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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


March 22, 2003 - Issue 83


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Who First Mined Copper
on Lake Superior?

From the Ashland Press - Jan. 25, 1873
credits: submitted by Timm Severud (Ondamitag)

Twenty-five years ago two men discovered the tracks of a hedgehog in the snow a few miles from Ontonagon and followed them to a ledge of rocks near Minnesota Copper Mine. They began digging and soon struck the entrance to a small cavern in the rock; continuing the excavation they soon found that the cavern had been formed by human agency. A well defined vein of native copper running through the rock, and numerous stone hammers scattered about proved that the excavation had been made for mining purposes. This was the first discovery of "Ancient diggings" in the Lake Superior region and suggested further explorations, which resulted in the finding of about a hundred other ancient mining bits between the eastern extremity of Keweenaw point and the Porcupine Mountains, containing stone mining implements of various kinds - some showing the marks of usage - as well as copper chisels and wedges, knives, bracelets and rings. All these copper implements and relics appear to have never been melted, but hammered into shape from the native ore. Billets of wood showing the marks of sharp cutting implements were found as well as wooden shovels, some much worn in the blade, which had been used for shoveling out the refuse rock and dirt. These and wooden bowls for bailing water from pits had been preserved from decay by laying covered with water and fell to pieces as soon as they became dry from exposure to the air. In one of the old pits, covered with about nine feet of earth and vegetable mold, was found ten years since, a leather bag described as follows: "It was eleven inches long and seven inches wide and was lying on a mass of native copper which the ancient miners had unsuccessfully attempted remove from its parent vein. The bag was in a remarkable state of preservation, the leather being quite pliable and as a sheepskin. It was made with the hair inside, was sowed across the bottom and up one side with a leather string inserted to close the mouth by drawing it together. The bag was empty but judging from appearances it had been used for transporting copper or other mineral, the leather in places showing marks of much service." Growing directly over the spot in which it was found was a hemlock tree three feet in diameter.

In several of the ancient mines large masses of copper detached from the main lode by the ancient miners, have been found, one near Eagle River weighted 46 tons; one in the Mesnard mine weighted 18 tons: these and others generally were found hammered smooth. In an old pit near the Minnesota mine was found "a mass of copper ten feet long, three feet high an more than a foot thick, weighing 6 tons, and resting on skids of timbers piled up to the height of about five feet. These timbers having been constantly covered by water were in a good state of preservation, and at the ends showed plainly the marks of the tools used in cutting them." Eight feet deeper the vein from which this mass had been taken was discovered.

In many of the ancient mines operations were left unfinished - apparently suddenly abandoned - indicate that the miners removed the rock by building fires on it and breaking it while hot by throwing on cold water; the vein of copper thus freed from the rock was removed piece meal by the use of implements already referred to.

Surface mining seems usually to have been resorted to though adits were driven into the rock.

The explorations and discoveries made prove that these ancient mines were of great extent, and that immense amount of ore were taken from them. Thus, near the Rockland mines a bill had been cut asunder and a deep valley fifty yards wide formed by the removal of the rock. A careful examination showed that beyond doubt this was the work of miners. And in the bottom of the valley the stump of a tree nearly four feet in diameter was found.

When and by whom were these ancient mines worked?

Trees found growing in the vegetable mold which fills some of the old pits, are of immense size and their age, ascertained by counting their concentric rings, is above 400 years - so before the adventurous Columbus had dreamed of the new world, men of some race were delving in the copper mines of Lake Superior.

That the ancient miners belonged to the present race of North American Indians is not at all probable. The mines seem from the unfinished jobs left to have been suddenly abandoned, as is caused by the dispersion of the people engaged in working them. The Indian race now inhabiting North America, having before settlement of the country the same wants as their remote ancestors would have continued to use and perpetuate the knowledge derived from them, but when the Jesuit missionaries came among them in the sixteenth century they found no tradition even pointing to the existence of these mines, while copper ornaments and utensils were unknown. They found indeed a vague notion that certain minerals possessing occult properties were hidden in the mountains, and were popularly supposed to be in the custody of spirits.

Carver who visited Lake Superior in 1767 relates that the Indians described to him a river (the Ontonagon,) which 'is remarkable for the abundance of virgin copper, which is found on it banks; a metal which is met with also in several other places on this coast. I observed that many of the small islands; particularly those on the eastern shores were covered with copper ore. They appeared like beds of coppers, of which many tons lay in a small space.' The same author writes, 'One of the Chippewa Chiefs told me that some of the people once being driven onto the island of Maurepas, which lies to the northeast part of the lake found in it large quantities of heavy, shining yellow sand? Being struck by the beautiful appearance of it, in the morning when they re-entered their canoes, they attempted to bring some away, but a spirit of an amazing size, according to their account sixty feet in height, strode in the water after them and commanded them to deliver back what they had taken away. Terrified at his gigantic stature and seeing that he had nearly overtaken them, they were glad to restore their shining treasure, on which they were suffered to depart without further molestation. Since this incident no Indian that has ever heard of it will venture near the same haunted coast.'

Evidently this was not the sort of people to develop copper or other mines.

It is agreed that the vast mounds found in the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys - and scattered generally throughout the southwestern portions of North America, were built by some extinct race that raised the wonderful mounds, (one of which, Cholula, was over fourteen hundred feet square at the base and over one hundred and seventy feet high.) found by Cortez when he invaded the dominions of Montezuma and which were said by the Aztecs of that period to be the work of a race then dispersed and nearly destroyed, the Toltecs. The Aztecs had a tradition that the Toltecs came from the far north about the year 648 AD and settle the great valley of Mexico, where the remains of their capital, Tula, were found and examined at the time by the Spanish conquest.

Nowhere in America so far as is known, except in the Lake Superior region is silver found in grains or masses imbedded in a matrix of native copper. In one of the mounds examined at Marietta, Ohio, was found a copper knife, hammered from virgin ore, which contained blotches of pure silver. Other copper articles found in mounds in other portions of the country present the same peculiarity. In not of the ancient mines or mounts in this country or Mexico have iron implements been found. The vast mines of gold, silver, tin and copper and quarries of granite in Mexico were worked without the aid of iron, steel, or gunpowder. Edge tools were made of an alloy of tine and copper. With these, elaborate carvings were executed.

When Cortez entered the City of Mexico and visited the marked place he found there according to Bernal Diaz, a soldier in his command, whose authority is sustained by two independent accounts, "every kind of edible, every form of dress, medicines, perfumes, furniture, lead, tin, brass, copper, gold and silver ornaments ? paper, every kind of earthenware, salt, wood, tobacco, razors made of obsidian," and a multitude of other articles of ornament and utility, all of which were carefully specified, but he did not find iron in any form.

The ancient miners of Lake Superior were evidently ignorant of the use of iron, which abounds in close proximity to the copper ore. These and many other facts go far to sustain the theory that those who toiled ages since among the copper mines of this region and left such abundant and interesting traces of their labor belonged to the same race, long since extinct, of mound builders, which scattered the memorials of its occupancy and gradual migration through the vast region extending from Wisconsin to Mexico - where the ruins assume the grander and more interesting forms of aqueducts, temples and cities as in Central America, where their profusion and grandeur they excite the admiration and study of the traveler of the present day.

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