The history of the Upper Peninsula for the past three-hundred years, since its early contact with European peoples, has been a history of commercial exploitation of natural resources and an economy of boom/bust cycles. It is, however, also an impressive history of skillful native adaptation to a harsh environment, a rich history of maritime lore, and a proud history of working-class people who fished on the treacherous inland sea, survived the harsh life of nineteenth century lumber camps and worked below the ground with only head lamps to illuminate their labor.
For thousands of years before Europeans came to North America, Native Americans, most notably the Eastern Sioux, the Chippewa, the Huron, the Iroquois, the Ottawa, and scores of others traveled and lived in the Great Lakes region. They left only pictograps instead of maps. Once the Europeans advanced westward into North America, they involved Native Americans directly in the world economy with the fur trade. It was a practice that created hostile tensions between native groups and severely depleted fur-bearing mammals. The Great Lakes were the major route of this trade and, thus, provided easy inroads for European culture, politics and disease.
Long before the first French explorers “discovered” copper, Native Americans were mining the ore along the shores of Lake Superior. Considerable mining activities existed most notably on Isle Royale and near Ontonogan. The pits and the stone tools used to extract this precious metal were recorded by early explorers and surveyors. Copper was traded far and wide along ancient trade routes. Lake Superior copper appears in the archaeological record in the ancient mounds in Ohio, along the waterways of Florida, and in the Southwest and Northwest. Copper was made into jewelry, ceremonial objects, masks, tools, fish hooks and weapons.
The early recorded European history of the region is found in the Jesuit Relations. These accounts provided Europeans with detailed and often precise narratives of the geography and its inhabitants, details that were often used to map this largely unknown territory. Traders who traveled to the area in 1660 were the first to note the presence of copper and to bring specimens back to the Old World. Traders reported finding this metal in the finest pure state. Native inhabitants were often reluctant to disclose to the French the location of their mines. They were reportedly unwilling to discuss what they considered "sacred" and reverent.
Oddly enough, the great cartographic historian Louis Karpinski reports that in the second half of the seventeenth century English and Dutch cartographers "did not accept the Great Lakes as a part of the configuration of North America." For example, in Bleau’s two-volume atlas of the world (1635), there were numerous maps of North America, but none of them depicted the Great Lakes. Citing another example, Karpinski notes that in an atlas printed before 1685, which contained a map of "Canada or New France," the end of the St. Lawrence river is portrayed as having one large lake.
In the early nineteenth century, many notable Americans traveled to the Lake Superior district to explore the resources of the newly formed nation. Once the Erie Canal was opened (1825) and connected the Hudson River with the Great Lakes, thousands of figures emigrated to Michigan. With the expansion of the Old Northwest came an insatiable curiosity about the mineral and timber resources of the Upper Midwest. Well-known political, literary and scientific figures traveled to Lake Superior and wrote book-length accounts of their explorations. Thus, Americans learned of the region from the famous scientists such as Louis Aggassiz and James Hall. They also read accounts of the land and its natives from Henry Schoolcraft, Thomas McKenny and Horace Greely (himself an early investor in copper mines).
In 1840, Douglass Houghton, newly appointed as the first state geologist of Michigan, made the "discovery" of copper. When his report was issued the following year, people rushed to the region to prospect. From 1843-1848, mineral claims and mines sprang up across the peninsula. Since most of the land in the Lake Superior district was still legally owned by Native Americans, the discovery of precious metal and ore gave the federal government the impetus to sign treaties with the respective tribes whose lands were being encroached. Needless to say, the natives received little in exchange for the treaties that would allow the United States government to open the lands to settlement. The treaty allowed for the first great mining rush in our nation’s history.
The enthusiasm for prospecting slacked off in 1848 with the discovery of gold in California. Prospectors were distracted by a far more precious metal in a more distant, but less harsh environment. With the advent of the Civil War, copper would once more be in demand and a renewed interest in copper mining began. From 1850 to 1877, Michigan produced at least three-quarters of the nation’s copper. Later, copper from Montana and Arizona surpassed the production of coppper on the Keweenaw.
