missouri. The next year, he financed the state’s first commercial flour mill, across the river from the site where he planned to build his new home in Hastings.

Just when LeDuc was ready to start construction, the Civil War began. He packed his bags for Washington and volunteered for the Quartermaster Corps, helped by a letter of recommendation from a childhood friend of Edwin Stanton, the secretary of war. Like most Northerners, LeDuc expected the war would be over shortly, and was excited to return to Hastings to live in a house that lived up to his long-suffering wife’s expectations and befitted his status as a man of high military rank. But the war dragged on, and his post was not nearly as exciting as he had imagined; logistical challenges, incompetent and drunken staff, and red tape took up much of his time.

Nevertheless, LeDuc proved himself to be a capable quartermaster. In October of 1863, he used a steamboat to sneak supplies upriver from Bridgeport to General Hooker’s army, allowing them to reinforce General Rosecrans’ position at Chattanooga. William noted later that one of his failed businesses finally showed dividends here: “I had once owned a fourth interest in a steamboat, and fooled away considerable money and time with her.” In spite of rapids, engine breakdowns, and close calls with Confederates along the riverbanks, LeDuc brought 40,000 rations up the Tennessee River to the starving troops. He was later awarded the rank of brevet brigadier general and went by “General” for the next fifty years.

When LeDuc returned to Minnesota in late 1865, his Hastings mansion was close to completion, but at great cost. The home was six times more expensive than he had anticipated, leaving the LeDucs on the brink of bankruptcy for years. Good returns on wheat from the farmland LeDuc owned paid for the family’s basic cost of living, but most of his other businesses were as unsuccessful as they were eccentric. He operated a mine near Salt Lake City that barely covered his expenses. He later bought a sawmill in Brainerd. He lectured for a few dollars a speech at grange halls. LeDuc came close to success with a Hastings railroad company but was sold out at the last minute by his associates.

His luck improved when he was appointed commissioner of agriculture in 1877 by another friend from Ohio, President Rutherford B. Hayes. LeDuc’s most significant measures were his attempts to make the US less dependent on foreign imports by researching the production of sugar from sorghum in the Midwest, and by attempting to establish tea farming in the South. Neither of these efforts succeeded and were criticized as a waste of taxpayer dollars. When James Garfield became president, the LeDucs returned to Hastings.

Over the next twenty-five years, LeDuc travelled extensively and pursued many failed business ventures. After his wife’s death in 1904, he became involved in the spiritualist movement; he even wrote a book in 1906 recounting talks with long-dead Civil War generals during seances.

LeDuc died at the age of ninety-four in 1917.

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Brookins, Jean A. “A Historic Mansion: The William G. LeDuc House.” Minnesota History 37, no. 5 (March 1961): 189–203.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/37/v37i05p189-203.pdf

Dakota County Historical Society. LeDuc Historic Estate.
https://www.dakotahistory.org/leduc-historic-estate

Le Duc, William Gates. “The Little Steamboat That Opened The ‘Cracker Line.’” Battles and Leaders of The Civil War. Vol. 3. New York: Century Company, 1884.

——— . Convince the World of the Reality of Life After Death: Gleaned From Books and From the Experience of Friends Who Have Passed the Portal of Death. Hastings, MN: Hastings Publishing Company, 1906.

——— . Recollections of a Civil War Quartermaster: The Autobiography of William G. Le Duc. St. Paul: North Central Publishing Company, 1963.

Rodgers, Ben F. “William Gates Le Duc, Commissioner of Agriculture.” Minnesota History 34, no. 7 (Autumn 1955): 287–295.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/34/v34i07p287-295.pdf

“Tea Garden, United States Department of Agriculture,” 1905. William G. LeDuc and family papers, Manuscript Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul.

Werle, Steve. An American Gothic: The Life and Times and Legacy of William Gates LeDuc: 1823–1917. St. Paul: Dakota County Historical Society Press, 2004.

