Ancient Copper Mining in the Upper Peninsula

Whiteman found the stones when a crew was opening a new entrance to his mine. When the equipment operators spread the dirt and mud around, he picked through the goo and found these.

When Whiteman dug his mine opening where ancients had dug before, he was continuing in a long tradition. Early American miners quickly learned to trust the ancients’ judgment. “They looked for the depressions and said, ‘okay, we’ll just dig here,’” Whiteman says. Such copycat tactics led to the discovery of most of the major mines in copper country.

Whiteman leads us on the half-hour drive to his mine in the hills bordering Ontonagon. We pass through a village and into a valley. At some point the pavement ends, and the road is all county dirt and gravel. We pass miles of forest, bulrushes rising from wetlands, the water a black mirror.

We park and hike a hundred yards to the mine opening. Whiteman steps to a black rock face and traces his fingers over a foot-long strip of vivid blue-green. “This is what they would have been looking for,” Whiteman says. It’s copper metal—blue-green because of oxidation—oozing from the rock 99 percent pure, and it’s what made the Keweenaw famous, even among the ancients, apparently. Just pry it loose and pound it into a knife, a bead, a breast plate. Trade with other tribes for what you desire.

As we talk, Karen picks through waste rock piled near the opening. Most of the rock here is basalt, but there’s also feldspar, quartzite, epidote, calcite, quartz, traces of silver and, of course, copper. The variety testifies to the Keweenaw’s turbulent geologic past, when volcanoes layered lava here in almost unimaginable quantities. One bed of lava beneath the Keweenaw is 16 miles thick—the thickest yet discovered on earth.

Shortly, Berg finds a rock with the telltale streak of blue-green and hands it to Ruutila. He scrapes it with a knife and copper shines like a new penny in the wake of the blade. Berg tells me too that where copper protrudes it is prickly, pokey; you can tell it’s copper by running your finger over it and feeling the sharpness. I can imagine that thousands of years ago, aborigines did likewise, one person sharing the knowledge with another: “Here’s what to look for; here’s how it feels.”

We begin to climb up the mountain to the right of the mine opening and after maybe 20 feet Ruutila points to a depression in the rock, about the size of a bathtub. About 10 feet away there’s another smaller one. Lined with leaves and dirt and branches, the pits look like natural dips in the earth. “See how the edge is rounded, not angular,” Ruutila says. “That’s one way to tell if it’s a white man’s mine or an ancient mine.” Dynamite, he explains, blasts the rock out in sharp, angular chunks. “The aborigines pounded the rock out in little pieces, leaving a much smoother look to the mine pits,” he says. I study the humble nature of the mines and think of Whittlesey’s description back in 1863. The mines “are, for the most part, merely irregular depressions in the soil, trenches, pits, and cavities; sometimes not exceeding one foot in depth, and a few feet in diameter. Thousands of persons had seen the depressions prior to 1848, who never suspected that they had any connection with the arts of man.” Others he mentions, though, are large—one apparently 15 feet deep and 120 feet in diameter.

We continue on up the steep slope, holding onto trees, pausing to rest. Ruutila’s dog comes back with a nose full of porcupine quills, and we stop as he pulls them out, dog blood covering his hand. Soon we are at the edge of the ridge, staring into another ancient mine. This one pit could fit, say, a refrigerator. In its depression, a scraggly birch tree grows. Brown leaves lie a foot thick in the bottom. Gray lichen, green lichen speckle the rock. The wind kicks up and blows Ruutila’s ponytail. “Imagine if somebody gave you a hammer stone here and said, ‘Get busy, pound a hole in that rock there,’” Ruutila says. He laughs, perhaps at the futility, perhaps in amazement at the persistence. Behind him to the east, the ridge cliff drops to a vast forest valley, a flat expanse that reaches for miles. Two bald eagles drift along the ridge. When they reach us, they begin to circle barely 20 feet over our heads. The ancients, whoever they were, stood here, we know this. They looked over this broad expanse, just as we do now.

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