Missing: Prehistoric Michigan’s Half-Billion Pounds of Copper

Missing: Prehistoric Michigan’s Half-Billion Pounds of Copper


Missing: Prehistoric Michigan’s Half-Billion Pounds of Copper

By David Hoffman
AA #35 pp.18-21


Approximately 9,000 years ago, the Great Lakes achieved their current definition. Water levels would have been high near the time of the final glacier melt enabling human travel along ancient trade routes. Soil conditions indicate that at one time the Wisconsin River was several miles wide in the center part of the state, and the escarpment of Door County as an ancient shoreline proves examples of this.

Across Green Bay, seven thousand years ago, near present-day Oconto, Wisconsin, people lived and comprised a period in prehistory archaeologists call “The Old Copper Culture”. Artifacts from this ancient civilization contribute to understanding the truly wide-ranging influences of early man. Found at the Oconto site were freshwater clam shells indicative of the Mississippi River and a shell representative of the southern Atlantic coastline.

Yet, it is copper for which this culture is known. It’s people may have been the earliest metalsmiths in the world working with the first malleable mineral known to mankind. They fashioned arrowheads and bracelets and other tools and ornaments But copper, like shells, was not native to either Green Bay or Lake Michigan. The only area along the major waterways of North America where copper is found is the Lake Superior region, some of the oldest land on earth.
It yielded vast quantities of copper both in ancient, as well as in modern times. Records made over twelve years at the turn of the century reveal that two and one-half million tons of copper passed through the Soo Locks. A value in 1898 dollars of $550 million. Yet, beneath each and every modern copper mine was an ancient pit mine. The Old Copper Culture and it’s trade partners established a precedent worthy of continuing inquiry.

Research of the historical accounts from modern times, many originating late in the 1800s, yields a summary and cross-reference. Although today’s archaeology community is in disagreement and debate regarding some of the early reports, it cannot deny the magnitude of discoveries made by our pioneering forefathers.

A book, privately published and now out of print, Prehistoric Copper Mining in the Lake Superior Region, by Professors O.J. DuTemple and R.W. Drier, provided a collection of various reference articles. A synopsis of recent history was given in the Mining Gazette of Houghton, Michigan, on September 7, 1929 by Professor James Fisher of the Michigan College of Mining and Technology.

1536: When Jacques Cartier sailed through the St. Lawrence to Montreal, he reported the natives told him of vast seas of fresh water to the west and great hills of copper. But he did not push forward.

1636: Lagarde published a hearsay account in Paris from Statements made by the Indians.

1659 to 1660: Jesuit Relations reported the Ojibwa had only a few crude utensils, but most copper was in the form of nuggets, which the Indians worshiped and held in veneration.

1666-1667: Father Claude Allouez was the first white man to see Michigan copper. His reports in Jesuit Relations (1632 to 1673) attracted earliest attention to the Great Lakes area. In a religious colleaugue, Monsieur de Tracy, he renamed the lake Lac Tracy of “Superior.” Also, in collaboration with Father Marquette, he later published the first map of Lake Superior and the northern portions of the Lake Huron and Lake Michigan waterways.

1763: Alexander Henry, an adventurous Englishman, wrote firsthand about copper in the Ontonagon, Michigan region. He described a one- hundred pound chunk he had cut off with his axe from a single mass of copper. In this same year, after the French and Indian War, the Treaty of Paris gave the British control of these lands.

1770: One of the very first mining companies organized for what was thought to be a new discovery of copper. It was established in London with the King of England as an officer.

1783: At the close of the Revolutionary War, another Treaty of Paris established the boundary line between Great Britain (Canada) and the United States. This line ran through the middle of Lake Ontario. Erie, Huron and their connecting waterways. One member of the boundary commission, Benjamin Franklin, heard of the mineral wealth of the Lake Superior Region. Deflecting his pencil to the north of the middle line drawn through Lake Superior upon the crude map, he determined the division of land and included the large island of Isle Royale as a possession of the United States.

1796: In August, the British flag was finally lowered because of long delays in communication and reluctance of a military contingent to turn over its authority.

1800: Congress passed a resolution appointing an agent to collect information regarding the copper mines of the Lake Superior Region, including Isle Royale.

