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.

Although the work during the day was unusually strenuous, our evenings were made most profitable and entertaining, both of the yachts being provided with Victrolas and moving picture projectors; the Naroca showing, among other things, very interesting reels of Arctic scenes; the Margo, the sinking of ships during the war by German submarines. The Naroca had aboard a short wave broadcasting outfit and receiving set which kept us in touch with the outside world, enabled us to receive market quotations and to send reports to the press and other messages.

But despite the occasional spotlight, academic appreciation and the status of the sites as among the oldest and most important mining sites in the Western Hemisphere, the ancient miners still languish in relative obscurity. Consider by comparison the Pueblo ruins or the Clovis dig site. A couple of small U.P. towns have sections of their museums devoted to the legacy, but otherwise, there’s a surprising lack of interpretive infrastructure. Much of the preservation is left to locals and amateur archaeologists.

On a temperate morning in early November, Bruce Ruutila and his friend Karen Berg meet me in Syl’s Restaurant, downtown Ontonagon. The area nearby has one of the greatest concentrations of ancient mine pits, and Ruutila, an amateur archaeologist who has lived all but a few of his years as a resident of Ontonagon, has agreed to take me deeper into the world that holds my fascination. Fit and wearing brown Big Bill overalls and a Porcupine Mountain State Park cap, Ruutila looks every bit the man he is, someone who has made a living outdoors, logging, building roads, grooming ski trails.

He was introduced to the idea of ancient copper miners, whom he refers to simply as “the ancients,” when still in high school. “A local group needed somebody to scout a site and figure out the best way to get to it,” he says between bites of a large breakfast called the Superior Special. But Ruutila’s interest didn’t really catch fire until 1990 when he became involved with the local history museum. He went out with artifact hunters, people with metal detectors. “For some people that becomes an addicting thing,” he says. “When the weekend comes, that’s all they can think about.”

Over time he became disenchanted with what he came to view as plundering of archaeological sites. “I saw that it’s better for those things to stay where they are, wait for a knowledgeable person, because once they are gone from the site, their story is no longer known.”

We walk a block to the museum and Ruutila steps to a glass case. Inside are what first appear to be palm-sized pieces of rock of various shapes. But on closer inspection they reveal the work of man. One has the slender taper of a spear tip. Another looks like a tapered rod. What enabled ancients to mine and use copper here is that the metal exists in a nearly pure, or native, state. Even North America’s earliest people figured out how to break off a chunk, pound the soft metal with a rock and come up with a spear point, no smelting required. The area has the largest concentration of native copper in the world. Ruutila reaches into the case and picks up a rock with a circular depression in the middle. “Maybe this was a mortar and pestle,” he says, making the grinding motion of a pestle.

We head to the back of the museum where sits a replica of a chunk of nearly pure copper about the size of a small dinner table and a foot thick. “This is what started it all,” Ruutila says. The rock, or rather the rock it replicates, once lay near a branch of the Ontonagon River. Some say it was revered by Native Americans, and rumor of it circulated for years among early explorers and priests. Eventually its place was revealed, and in 1842 a Detroiter purchased the 3,708-pound specimen from a Native American chief for $45 cash and another $105 in goods. The rock ultimately ended up in the Smithsonian museum, where it resides today. The rock’s discovery led to the copper rush and eventually to discovery of artifacts from the ancient miners.

But more interesting to me is the pile of stones that lies below the table holding the big rock. The smallest stones are the size of softballs, the largest like loaves of bread. If you were to see one on the beach you wouldn’t look twice. But look more closely and you’d see a shallow band, about an inch wide, etched around the middle. These are the rocks, called hammerstones, that the ancients used to pound away at basalt to get at copper deposits. Unconfirmed reports from the 1800’s say that stones have been found with remnants of fibers wrapped around the etched band, leading some anthropologists to reason that the stones were perhaps tied to a stick.

For some reason, seeing the hammerstones brings the ancients more into focus than did the finished copper artifacts. Perhaps because it’s easy to picture a man working, swinging the rock, his job, day in, day out. To put his work in time-travel perspective, during the same millennium on the other side of the world, humans were inventing two of the world’s most influential products, the wheel and beer.

We drive a few blocks to meet Richard Whiteman, co-proprietor of Red Metal Minerals, a two-person company that bought a defunct copper mine to teach teachers about geology. Whiteman stands near his pickup when we pull into the lot beside the Ontonagon River, a paper plant towering on the opposite shore. He opens his passenger door and points to three hammerstones—postcards from antiquity on the floor of the truck. At first it feels irreverent—I imagine them rolling around on the drive—but realize that if they withstood bashing basalt all day, they can survive this.

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.

The geology that created copper is easy to understand from this vantage point, as well. “The layers of rock at one time laid like this,” Ruutila says, placing his one hand over the other like a sandwich. “Then they tilted,” he says, and tilts his hands. What we are standing on now is the edge of one of the tilted layers. When the land tilted, it opened cracks deep in the earth that allowed super-heated steam to rise, and when it did, it carried minute quantities of dissolved copper. As the steam cooled, the copper precipitated out of the steam and coated the sides of the fissures, eventually building into deposits.

