The Penokee-Gogebic Iron Range
Herbert Wagner

January 24, 2012

Part 2: Ancient Mines of Northwest Wisconsin, Heroes of Civilization, and the Discovery of Magnetic Iron Ore

"There are not only copper mines but also steel contained in the rocks" -- Gabriel Sagard, 1632


The Penokee-Gogebic Iron Range was discovered by European-Americans in the year 1847, which is one year earlier than history books say. The discovery was made near modern Upson, Wisconsin, and not far from where the GTAC taconite mine is now being planned. Previous to that time, however, the Indians or Native Americans may have procured minerals from the region on a small scale. These are little known chapters in the pre-settlement history of Northwest Wisconsin.

The Great Seal of Wisconsin Territory

"Civilization replaces Native Peoples"

Ancient Mines

Iron ore first peeks out of the historical record in the time of the early French, when Lake Superior was part of Upper Canada or New France. In Sagard's 1632 account of the uppermost great lake he states: "There are not only copper mines but also steel contained in the rocks, which when melted out might make excellent knives." (1)

Like most other information known to the early French, Sagard probably learned these things from the indigenous people or Indians of Lake Superior. Careful observers of natural phenomena in ways that Christian-European man did not fully understand, these first people also procured minerals in Northwest Wisconsin on a small scale. It may be that the place of red pipestone described as the "mountain of the prairie" in Longfellow's poem: "The Song of Hiawatha" (more correctly Manabozho, Winneboujou, etc.), is not a reference to Minnesota pipestone as generally believed, but to ancient pipestone diggings in the Blue Hills of Barron County, Wis. (2)

Lake Superior's early claim to fame was native copper. The upper lake being the only place on earth known to contain great amounts of the red metal in pure elemental form. This copper was also utilized by native peoples to some degree. In 1845, a correspondent at La Pointe on Madeline Island, reported that the Ojibwe or Chippewa (Anishinabe) people there had articles in their possession beaten out of native copper, showing, he said, their special knowledge of minerals and where to find them. Early accounts of Lake Superior tell that in the traditional Ojibwe worldview copper held some manner of divine or "spirit" power. (3)

Portal Between Worlds

Sometimes this metal was found as "float" copper, loose pieces torn from the bedrock by glacial ice and deposited in riverbeds and on beaches. Up until the 18th century an immense boulder of float copper lay on the Lake Superior shoreline near the mouth of Iron (i.e. "Metal") River in Bayfield County. This landmark was held in high esteem by native people who considered it a great mystery of existence and portal between worlds. This natural wonder was known to the French as La Roche ("the rock"), but with the typical disregard shown for native traditions by Europeans (and later Euro-Americans), they hacked it up and carted off the pieces until by 1740 or so this unique natural divinity was lost forever. The only other known large copper mass that was venerated by the Indians--the so-called Ontonagon Copper Rock--was removed to Washington, D.C. in 1843, and today resides at the Smithsonian National Museum.

Forks of Totogatic-Ounce

Ancient Indian peoples themselves, however, may have quarried or chipped copper out of the bedrock where metalliferous veins were exposed at the surface. Scientific studies show at least one place in Northwest Wisconsin where this ancient digging took place. Copper used to make prehistoric artifacts recovered from widely distributed archeological sites from Minnesota to Maine originally came from a native copper deposit in the Upper St. Croix River basin on the remote forks of Totogatic-Ounce River. Some of these archeological sites have been dated as far back as 5,000 years ago. (4)

This belt of Keweenawan-age lava flows or basalt rock that crosses parts of Washburn, Douglas and Bayfield counties is known to geologists as the Minong Copper Range. Old timers and Indians, however, called it the "Smoky Hill" country, which is a possible reference to the "madji manitou," the black or smoky god, who was said to dwell there. This copper-bearing formation extends northest into Ashland and Iron counties where it is known simply as the "copper range," and then continues into Upper Michigan to the depleted copper mining district on Keweenaw Point.

Old legends also tell of a rich silver vein known to the Indians in the interior of Northwest Wisconsin to the south or southwest of Chequamegon Bay. Extreme versions of the story mention gold. The object of this very old tradition has never been found or satisfactorily explained. (5)

Marquette Iron Range

The first iron ore discovery on Lake Superior also had a strong Native American connection. According to one version of the story, in 1845 a party of whites came up the lake in search of mineral deposits. At Sault Ste. Marie they met an Indian woman who told them of a peculiar "bright and shiny rock" she had seen while on a trapping expedition with her father. Concluding that this rock might be native silver or galena (lead) ore, they pressed for more information, whereupon she directed them to her brother, Man-je-ki-jik, who might lead them to the exact location.

