Wisconsin's Ancient Copper Miners


Herbert Wagner


Originally published in:

Wisconsin Outdoor Journal

(Vol.9, No.3, May 1995, pages 62-64)

Fond du Lac Copper Mine circa 1900

In July of l767 the explorer Jonathan Carver left the Indian village at Lac Court Oreillies in northwest Wisconsin and portaged into the Namekagon river. In his published journal Carver wrote, "This branch I descended to a fork, and then ascended another to its source. On both these rivers I discovered several mines of virgin copper, which was as pure as that found in any other country."

Carver was writing about native copper. Red metal in elemental form found as nuggets and wirey masses in the regionís one billion year old volcanic bedrock. Lake Superiorís native copper was noted by Europeans as early as the 1600s. While Upper Michiganís Keweenaw Point and Isle Royale have received most of the copper mining glory, similar metalliferous lava belts cross northwest Wisconsin from the east at Montreal River and the Michigan border to Interstate Park on the west at St. Croix Falls and the Minnesota line. So Carver's observation made in 1767 raises an interesting and controversial question: Was native copper been mined in northwest Wisconsin before the area was opened to Euro-American settlement in the 1840s?

Copper men in Upper Michigan have long scoffed at Carver's claim of early copper mines in Wisconsin. In l876 A.P. Swineford wrote, "That (Carver) visited the places he describes there is no good reason to doubt; that he discovered 'mines of copper' on the Chippewa or St. Croix no one is now willing to believe."

The belts of copper bearing rocks in northwest Wisconsin are geologically identical to those in Michigan that hosted a rich mining industry that lasted for more than a century. In Wisconsin there are several distinct belts of these Keweenawan-age rocks or "ranges" as they were called by early scientists. These include the Douglas, St. Croix, and Minong Copper Ranges that lie in portions of Douglas, Washburn, and Bayfield Counties. To the southwest in Polk County lies another outcrop that forms the picturesque dalles at St. Croix Falls. Another belt of these copper-bearing lavas known simply as "the copper range" runs from near Bad River in Ashland County eastward across Iron County where it exits the state on the Montreal River. These formations make for a rugged and picturesque landscape abounding in waterfalls, gorges, and rocky bluffs. And while the Wisconsin copper ranges never supported a major mining industry, native copper was found, sometimes in encouraging amounts, and abandoned prospects dot the landscape. These are historical sites from the early Euro-American settlement period.

Between l845 and l857 exploration for copper took place from several prospects between Manitou Falls and the Bois Brule River. During the American Civil War a mine on Copper Creek produced nuggets weighing up to l75 pounds. On the Bad River (within the modern confines of Copper Falls State Park) the Ashland Mining Company was active during the 1860s. In the l870s the Percival Mine near the Bois Brule River showed promise. At the Weyerhaeuser Mine in the extreme southeast corner of Douglas County copper masses weighing up to 500 pounds were taken out and several tons of metallic copper extracted between l898 and l9l4. While these explorations and many others never showed commerical production, it should be considered that copper lodes abandoned as being too small and therefore worthless by Euro-American prospectors may have been valuable sources of a highly useful metal to people living in a more thrifty economy than our own.

In Wisconsin there were some believers in Jonathan Carver's assertion of old copper mines in northwest Wisconsin. Around the year l900 copper men from Superior identified Carver's ìmines of virgin copperî with the Weyerhaeuser and Mudge Mines then being worked in theTotogatic-Ounce river basin. Others pointed to old Indian tales of native copper in the region. Folk historian John Bardon once told of Wab-ma-shay-way, a medicine man from Grand Marais, Minnesota, who visited a copper outcrop in Douglas County every year for its "spirit power." Later the Culligan Mine was dug at that site. Bardon also claimed that the Weyerhaeuser copper deposit was known to an early Chippewa family. The location was a closely guarded secret until an Indian woman married a Stillwater lumberjack and revealed all.

There is also the legend of "Winneboujou's Anvil" a ridge of copper-bearing lava in Bayfield County south of the Eau Claire Lakes. Here the Native American god-hero Winneboujou worked local copper into tools and weapons for the Chippewa (Ojibwe) people. The sound of his hammering was said to be audible for miles. American travelers in the region early in the l9th century heard mysterious booming sounds emanating from some unknown source. These same travelers recorded vague stories of supposed mines then existing near the Bois Brule River. An abundance of nearby copper digs during the l845-l9l4 period lend credibility to such reports.

Prospectors of the l850s recalled finding overgrown pits they attributed to earlier mining attempts. William Howenstein, prospecting west of the Brule River in l853, discovered evidence of indigenous mining at the site of the later Percival Mine. There he found, "considerable masses of virgin metal...partly removed from the parent rock with a stone maul."

In l865 August Zachau made a similar discovery of "Indian diggings" on his Douglas Range property a few miles south of Superior. The pits were found 30 yards apart on a "vein" alleged to contain good "mineral indications." Zachau reported stone hammers "large and small" around these pits. He brought one such stone hammer to Superior and put it on display for the curious to see.

Farther west at Copper Creek indications of indigenous mining was noted in l873 by state geologist Edmund Sweet. Examining bedrock along the stream, Sweet discovered a pit he ascribed to prehistoric miners. Under the soil in the pit's bottom he found several small boulders, some of which apparently had been used as hammer stones. From George Stuntz, who first surveyed much of the region, Sweet learned of similar old pits near
Little Manitou Falls, today located inside Pattison State Park. In the debris surrounding these pits Stuntz had found a broken stone hammer. In his report Sweet wrote, "there is...little doubt that this district was 'prospected' by that strange pre-historic people, whose greatest efforts at mining were apparently upon Isle Royale."

