An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
May 17, 2003 - Issue 87
French Era Copper Mining History on Lake Superior (Part 1)
(NOTE this file is the compilation of articles I have found on the subject of copper mining during the French era on Lake Superior)
credits: submitted by Timm Severud (Ondamitag)
1670: DABLON'S ACCOUNT OF COPPER MINES AT LAKE SUPERIOR.
the Jesuit Relation of 1669--70.]
Still we do not vouch for the truth of all that we are about to relate, upon their simple deposition, until we are able to speak with more assurance after having gone in person to the places referred to; and this we hope to do this Summer, at the same time when we go in search of lost and wandering sheep all through the region of that great Lake.
entering it by its mouth, where it empties into the Sault, the first place
met where Copper is found in abundance, is an Island, distant forty or
fifty leagues and situated toward the North, opposite a spot called Missipicouatong
It was in the times before they had yet had any commerce with the French, and when they did not use kettles or hatchets. These men, then, wishing to prepare themselves something to eat, adopted their usual method: taking some stones that they found at the water's edge, they heated them red-hot, and threw them into a bark dish filled with water, to make it boil, and by this device to cook their meat. While selecting these stones, they found that they were almost all pieces of Copper; accordingly they made use of some of them, and, after taking their repast, resolved to embark as soon as possible, fearing the Lynxes and the Hares, which are as large as Dogs in that region, and were coming to eat up their provisions and even their Canoe.
Before setting out, they loaded themselves with a good many of these stones, large and small, and even with some slabs of Copper; but they had not gone far from the shore when a powerful voice made itself heard to their ears, calling in great wrath: "Who are those robbers carrying off from me my children's cradles and playthings?" The Copper slabs are the cradles, because among the Savages these are made of only one or two boards joined together, on which they put their children to bed; and those little pieces of Copper that they were carrying off are the toys and playthings of the Savage children, who play together with little stones.
That voice astonished them greatly, as they knew not whose it was. Some say that it was Thunder, because there are many storms there; and others that it was a certain Spirit whom they call Missibizi, who passes among these peoples for the God of the waters, as Neptune did among the Pagans. Others say it came from Memogovissiouis: these are, they say, marine People somewhat like the fabulous Tritons or the Sirens, who always live in the water and have long hair reaching to the waist. One of our Savages told us he had seen one of them in the water, according to what he imagined.
However this may be, that astounding voice inspired such terror in our Travelers' souls that one of the four died before reaching land. A short time afterward a second was taken off, and then the third; so that only one was left, who, after returning to his Country and relating all that had happened, died very soon afterward.
The Savages, timid and superstitious as they all are, have never dared to go there since that time, for fear of dying there, believing that there are certain Spirits who kill those who approach them. And, in fact, in the memory of man, no one has been known to set foot there, or even to be willing to sail in that direction--although the Island seems to be open enough, and its trees may even be distinguished from another Island, named Achemikouan.
There is truth and there is untruth in this whole narrative, and the following is what is most probable: namely, that those four persons were poisoned by the water that they boiled with the pieces of copper, which communicated their poison to it, owing to their very great heat; for we know by experience that this copper, when it is put into the fire for the first time, exhales very malignant vapors, which are thick and infectious and whiten the fireplace. It is not, however, a poison so immediate as not to operate more promptly in some eases than in others, as happened with those of whom we are speaking; who, being already affected by the poison, may have easily imagined that they heard those voices, if they heard, however slightly, some echo, such as is commonly found among the Rocks bordering that Island.
this fable has been invented since the event, from not knowing to what
to attribute the death of those Savages; and when they say that it is
a floating Island, it is not incredible that the mists with which it is
often laden, by becoming thin or dense under the Sun's rays, make the
Island appear to the observer sometimes very near, and at other times
Advancing as far as the part called "the great inlet," one comes to an Island three leagues from the land, renowned for the metal that is found there, and for the name [Thunder], which it bears because it is said to thunder there all the time.
But farther toward the West, on the same North side, is found the Island which is most famous for Copper, and is called Minong [Isle Royale]; this is the one in which, as the Savages have told many people, the metal exists in abundance, and in many places. It is large, and is fully twenty-five leagues long; it is distant seven leagues from the mainland, and more than sixty from the end of the Lake. Pieces of Copper, mingled with the stones, are found at the water's edge almost all around the Island, especially on the South side; but principally in a certain inlet that is near the end facing the Northeast, toward the offing, there are some very steep clay hills where are seen several strata or beds of red Cooper, one over another, separated or divided by other strata of earth or of Reeks. In the water even is seen Copper sand as it were; and from it may be dipped up with ladles grains as large as a nut, and other smaller ones reduced to sand. This largo Island is almost all surrounded with Islets that are said to be formed of Copper; they are countered in various places, as far as the mainland on the North. One, among others, is only two gunshots distant from Minong; it is between the middle of the Island and the end that faces the Northeast. Again, on this Northeast side, far out in the lake, there is another Island which, because of the copper in which it abounds, is called Manitouminis [i. e., "Island of the Spirit"]; of this it is related that those who came here formerly, upon throwing stones at the ground, made it ring, just as brass is wont to ring.
