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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


May 17, 2003 - Issue 87


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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)


[From the Jesuit Relation of 1669--70.]
Hitherto it had been thought that these Mines were found only in one or two Islands; but, since we have made more exact inquiries on the subject, we have learned from the Savages some secrets, which they did not wish to reveal. It has been necessary to use artifice to elicit this information, and to distinguish the true from the false.

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.

Upon 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 Michipicoten.
The Savages say that it is a floating Island, which is sometimes far off, sometimes near, according to the winds that push it and drive it in all directions. They add, that a long time ago four Savages came thither by chance, having lost their way in the fog by which that Island is almost always surrounded.

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.

Perhaps 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 farther away.
What is certain is that, in the common opinion of the Savages, there is a great abundance of Copper in that Island; but they dare not go there. It is there that we hope to begin the discoveries which we purpose making this summer.

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.

It 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.

Still 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.]

All 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.

Still 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.

Finally, 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.


[Letter 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."]

Monsignor--We 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.
We will neglect no steps, Monsignor, to procure information as to the quality and quantity of the ore in the mine, And to that End, the Sieur de Beauharnois will send orders next spring to the officer commanding at the point of Chagoüamigon to instruct some voyageurs who may pass by that Spot to bring as much ore as they can from the mine with a detailed Report on its situation and Extent, which we shall have the honor to send you when we receive it. It is impossible to get information about it, otherwise, since you do not deem it advisable to send an especial Canoe thither. [Note: Marginal note on MS., added at Paris: "They will send a detailed report next year on the Copper Mine. It is expected that they will omit no explanations."]
We have the honor to be with very profound respect, Monsignor, Your very humble and very obedient servants
Quebec, October 25th, 1729.


[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."]

We 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.

Monsignor--We 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.

Monsieur Hocquart informs us, Monsignor, by a private Letter of the Position of affairs of brother Chrestien with his creditors.

We remain with very profound respect, Monsignor, Your very humble and very obedient servants
Quebec, October 22nd, 1730.


[Letter 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."]

Monsignor--we 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.

Annexed 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.

We remain with very profound respect, Monsignor, Your very humble and very obedient Servants
Quebec, October 14th, 1736.

Statement of the specimens of Copper Sent to Monsignor The Comte de Maurepas by The King's ship.
No 1 Three small pieces from the Tonnaganne Mine.
No 2 Another small piece of ore of two colors, red, and white, from the said Tonnaganne River.
No 3 Another small piece of Copper, or metal of some other kind which detached itself from the ore placed in the Crucible, and flew out of it during the melting, while an assay was being made by Monsieur De la Ronde. This small Ingot comes from the same Place aforesaid and from the same block of Copper mentioned in the memorandum of the said Sieur De la Ronde.
No4 several specimens of the Soil or kind of Soil adhering and contiguous to the same block aforesaid.
NoA A large piece of ore, weighing About 110 pounds, marked A. on one of the faces, from the Piouabic River.
Another Idem, weighing 65 pounds, also marked A, from the same Place.
Several other Pieces, large and small, also from the Piouabic River, without any number.
The Copper is in two cases, No & No 8, which Monsieur de Beauharnois, Intendant, is to take out in order to Send them to Monsignor.

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