Arrangements were made, and the Indian man took them to a place on Carp (i.e. sucker-fish) River eastwards of the Huron Mountains in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Although it is said that Man-je-ki-jik himself would not approach the spot out of respect or fear of the resident spirit guardian or manitou of the place, the white men had no such prohibition and found what later became known as the Marquette Iron Range. Instead of silver, the shiny rock turned out to be specular hematite, a rich form of iron ore. Soon a mining company was formed and for his services Man-je-ki-jik was promised a share in the enterprise. But the transaction was never fulfilled and the Indian man and his relatives died in poverty while Marquette Range iron went on to make others fabulously rich. (6)

Indian Treaties & Mineral Explorers

By that time (1845) the mineral rush on Lake Superior was already two years old, having begun after Congress ratified the Treaty of 1842 early the following year. Under that treaty the Lake Superior band of Ojibwe gave up their remaining territory along the south shore of Lake Superior--a cession brought about by the influence of mining interests in Washington, D.C. and that included the area we know today as the Penokee-Gogebic Iron Range. But as they had done in the Treaty of 1837 (when ownership of the pineries of northern Wisconsin and Minnesota had been relinquished to the U.S. government), the Lake Superior Ojibwe again reserved their right "to hunting, fishing and gathering the wild rice" in the Treaty of 1842. (7)

With the original inhabitants more or less out of the way, a wave of Euro-American explorers swept along the southern shore of Lake Superior. Some came up the lakes from Detroit and Sault Ste. Marie, while others left the lead mines of southwestern Wisconsin and traveled by way of the Mississippi, St. Croix, and Bois Brule rivers to Lake Superior at its western end, then known as Fond du Lac. One of these parties in 1843 mistook the Kettle River for the main channel of the St. Croix and after forcing their boat over boiling whirlpools and rapids overturned in the frigid water and lost their entire kit down to the last tin pail. Cold and hungry, they were discovered wandering in the woods by a group of Indians, but instead of the scalpings they expected to receive, the native people fed them maple sugar and politely informed them that they were going the wrong way!

In their explorations these groups of early mineral explorers of 1843-'46 ranged across the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and Northwest Wisconsin. Most likely they tramped over the Penokee-Gogebic Range too, but if so, they left no known record of it. This is not surprising, for iron ore was then regarded by most early prospectors with contempt, who were madly intent on finding deposits of copper, lead, silver and gold.

Lost in the Chippewa Land District

Through a careful reading of period documents, we can date the original discovery of magnetic iron ore (taconite) on the Penokee Range to the summer of 1847. This is one year earlier than history books and authorities normally state, but this descrepency is easily explained. All previous writers going back to the 1850s have adopted (wrongly) the 1848 publication date of a preliminary geological report in which the discovery was first noted, instead of giving the correct year of 1847 in which the actual discovery was made. (8)

The facts are these. On June 2, 1847, a sub-corps of David Dale Owen's federal geological survey with B.C. Macy in charge left "Prairie a la Crosse" on the Mississippi and headed north to examine a portion of the Chippewa Land District near Lake Superior. The goal of this exploration was to accurately examine the topography and resources of these former Indian lands, including any potential mineral deposits found there. Assistant to Macy was Dr. Andrew Randall, and with them two French-Indian (metis) voyaguer guides who also served as boatmen and packers.

Macy and Andrew's formal instructions were to follow and overtake a party of federal lineal surveyors who were then at work extending the Fourth Principal Meridian line across Wisconsin to Lake Superior. This survey baseline starts at the Illinois border and runs up along the western boundary of Iowa County and thence roughly along a line north past modern Tomah, Curtis, Fifield, Upson and strikes Lake Superior on Oronto Bay just west of the mouth of the Montreal River.

As Macy and his party headed north, disaster struck them while in the headwaters of the Black River in Jackson County. A series of tremendous storms swept the countryside, flooding rivers and washing out logging dams, mills and booms along with 100,000 sawlogs. Prolonged exposure to the cold damp struck Macy with acute rheumatism in his knee joint until he could not walk. Stranded in the middle of nowhere with a crippled man, there was nothing else to do but send one of the guides back to the mouth of Black River where a horse was procured to carry Macy out. With that the entire party returned to civilization, such as it was. Conditions were so terrible on the return journey that upon reaching the river mouth, the poor heroic horse dropped in its tracks and died! (9)

More Bad Luck

Reassigned by Dr. Owen to easier terrain, Macy's luck didn't get any better. In 1849, while ascending the Des Moines River in Iowa, an accidental discharge of a firearm in a boat sent wooden splinters flying that severely wounded him in the kneecap and face. The next July while tracing the carboniferous formation in Iowa, Macy got lost in a swampy region and wandered for days under a scorching sun with dire results. Writing in 1852, Owen described Macy's condition as: "an obstinate and dangerous intermittent, from the effects of which his health, even now, after two years, has scarcely recovered." (10)