Going on to the end of the Lake, and coming back a day's journey along the South side, one sees at the water's edge a Rock of Copper weighing fully seven or eight hundred livres, so hard that steel can scarcely cut it; yet, when it is heated, it may be cut like lead.
Twenty or thirty leagues this side of that spot is situated Chagaouamigong [Chequamegon] point, where we have established the Mission of saint Esprit, of which we shall speak hereafter. Near that place are some Islands, on the shores of which are often found Rocks of Copper, and even slabs of the same material.
Last spring, we bought from the Savages a slab of pure Copper, two feet square, and weighing more than a hundred livres. It is not thought, however, that the mines are found in the Islands, but that all these Copper pebbles probably come from Minong or from the other Islands which are the sources of it, borne upon floating ice or rolled along in the depths of the water by the very impetuous winds--particularly by the Northeast wind, which is extremely violent.
is true that on the Mainland, at the place where the Outaouaks raise Indian
corn, half a league from the water's edge, the women have sometimes found
pieces of Copper scattered here and there, of the weight of ten, twenty,
or thirty livres. It is in digging up the sand to plant their corn that
they make these chance discoveries.
returning toward the mouth of the Lake and following the South side, at
twenty leagues' distance from the spot we have just mentioned one enters
the river called Nantounagan [Ontonagon], in which is seen a height from
which stones of red Copper fall into the water or on the ground, and are
very easily found. Three years ago we were given a massive piece of it,
a hundred livres in weight, which was taken in this same spot; from it
we have cut off some fragments, and sent them to Quebec to Monsieur Talon.
[Note: Jean Talon, Intendant of New France from 1663 to 1668. He did much
to develop the natural resources of the country, and to extend explorations
in the Northwest.]
do not agree as to the precise spot where it is found, some maintaining
that it is where the river begins to narrow, and others saying that it
is encountered very near the Lake, by digging in the clay. Some have said
that at the place where the River forks, and in the channel farthest to
the East, on this side of a point of land, one must dig in the rich earth
to find this Copper; and that pieces of this metal are even found scattered
in the channel which is in the middle.
continuing in this direction, the long point [Keweenaw] of land presents
itself, which we have called the arrow of the bow; at its end there is
only an Islet, which appears to be six feet square, and is said to be
all of copper.
not to leave any part of this great Lake that we have not explored, we
are assured that in the interior, toward the South, mines of this metal
are found in different places.
All this information and ether besides, which it is not necessary to give more in detail, make it worth while to undertake an exact investigation in these matters; and that is what we shall try to do--as also to examine a certain verdigris which is said to run down through the crevices of certain Rocks at the waterside, where one even finds among the pebbles some rather soft pieces, of a pleasant green hue. If God guide us in our enterprise, we shall speak about it next year with more certainty and knowledge. --Jes. Relations, liv, pp. 153--165.
1729: COPPER MINE ON LAKE SUPERIOR
of Beauharnois and Hocquart to the French Minister, dated October 25,
1729. MS. in archives of Ministère des Colonies, Paris; pressmark,
"Canada, Corresp. gén, vol. 51, c. 11, fol. 69."]
have received the Letter you did us the honor of writing us on May 22,
last, on the subject of the copper mine on the west point of Lake Superior.
The Sieur de Cavagnial [Note: See note on Pierre François Rigault,
Marquis de Vaudreuil, ante p. 31.--Ed.], to whom the Sieur Marquis de
Beauharnois had ordered a specimen from the mine to be given in order
that it might be presented to you, did not inquire closely into the cost
of expressly sending a Canoe there when he told you that it would amount
to a Thousand Livres only for the food and wages of three men; nor did
he consider the difficulties that would be encountered in conveying Five
thousand livres weight of the ore in Bark Canoes that would inevitably
be wrecked if struck by a squall on that Lake while approaching shore--as
ore cannot be landed as easily as packages of Furs.