The next day we drive to meet one of the area’s most experienced amateur archaeologists, 95-year-old Werner Lamsa. He opens the door wearing white running shoes, newer blue jeans and a button up cotton shirt. Somehow he exudes more energy than most people 30 years younger. Lamsa grew up here, but spent 30 years downstate in a tool shop. He retired in 1975 and shortly afterwards began hunting for artifacts. One day he saw somebody using a metal detector to hunt jewelry at a beach. “I looked at that and thought, I could use that,” he says.

For the next couple of decades he spent what time he could roaming the hills near his home in Mass City, metal detector in hand, and put together a nice collection. “Just a minute,” he says. He heads through a door to the basement and returns, breathing hard, carrying two flat, glass-topped cases. The collection is better than the Ontonagon museum’s. Multiple spear points, rough squares that could be crude ax heads, one item is a semi-circle—perhaps a decorative breast plate, Lamsa speculates. One spear point, maybe 6 inches long, has a ridge running its length, revealing more advanced skills. “Look, they even beveled that off real nice,” he says, his toolmaker’s eye picking up the details.

Lamsa’s son is a nuclear physicist who worked his career in Switzerland. When the son heard once that Lamsa had sold a piece to a collector, he asked Lamsa how much he would take for the entire collection. Lamsa told him, his son paid him and then instructed Lamsa to hang onto the collection. Lamsa reaches for a red cookie tin filled halfway with green chunks of copper about the size of matchbooks. Some people speculate that these were trade pieces, blanks to be fashioned by the buyer. “I’ve given away I don’t know how many of these things,” he says. “Just pounded pieces of metal. Who knows, maybe the kids made them.” He holds out five pieces. “Take them,” he says. “Keep them.” Ruutila looks at me. “Take them,” he says. I put them in my pocket.

Lamsa is going to take us to an unusual site, but suggests we drive separately because he has to be back for an 11:30 lunch. We follow him as he barrels down the road. Soon he parks on a two-track and we all get out. He pulls a large ski pole from this car and marches off into the woods, to the edge of a ridge. The rusting framework remnant of a white-man’s mine rises nearby. We walk to the edge of the ridge. “Down there is where the mine dumped its poor rock (waste rock) right on top of a big pile of hammerstones,” Lamsa says. “Then years later when they had to make a road bed, they just came in with the rock crusher and fed it all right through, hundreds, maybe thousands of hammerstones just crushed.” Lamsa shakes his head in sad disbelief. But that’s not what Lamsa brought us here to see. We walk along the ridge until we reach a place where shallow, narrow trenches, just a couple of inches wide and deep run across a bulbous lobe of basalt. He digs the tip of his ski pole into the crevice and scrapes along their length, cleaning out mud, moss and leaves. The lines are relatively straight for a few feet then intersect another trench going a different direction, but they don’t create a recognizable pattern. Lamsa wonders what they mean. Are they art? Are they some sort of communication? I can’t help but wonder if they are just scrapes in the rock from the last glacier that moved through.

Lamsa pauses and looks around. “They say there are 5,000 mine pits between here and Copper Harbor,” he says. “But I’d say there’s 5,000 right around here.” He looks at his watch. “Well, I gotta go,” he says, and he heads back through the forest to the Lions Club lunch.

So I had stood where the ancients had stood. I had hefted their hammerstones, held their spear tips. But I still wondered—what are the odds they were from a distant land, like China or, as some fervently believe, Mesopotamia?

I called Dr. Susan Martin. “What I say when people bring that up is show me the garbage,” she said. “People from Mesopotamia would have had the same problem any other ancient people would have had, getting rid of garbage.” And no stuff from Mesopotamia, or China for that matter, has been found. “What stuff we have found is entirely in keeping with the consistent development of native cultures in North America.”

So who were they? “We’re talking about a 7,000 year history here,” she says. “There were many, many cultural groups over a long, long history.” But all of them, she believes, were what we would today call native peoples. In her mind they were transients, scattered tribes who hunted, fished, dug copper, found berries—not a well organized, hierarchical workforce that built some sort of copper empire that has somehow vanished. The reason more evidence of their civilization hasn’t been found is that they were transient; their things not made of stone and metal decayed. Their bones scattered, rotted, eaten. What about another rumor I’d heard while on my ancient miner journey, that Keweenaw copper artifacts had been found in Egyptian tombs and deep into South America? “It’s very difficult to say without qualification that a piece of copper is from the Keweenaw,” Martin says, although researchers are still trying to analyze trace elements within Keweenaw copper so that one day we might be able to truly test an individual artifact and know where it came from. Other complications would still exist, though, because the glaciers broke off chunks of copper and moved them hundreds of miles. That rumor will probably take years to prove or disprove.

Who knows why people become intrigued with earlier humankind, but for Martin, the interest came early. “Even as a kid I was absolutely fascinated with the past. I think of the past as part of now. It’s right here with us, under our feet, by the side of the road. There’s not a real distance there.” That comes closest to explaining what I felt standing on the ridge while looking at the mine. Suddenly 7,000 years didn’t seem like so much, but when I began the journey, 7,000 years sounded impossible. Apologies for doubting you, Fred.


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