In l899 and l900 Northwestern University professor Ulysses Sherman Grant inspected and reported upon the copper-bearing rocks of northwest Wisconsin. In his notes Grant recorded some "very ancient" attempts at mining west of the Bois Brule River. Gerald Stowe, a former curator of the Douglas County Historical Museum, also referred to prehistoric mining pits near the Brule. Another historian, Charles Emerson, spoke of ancient pits on the Minong Range. None of these reports, unfortunately, were specific as to exact location nor did they provide further details.

Around the year 1900 a new round of copper mining fever broke out in northwest Wisconsin. "Captain" John M. Thomas, a mining expert from Calumet, Michigan, was hired to reopen the old Fond du Lac Mine, first worked in 1855-1857. One day Captain Thomas came down to Superior with big news.

While clearing ground west of the old Parker shaft, workmen had found evidence of "ancient pits." Further searching revealed additional old workings. Thomas, who was acquainted with prehistoric diggings on Keweenaw Point, claimed the Wisconsin pits were also made by ancient miners. For proof he offered a grooved stone hammer found nearby. In describing these pits one observer noted, "It was certainly the work of very crude tools in unskilled hands. Every indication about the pit shows that it was dug many centuries ago." The hammerstone was described as being, "wedge-shaped with a wide face and a groove around the center where it was evidently tied to a handle."

Old settlers recalled similar pits and stone hammers found around the mine just as operations ceased in l857. A miner from that early period named John Smith said, "I did not like to quit because...the rock...was carrying copper better than ever before."

In Superior these discoveries were hailed as important indications of mineral and aroused high excitement among mine backers and stockholders. It was common knowledge that in Michigan ancient pits had led to the discovery of rich copper lodes. Small finds of native copper near the ancient pits drove the excitement still higher. On this basis Captain Thomas proclaimed that the Fond du Lac Mine would yield greatly. In spite of the hoopla, the Fond du Lac Mine never paid a red cent.

That prehistoric copper mining took place in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and on Isle Royale is an established fact. Whether or not a similar if smaller industry existed in northwest Wisconsin is more problematic as the evidence is sparse and largely anecdotal. While the aforementioned accounts all point to ancient mining activity in northwest Wisconsin before the settlement period, they are often little more than folk legend or gleaned from old newspaper accounts that are notorious for being tinged with boosterism, stock jobbing, and incipient "copper fever." Critics will express doubt and demand harder evidence, because without scientific proof these old claims are little more than mirages and no more credible than Carver's claim was to practical 19th century mining men.

Fortunately that hard proof now exists. The evidence comes from the old Weyerhaeuser Mine in the southeast corner of Douglas County. The mine site occupies both sides of an ancient fault valley through which Dingle Creek runs its course to the Totogatic-Ounce River. This dig was worked between 1898 and 1914 and tested again during World War II and was the best show of native copper anywhere in northern Wisconsin. At least three shafts were sunk on the property that penetrated the bedrock several hundred feet deep. Today these workings are abandoned and the buildings, shaft trestle, and narrow gauge rail tracks that serviced the mine have long vanished. Most of the old mine tailings have been trucked away for highway fill. But two of the three shafts remain open to curious -- and cautious -- visitors.

In l988 this writer accompanied a group from Superior-Duluth to the old Weyerhaeuser Mine. Samples of native copper collected that day were turned over to Dr. George "Rip" Rapp at the Archaeometry Laboratory at the University of Minnesota in Duluth. Dr. Rapp, who has compiled a database of trace element fingerprints for hundreds of native copper deposits in the United States and Canada, had the Weyerhaeuser copper samples analyzed in similar fashion at the University of Wisconsin's Nuclear Reactor Facility in Madison.

The results were entered into the Copper Project database, which is used to source-trace prehistoric copper artifacts commonly found in archeological sites throughout North America. In l989 a computer search was made to determine the origin of some copper implements found at three prehistoric sites in northeastern Minnesota. One of these sites was carbon-dated to 280 A.D..

The results, published in l990, showed that the Weyerhaeuser copper lode on the Minong Range in Douglas County was the bedrock source for l6 of 22 copper artifacts found at the three Minnesota sites. Here at last is the hard evidence that proves indigenous peoples were extracting native copper from northwest Wisconsin long before the entry of Euro-American prospectors.
Ancient copper implements in the Wisconsin Historical Society collection

These findings are impressive considering that the Minong Range source must have competed with other native copper sources around Lake Superior where a larger amount of prehistoric mining took place and presumably much more copper was extracted.

So it turns out that Jonathan Carver was right after all. There were ìmines of virgin copperî in northwest Wisconsin going back hundreds of years. Mines that were apparantly still known and possibly still being worked at the time of his 1767 visit to the area. A location that due to its isolated interior location away from main river highways was kept hidden for the next 130 years.

One question remains. Are the small native copper finds in northwest Wisconsin mere geological curiousities or are they hints of larger economically viable deposits lurking beneath the woods and streams? Recent decades have seen the discovery of rich, massive-sulfide copper deposits to the east and south, and recently news reports have talked of new iron mining on the Gogebic Range, long condemned as low-grade and worthless. A representative of Noranda Minerals told this writer some years ago that his company was beginning a literature search on Wisconsin's native copper-bearing rocks. If the past is any clue to the future copper prospectors might again explore northwest Wisconsinís legend-haunted copper ranges where now only the sound of waterfalls and the cry of wild creatures break the primal silence.

Herbert Wagner is a freelance writer from Northwest Wisconsin.

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