If Macy and Randall had bad luck trying to reach Lake Superior, the corps of lineal surveyors working ahead of them fared even worse. In their effort to run out the Fourth Pricipal Meridian, this survey party led by a Mr. Freeman was forced to wade through endless swamps and fight dense brush while being attacked on all sides by venomous insects. Then, a few days before reaching Lake Superior, their entire food supply ran out. With their clothes reduced to shreds and in a starving, near hysterical condition, they finally emerged from the wilderness forest on Oronto Bay exhausted and nearly naked. Luckily, the trading post, mission and Indian-French-Anglo village of La Pointe on Madeline Island wasn't far off, and there they were able to find shelter, food and clothing. (11)

Heroes of Civilization

Although forgotten today, these men struck the first blow of American civilization in far Northwest Wisconsin, which, depending upon your viewpoint, was at that time either a howling wilderness wasteland largely shot out of game, or, a pristine natural paradisiacal cornucopia of plenty. Either way, establishing the Fourth Principal Meridian would open the far north country to land purchase and white settlement at a time when "scarsely a stick was missing" from the orignal forest. The meridian was the basis for all future township lines and land surveys used to establish property boundaries, homesteads, townsites, timber purchases, dams, flowages, railways, and mineral claims.

This was the beginning of the modern infrastucture and society as we know it today. Now, when in a few minutes we can zoom effortlessly over the same landscape on a smooth highway that it took the early guys days or weeks to traverse--sometimes with dire results--it is difficult to fathom the hardships they endured. Imagine our northern realm but with no roads, no motels, no burger joints, no cellphone service or internet. For that matter no automobiles or Deepwoods Off!

That last problem may have been the worst of all. In his final report, Dr. Owen singled out insects as perhaps the most serious detriment to future settlement of the northwoods. During "fly time" he said, which occured (and still does) between June and August, venomous insects were present in such "insufferable numbers" that they "destroyed all comfort or quiet both by day and by night." Without head-nets (apparently not supplied at first), conditions were so bad that his men had their ears swollen two or three times their normal size and with the line of their hats ringed all around by trickling blood caused by insect bites. This gave rise to inflamation and fevers of the brain, which could only be allayed to some degree by getting up several times in the night and immersing one's forehead in cold water. The chief culprits, Owen wrote, were "the buffalo-gnat, the brulot [French-Canadian lingo from bruler, to burn, the sting causing a burning sensation], and the sand-fly, to say nothing of myriads of gigantic musquitoes [that] carry on incessant war against the...unfortunate traveller." (12)

Randall Takes Charge

With Macy unable to continue towards Lake Superior, Randall now took charge of the exploration party. By August (1847), we find him on the lower St. Croix River collecting statistics about the lumber industry. (13) At St. Croix Falls, he joined Dr. Owen and other sub-agents where they studied the gorge of the St. Croix River at modern Interstate Park. This place, Dr. Owen explained to them, was key to understanding the great Lake Superior system of geology they would encounter farther north. The same primordial trap-rock formation, with its firey volcanic origin and richly endowed with veins of native copper and silver on Keweenaw Point and Isle Royale, was also present in the towering cliffs and ledges at St. Croix Falls, where mining prospects had also been made. At St. Croix Falls the basaltic lava formation abruptly transitioned to much younger fossiliferous sedimentary rocks dominent throughout the entire Mississippi valley. Because the region between St. Croix Falls and Lake Superior was unknown to science, no man could say what secrets of nature or mineral treasures might be hidden there. (14)

At St. Croix Falls the various exploratory parties were organized, areas of investigation defined, and maps and instruments distributed. Then, on August 8, 1847, Randall, in charge of one exploration party, ascended the St. Croix River by birch canoe to near modern Gordon, Wis., where, near the mouth of the Eau Claire or "Green" River, they took the relatively easy overland Indian trail (part of the so-called "women portage"), to Chequamegon Bay on Lake Superior. At La Pointe they obtained a boat and then coasted easterly along the lakeshore where Randall examined and measured the sandstone formation on Oronto Bay.

Reaching the Montreal River, they went up that stream and examined some copper claims where the trap formation crosses that stream. Then, returning to the lakeshore and similar to Macy's original instructions from earlier that year, Randall's party found the line of the Fourth Principal Meridian and plunged into the wilderness interior towards the south. (16)

Discovery of Magnetic Iron-Stone

Little out of the ordinary was noted in the first few miles of Randall's investigation: tilted layers of sandstone, glacial boulders, outcrops of slate and trap on Potato River, fine groves of sugar maple trees and lots of swamp. Then, in an area roughly 11 to 14 miles from the lakeshore, the geological survey party struck a series of rocky hills or low mountain belts rising some 200 to 300 feet above the level of the surrounding countryside. There, Randall noted "an outburst of magnetic iron and trap bearing northeast and southwest...dark colored, fine grained, and exceedingly hard." (16)

In this brief description, Randall seems to have noted both the copper (trap) and iron ranges where they closely butt up against each other and share the same NE/SW alignment in this part of Northwest Wisconsin. Most likely he considered them part of the same geological formation, although today we know that this is not true as they differ in age by over a billion years.