1730: COPPER MINES NEAR LAKE SUPERIOR
[The first is a letter dated Oct. 18, 1730, translated from a transcript from the Paris archives, in Macalester College library, St. Paul, Minn., and published in Macalester College Contributions, 1st Series, No. 4, pp. 112, 113. The second is a letter from Beauharnois and Hocquart to the French Minister, dated Oct. 22, 1730. MS. in archives of Ministère des Colonies, Paris; pressmark, "Canada, Corresp. gén., vol. 52, c. 11, fol. 103."]
cannot as yet write anything positive as to the situation, extent, and
richness of the copper mine in the neighborhood of the bay of Chagouamigon.
The officer whom Monsieur de Beauharnois sent to find out about it, has
not been able to enlighten us on the subject, as has been desired. He
contented himself with bringing us a piece of copper weighing eighteen
pounds, which has the odor, color, and weight of ordinary red copper.
This ingot was given him by a savage from that locality, without his being
able to learn from him the situation of this mine, in order to go there.
The savages are superstitious about these sorts of discoveries. They feel
they would rather die than reveal them. If we can get any more precise
knowledge concerning this mine, we will have the honor of rendering you
an account of it, and the measures necessary for transportation. We will
neglect no means of ascertaining.
have received the letter that you did us the honor of Writing to us on
the 28th of March last. Monsieur de Beauharnois sent orders in the spring
to the officer commanding La Pointe de Chagouamigon to obtain all the
necessary Information respecting the situation, the extent, and also the
quality of the Copper mine in the Neighborhood of that post. He has not
yet received news from him. We Hope to be in a Position to give you information
on this matter next Year. Monsieur de Beauharnois has recommended the
officers and Voyageurs to notify him of all the discoveries that they
may make and which may affect the welfare of the Colony.
Hocquart informs us, Monsignor, by a private Letter of the Position of
affairs of brother Chrestien with his creditors.
remain with very profound respect, Monsignor, Your very humble and very
1736: LA RONDE SENDS SPECIMENS OF COPPER
of Beauharnois and Hocquart to the French Minister, dated Oct. 14, 1736.
MS. in archives of Ministère des Colonies, Paris; pressmark, "Canada,
Corresp. gén., vol. 65, c. 11, fol. 81."]
have The honor to inform You that Monsieur De la Ronde who was instructed
to work the Copper Mines on Lake Superior, came down from there in the
month of August to report on his discoveries, and brought with him About
500 pounds of ore taken from two large masses of copper, one of which
is at the Tonnaganne River, and the other on the Shore of Lake Superior
near the Piouabic River [Note: Now Iron River, in northern Michigan. The
word Piouabic (Pewabic) signifies iron, the terms being in the 18th century
used interchangeably. Alexander Henry, in his Travels and Adventures (Bain
ed., Boston, 1901), p. 187, refers to this as the "Piwatic or Iron
River." Foster and Whitney, "Report on Copper Regions of Lake
Superior," in United States Land Commissioner's Report, 1849, suggested
Pewabic as the name of a town at the mouth of this river, and so laid
it down on their map. A small village of that name is now in Houghton
County, near the Pewabic mine.--Ed.]. We have drawn up the annexed memorandum
from what he has told us respecting the situation of those mines, and
everything connected therewith. From this you will be able to judge, favorable
Hopes to which this first attempt gives Monsignor, of the rise, and of
the advantages that may be expected from the working of those mines. Although,
until now, there is nothing absolutely certain beyond the discovery of
those two masses, there is every reason to believe that they are not the
only ones and that, by digging at the Cape of the Piouabic River, similar
Masses will be found. All the savages assert that Copper is to be found
at a great many Places on Lake Superior; from time to time they have brought
pieces which they have given to [Frenchmen and in particular to Father
St. Pé a Jesuit Missionary at Michilimakinac [Note: Jean Baptiste
de Saint Pé was born Oct. 21, 1686, entered the Jesuit novitiate
at the age of seventeen, and later joined the Canada mission. His first
station was among the Miamis, whence he was transferred to Mackinac, 1735--36.
After this he returned to Montreal, where he was resident superior (1748--54).
Twice he served as superior of all Canada (1739--48, and again in 1754).
--Ed.]. We consider that these discoveries cannot be too carefully followed
up. But, in order to do so at present and with success, it is necessary
to have the workman and the artificer asked for by Monsieur De la Ronde.
We beg, you, Monsignor, to give orders that one be found.
hereto is The Statement of the specimens of Copper from Tonnaganne And
Piouabic which We will put on board the King's Ship and which Monsieur
Hocquart will be careful to deliver to you, Monsignor.
remain with very profound respect, Monsignor, Your very humble and very
of the specimens of Copper Sent to Monsignor The Comte de Maurepas by
The King's ship.
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