Related Images

William Gates LeDuc
William Gates LeDuc
Daguerreotype of Mary Elizabeth Bronson
Daguerreotype of Mary Elizabeth Bronson
Daguerreotype of the children of Mary Elizabeth Bronson and William Gates LeDuc
Daguerreotype of the children of Mary Elizabeth Bronson and William Gates LeDuc
Quartermaster’s map of northern Georgia
Quartermaster’s map of northern Georgia
Map of Atlanta used by William Gates LeDuc
Map of Atlanta used by William Gates LeDuc
Brigadier general’s uniform worn by William Gates LeDuc
Brigadier general’s uniform worn by William Gates LeDuc
US flag raised in Georgia during the Civil War and preserved by William Gates LeDuc
US flag raised in Georgia during the Civil War and preserved by William Gates LeDuc
General William Gates LeDuc. Photograph by Whitney’s Gallery, ca. 1865.
General William Gates LeDuc. Photograph by Whitney’s Gallery, ca. 1865.
LeDuc House
LeDuc House
Tea plantation organized by William Gates LeDuc
Tea plantation organized by William Gates LeDuc
Signed photograph of William Gates LeDuc in Washington, DC, 1905.
Signed photograph of William Gates LeDuc in Washington, DC, 1905.
Photograph of William Gates LeDuc at home
Photograph of William Gates LeDuc at home

Turning Point

After a bout with cholera in 1850, LeDuc is advised to visit St. Paul instead of St. Louis to protect his health, and ultimately decides to move his home from Ohio to Minnesota. His connections to other Ohioans in the territory and in Washington, DC, allow LeDuc to play an active role in bringing immigrants, railroads, and investors to Minnesota.

Chronology

1848

LeDuc begins work as a travelling agent for a bookseller. The work takes him through eight states, and even to Cuba. Over the next year, he meets Henry Clay, travels up the Minnesota River with a Ho-Chunk guide, and almost dies of cholera.

1851

In July, LeDuc witnesses the signing of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux and reports on it for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune. Fallout from this treaty is one of the causes of the US-Dakota War of 1862.

1853

In July, LeDuc witnesses the signing of the Treaty of Traverse des Sioux and reports on it for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune. The fallout of this treaty is one of the causes of the US-Dakota War of 1862.

1854

LeDuc purchases a quarter share of land in Hastings from Alexander Faribault. Because of its prime river location, speculative investors believe the site will develop into a metropolis rivaling Chicago.

1857

Just before the Financial Panic of 1857, LeDuc sells his St. Paul home and businesses and moves the family to Hastings to pursue his business interests there.

1862

In May, LeDuc joins the Quartermaster Corps in Washington, DC, believing, like many Northerners, that the Civil War will be over shortly. The next three years will involve more hardtack, bacon grease, and baggage trains than gallantry for LeDuc.

1862

In September, LeDuc finds Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wounded at Antietam, and forces the camp surgeon to save the man. In forty years, Holmes will become one of America’s most respected Supreme Court Justices.

1865

After participating in the Vicksburg, Chattanooga, Atlanta, and Nashville campaigns, LeDuc is awarded the rank of brevet brigadier general. LeDuc returns to Hastings, where debt from his home’s construction would haunt him for decades.

1870

LeDuc attempts to cash in on the Comstock Lode Bonanza, hiring thirty Mormons to mine a prospected silver vein in Utah. He sells “a good cargo of ore” in San Francisco, but the vein proves much smaller than anticipated.

1871

Convinced that a railroad hub connecting St. Paul to Lake Superior is inevitable, LeDuc invests heavily in Duluth, and recommends that all his friends do the same. Rutherford Hayes, Governor of Ohio, is one of these friends.

1878

The LeDucs host President Rutherford B. Hayes for lunch in the dining room before he visits massive crowds at the Dakota County Courthouse. LeDuc was commissioner of agriculture under Hayes.

1880

LeDuc sponsors efforts to reduce national dependence on imported sugar and tea. He obtains a twenty-year lease on a dilapidated South Carolina plantation to grow tea. (It remains unprofitable but is bought by Lipton Tea for research in 1960.)

1904

After the death of his wife, LeDuc becomes interested in the Spiritualism movement; he writes a book about séances, the afterlife, and his conversations with spirits two years later.

1915

LeDuc inherits $100,000 from the estate of his best friend’s widow, finally allowing him to repay his debts. Her first husband had cut LeDuc out of a lucrative railroad deal almost fifty years prior, and she wanted to make amends.

2005

LeDuc’s Hastings estate opens to the public for tours. LeDuc’s daughters had left the home to Carroll Simmons (who ran an antique store in the home for decades) and then given it to the Minnesota Historical Society in 1986.