The exact place of the iron discovery was about one mile southwest of modern Upson and five miles northeast of the proposed GTAC mine site. Randall's referrence to the copper and iron formations as an "outburst" also reflects the thinking of the day. As it was then believed that the highly tilted bedrock strata had been pushed up or erupted in long narrow fissures through the loose sand, gravel and boulder deposits of glacial drift. Today we know that it happened the other way around. That is, the copper and iron ranges of Northwest Wisconsin are between about 1 and 2.2 billion years old, and were in place eons before the superficial glacial drift deposits were laid down only about 10,000 years ago.

At the time of his discovery of the Penokee Range, Randall also observed one of the more interesting characteristics of the iron-formation itself. This he described as "a remarkable magnetic disturbance [of the compass], causing the poles of the needle to turn nearly at right angles to the course of the range, and to deviate from the true north nearly 50º." (17)

This wild and peculiar variation of Randall's compass needle was caused by large amounts of the mineral magnetite present in a thick layer of sedimentary rock that occurs near the crest of the ridge or mountain block system that makes up the Penokee Range. In its pure form magnatite (Fe3O4) can contain as much as 72.4% natural iron. (18) As the name suggests, the mineral magnetite has peculiar properties, as pieces of it are attracted to and will adhere to an ordinary horseshoe magnet. Under certain conditions rocks rich in magnetite themselves become magnets with the ability to attract iron particles--a rock type known as lodestone. As Randall noted, magnetite also affects the behavior of compass needles, a characteristic that would provide a means of tracing beds of magnetic iron-stone beneath surface drift or glacial deposits, but also giving rise to tall tales and myths that will be told in future installments of this series.

It should be noted here that magnetic iron-stone (more often known today as taconite), was not the type of ore mined in the Hurley-Ironwood area on the Penokee-Gogebic Range between 1884 and 1965. These historic mines produced a different type of iron ore known as hematite (Fe2O3), that was naturally enriched and needed no additional processing. However, because the hematite deposits were soft and limited in extent, they were usually concealed by glacial drift and not easily seen at the surface. For that reason they would remain unknown until the 1880s. Thus, for 40 years after Randall's initial discovery, the Penokee Range would be known for magnetic iron-stone alone: a hard and resistent rock containing much silica that with adjacent beds of slate and quartzite form bold outcrops and low-lying mountains. It would upon the promise of magnetic ore that early mining men and speculators would stake their fortunes, only to have their dreams dashed by the hard unyielding nature and low percentage of iron in the rock. Today, some 165 years after Randall's original discovery, modern taconite mining and processing technology will allow companies like GTAC to extract vast profits from these same long silent and pristine Penokee hills.

As to Andrew Randall's subsequent history, it was neither long nor happy. After his discovery of Penokee iron ore, Randall seems to have grown tired of battling mosquitoes and deer flies and left Dr. Owen's geological survey. He settled briefly at St. Paul, where, in 1849, he established the Minnesota Register, by some accounts that territory's first newspaper. (19) He then moved to California where he entered politics and became a founder of the California Academy of Sciences. But he also dabbled heavily in land speculation and went deeply into debt. In 1856, at San Francisco, Randall was murdered by an angry creditor, who in turn was captured, tried and hanged by the neck until dead by the Vigilante Committee. (20)

Although Randall was the first Euro-American to recognize iron-formation on the Penokee Range, his explorations in 1847 were confined to the line of the Fourth Principal Meridian. He did not attempt to follow the iron belt to the northeast or to the southwest. Nor did he name the formation. It would be left to others to follow up the full extent of the iron mountain, see the potential for mines there, and meet the area's original inhabitants.

Next: Col. Charles Whittlesey: Explorer, Geologist and Unlucky Name Giver!

(Reference Notes for Part 2)

+ + + +
If you enjoy my fresh research approach and unique writing style you might consider purchasing a copy of my landmark book either for yourself or as a gift:
At the Creation, Myth, Reality and the Origin of the Harley-Davidson Motorcycle, 1901-1909 (Wisconsin Historical Society Press, 2003). This 228 page work with many period photographs and advertisments tells for the first time anywhere how and when the Harley-Davidson motorcycle actually came into existence, thereby busting decades of advertising mythology and continued modern hype on the subject. It's a must read for anyone who wants to be well-posted with the true facts about the Harley-Davidson motorcycle and its humble beginnings in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

This webpage was created by Herbert Wagner in January, 2012 on the recycled Mac laptop computer using photovoltaic electricity generated by the fusion power of the sun!

Return to At the Creation homepage