1843: The Ontonagon Boulder was shipped to the Smithsonian Institution, where it still resides. The pure copper boulder weighed 3,708 pounds when shipped, but reports speculated it had been reduced in size during prehistory by mauls removing large chunks.

1850: The Report on the Geology and Topography of a Portion of Lake Superior Land District in the State of Michigan explains in detail how one large copper mass was discovered by Samuel O. Knapp, the agent of the Minnesota Mining Company: “…a pit 26 feet deep filled with clay and a matted mass of mouldering vegetable matter…copper mass was 10 feet long, 3 feet wide and nearly 2 feet thick, and weighing over 6 tons.

“On digging around it, the mass was found to rest on billets of oak supported by sleepers of the same material…dark colored… lost all of its consistency. A knife blade may be thrust into it as easily as into a peat bog. The ancient miners had evidently raised it about five feet and then abandoned the work as too laborious.”

Other 5,000 and 6,000 pound masses were found on similar crib work.

1856: The largest mass of copper in the world to date was discovered. Forty-six feet long, it’s greatest thickness was over eight feet. The approximate weight was five hundred tons, or one million pounds.

1862: The Smithsonian Institute sent Colonel Charles Whittelsey and other scientists to investigate and report about the prehistoric race that mined copper.

1874: Another large mass of copper was discovered in Upper Michigan. It was 16.5 feet beneath the surface, and under it were poles, as if it had been entirely detached, but not much displaced. The boulder weighed 5,720 pounds, as described by Mr. Henry Gillman in the Annual Volume of The American Association for the Advancement of Science, in 1875.

1878: The largest mass yet found in the McCargo Cove region of Isle Royale was taken out the previous summer, weighing six tons. The ancients did not discover this prodigious specimen, though they were within two feet of it. Much labor had been spent on these other masses by the prehistoric miners, as evidenced by hammer-marked and pitted surfaces, and beaten-up ridges. One mass found in 1879, although not detached from the enclosing rock, was wholly uncovered and undermined.

1879: At Minong Mine, two large masses wrought by the ancients were discovered near the head of McCargo Cove: one weighed 3.317 pounds: the other, 4,175 pounds.

Today, Smithsonian Institution spokesmen may not agree for politically correct reasons, but after the study of its researchers a century ago, they concluded that a civilization of a higher order than the Native American was responsible for the ancient copper mining. They pointed vaguely to half-formed notions of the Mound Builders, but there were no artifacts, no bones, no dead left in the Lake Superior region.

And while the formal burial mounds of the Old Copper Culture near Oconto, Wisconsin, have provided interest for the continuing inquiry of the scientist, compared to the cubic acres, even cubic miles of rock that were remove from the ancient mine sites, only infinitesimal amounts of the mineral were found near Oconto. As more and more discoveries were being registered in the mid-1800s, a general consensus of opinion began to emerge that another race distinct from the Indians, who knew little of the mines, must have been responsible for the prehistoric enterprise. Quite literally, many tons of copper are still missing.

As the Old Copper Culture flourished, trade routes along the waterways of green Bay and Lake Michigan, and the world, were being established. When Christopher Columbus arrived in America, the aboriginal inhabitants of what is now the United States, made only slight use of copper. They were entirely unfamiliar with bronze or brass, alloys of copper. However, southward down the Mississippi Valley, across the Gulf, into Mexico, Central and South America, extensive use of copper was made by the Aztecs, Incas and Toltecs.

Along with the Old Copper Culture, other societies used copper for purposes other than fishing hooks and arrowheads. Copper artwork has been found in most of America’s prehistoric sites, including Aztalan in southern Wisconsin, Etowah in Georgia, Spiro in Oklahoma, Grove Creek in Ohio, Angel Mounds in Indiana, and Cahokia, the ancient metropolis in southern Illinois, which had a population in 1100 A.D. larger than London. Internationally, copper found its way to Chichen Itza in the Yucatan of Mexico, Tulum, Palenque, Uxmal, and beyond. It was used in these prehistoric communities for many hundreds of years.

In Upper Michigan, the tremendous magnitude of the ancient mining’s waste product(the ancient stone mauls used to separate mineral from rock) bring question just how much copper could have been removed after five hundred years, one thousand years, two thousand years. At one ancient mining site of just a few square miles, it was estimated that these stone mauls would have filled ten wagons, and weighed one thousand tons.

