Ancient Copper Mining in the Upper Peninsula

Fred Huffman—Upper Peninsula tour guide and man about Marquette—is the one who first told me there had been Yooper copper miners 7,000 years ago. Ancient mine pits, thousands of them, extending from the Porcupine Mountains north along the Keweenaw Peninsula and on Isle Royale proved it, he said. The extent of the work meant that tens of thousands of people must have been involved over the course of millennia, but they left no structures. No skeletal remains. Just thousands of rocks used for mining and some copper spear points, beads and stuff.

“Some people think the ancients came from China, and when they left they carried their dead with them,” Fred said.

My first thought was, Oh come on now, Fred. Sure he had shared with me many wonders of the U.P.—that there were once mountains north of Marquette perhaps as tall as the Himalayas or maybe the Alps, that when Horace Greeley said, “Go West, young man,” he was referring to the U.P., and even that the man who had invented branch banking was from Marquette. Most of the things Fred told me turned out to be true. But copper miners 7,000 years ago—1,000 years before the earliest cities; 4,000 years before paper; more than 5,000 years before the Aztecs. I had to know more.

While excitement and intrigue over ancient copper miners was new to me, it turned out not to be new to my fellow man. The very first folder I opened in the Marquette public library held a reprint of an article that ran in 1863—at the height of the Civil War, and in the midst of the Upper Peninsula copper rush. The journal was the esteemed Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge, and the author was war veteran Colonel Charles Whittlesey, who had come north to help manage a mine.

Whittlesey’s paper runs 29 pages and includes maps, diagrams of ancient mining tools called hammerstones, copper spear tips and rock strata. He writes that the Jesuit fathers “announced as early as the year 1636 the presence of native copper, and refer to it as having been taken from the ‘mines,’” but that the fathers did not mention ancient miners per se. “The first public announcement, so far as we are aware, of the remains of ancient mines in the copper region is that by Mr. S.O. Knapp, agent of the Minnesota Mining Company, in 1848,” Whittlesey writes.

Throughout the remainder of the 1800’s and the 1900’s, dozens of professional and amateur archaeologists scoured the region, finding more and more evidence of the ancient miners of the Keweenaw. More than once the ancient miners rose to national attention. Anthropology professor Dr. Susan Martin of Michigan Technological University, shares the timeline of research and publicity in her book Wonderful Power. Highlights include archaeologist William H. Holmes gathering artifacts for an exhibit at the 1892-93 Columbian Exposition in Chicago—sharing evidence of the miners with millions.

In 1928 the president of Zenith Radio Corporation, a vice-president of Colgate Palmolive, along with archaeologists and some of their chums (including the Illinois champion flycaster), took yachts from Chicago to Isle Royale on an expedition looking for signs of ancient Norse and Aztecs. Martin plucked this gem of a quote from the report on the Gatsby-style version of a science outing.

Article Comments

  • Anonymous

    Its good yeah need to do it for a ccr kinda hard but with this much info i can work with it

  • Anonymous

    copper is cool lol. i wonder how ancient miners found copper