By 1847, Congress approved of a geological survey of Michigan along Lake Superior. The survey was to ascertain what lands could be classified as mining and agricultural lands. J.W. Foster and J.D. Whitney submitted the final government reports (1850-1851) of the geological survey of the Lake Superior region. These surveys were accompanied by maps of the region (some of these maps are contained in this exhibit) and illustrations. These maps, and other early geological survey maps, provided for the first time rich detail of not only the geology of the region, but of the topography, the riverways and the sparse settlements and roads.
While the survey confirmed the presence of the purest copper in the world and the largest iron ore ranges known to man, there existed no economically feasible way to transport the material from Lake Superior to Lake Huron. The falls and river of St. Mary prevented this shipping from being possible. It took years of legislative haggling and maneuvering on both state and federal levels to commence in 1853 with building the locks along St. Mary’s River. As in the mining and timber operations, the completion of these locks required an enormous infusion of capital from New England and Upstate New York investors, many of whom were involved with the building of the Erie Canal and the great railroads of the east. Some of these men were also the major shareholders of the Michigan Central Railroad.
Completed in 1855, the canal was a disappointment in its early years. After the Civil War, the need for copper dropped. One reason being that, with the advent of steam ships, there was less demand for copper-clad sailing vessels. Since the beginning of the copper rush in 1845, of the three-hundred mines that were established, only three of these mines paid dividends on a regular basis. What started out as America’s first great mining rush seem to end on an anticlimactic note.
Beginning in the 1870s when Samuel Morse and Thomas Edison introduced new electrical inventions, the demand for copper increased again. These inventions, along with the newly developed technology of converting iron ore to steel, eventually led to an increased demand for resources from the Upper Peninsula. Like many outposts of American society, the region has been vulnerable to boom and bust cycles and depended on natural resources extraction at a cost to the local environment.
Reminiscent of the political haggling that was required to build the locks at Sault St. Marie was the political process required to build Keweenaw’s first ship channel. As the Civil War intensified, it drove up prices for copper and the demand for copper mining on the Keweenaw Peninsula. In response to this demand, investors from New York formed the Mendota Mining Company. Head-quartered on Lac La Belle, the company foresaw the need for a ship channel connecting the small lake with Lake Superior. With the proximity of several copper mines, there was a need for a channel that would allow Great Lakes ships to bring in necessary supplies and export the metal.
A convoluted political process that required federal legislation and funding was finally approved. The Harbor Improvement Company that was formed by Mendota Mining to construct the channel was given 100,000 acres in return for constructing the canal. Odd-numbered selections of land were to be selected by the company from yet unclaimed land in Keweenaw townships. Shortly, after the passage of the federal legislation, the General Land Office instructed its local office to set aside odd-numbered sections in reserve.
Once the canal was completed, the Harbor Improvement Company selected its acreage. Eventually the company received land patents to 156 square miles of public property. According to historian Leroy Barnett, they received about one acre for every dollar that they invested in the canal. They were also authorized to collect tolls in order to maintain the channel. This arrangement was very similar to the arrangement that accompanied the earlier building of locks at Sault St. Marie except that, upon completion, the locks became the property of the State of Michigan. When the Harbor Improvement Company failed, due to what they claimed as lack of much-needed federal support, they sold the land to an English investor for $106,000. The land was eventually sold again, this time, to timber companies.
When the canal was completed, Congress approved funding for a lighthouse and its keeper. Almost as soon as it was finished, the lighthouse was closed and the light dismantled and moved to Marquette. In 1878, the original lighthouse burned. The federal government claimed that the lighthouse “was no use to navigators as a coast light.” According to Barnett, in the early 1880s, the Conglomerate Mining Company restored the facilities in an effort to maintain the canal. In 1895, the federal government replaced the light; however, the federal government didn’t allocate any more money until the 1960s when the canal was being used by recreational boaters and they allocated $450,000 to dredge the sediment from the canal.
This is an example of an allocation priority that highlights the shift from an economy mostly dependent on resource extraction to one based more on tourism and recreation. Today’s maps reflect this change with emphasis on tourist sites and recreational land use areas for camping, boating, golfing and fishing. What we cannot answer, but what we can contribute to solving, is what the maps of tomorrow will reflect.
These maps, on display at the lighthouse, offer a glimpse into the changes in perception and the changes in land use that have transpired in the last three centuries in the Keweenaw.
Copyright © 2018 Mendota Lighthouse - All Rights Reserved.