Around the stone mauls are artificial grooves where these tools would have been tied to a handle. These grooves were nearly obliterated on the supper side, while the lower side presented a comparatively fresh appearance because of less exposure to rains and the general atmosphere over a very long period of time.

Examination in the late 19th Century revealed that the ancient pits were crowded with debris, leaves and trees. A hemlock cut down (per a report from 1850) had 395 rings as counted by Mr. Knapp. Upon excavation, ancient stone mauls were discovered entwined in the roots.

Extraction of copper from the ore in which it was embedded was accomplished by spalling. That is, heating the rock intensely, then dousing it with cold water. The rock would crack, thereby freeing the pure copper. In addition to the stone mauls found at the bottom of many pits was charcoal, evidence of past fires from the spalling technique.

Radioactive decay of carbon at established rates allows dating of ancient artifacts by radio-metric age dating. In the 1950s, radio-carbon dating of charcoal found at the bottom of several pits showed that they had been worked 3,800 years ago, plus or minus 300 years. Using bounds from the mounds of the Old Copper Culture, the oldest known cemetery in America, this date was exceeded by 3,700 years, back to 5,500 B.C., with a similar margin of several hundred years.

Mankind has always been industrious. The ancient copper mines may be the first evidence that humans could establish industrial organizations. An engineer working at one mine site 100 years ago was asked if he could estimate how many men worked this particular ancient site and for how long. The next day, after considering the question in some detail, the engineer replied that given the mining methods of the ancients, the transportation of stone mails, the cutting of wood for hearing the rock, provision of food for the miners, and in an area of only a few square mils, the ancient workings represented the efforts of 10,000 people working for more than 1,000 years.

Cross-referencing with another opinion offers 30,000 prehistoric miners engaged for 500 years, removing between thirty and fifty million tons of copper. Questions continue to arise, because even the smaller amount here is three times the amount mined by modern methods during 100 years. Additional professional reports from the early mining enterprise from the early 1900s described it as a “colossal magnitude” and “sp extraordinary as in almost exceed belief.”

Along the waterways, the Old Copper Culture stands out for all it represents. Some very old Indian legends do mention that a white race was driven out of their territories far back in their history. It is here science stops and conjecture continues. One report actually claimed that from the inquiry into prehistoric develops into a maze of speculation.

It is important to understand that when mankind as a whole grew out of the Neolithic Period, the last phase of the Stone Age, and moved into the Bronze Age, this was preceded by an intermediary period of some length, when the Old Copper Culture flourished, the Chalcolithic, or Copper Age. Perhaps it was in this shadowy pre-civilization that the great copper mining engineers flourished in ancient America.

New Edition: Guide Maps of Houghton and Keweenaw Counties. Map.
The Ancient Copper Workings on Isle Royale, George R. Fox, circa 1911. (The author was the Archeologist and Director of the Edward K. Warren Foundation of Three Oaks, MI.)
Mining Gazette. “History of Famous Ontonogon Copper Rock Recalled by Society’s Outing” Houghton, MI. 22 Aug. 1916.
Engineering and Mining Journal. “Ancient Copper Mines of Isle Royle,” Professor N.H. Winchell. Volume XXXII. July to December, 1881. Scientific Publishing Co, New York
Michigan History Magazine, “Michigan’s Most Ancient Industry: the Prehistoric Mines and Miners of Isle Royale.” William P.F. Ferguson, Vol 7, 1923
Atlantic Monthly, “Ancient Mining on the Shores of Lake Superior. Volume XV, 1865.
Cahokia Mounds, Ancient Metropolis, prod. and dir. Gary Warriner. 1 hour Camera One. Caokia Mounds Museum Society. 1994. Videocassette.
American Anthropologist, “Aboriginal Copper Mines of Isle Royale of Lake Superior.” William H. Holmes. Volume 3, 1901.
Evidences of Prehistoric Man on Lake Superior, John T. Reeder, Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society. Volume 30, 1903.
Prehistoric Copper Mining in the Lake Superior Region, Octave Joseph DuTemple, privately published.
Boom Copper, Angus Murdock, Macmillan Company, New York, 1943.
Inside Michigan, “Michigan’s Most Ancient Industry is America’s Prehistoric Copper Mines,” July, 1953.