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HomeMI HistoryMI HistoryMichigan’s Copper Country

Michigan’s Copper Country

Photos Courtesy of Keweenaw National Historical Park and National Park Service Archives

Michigan is blessed with a wide variety of natural resources. One of the most overlooked and least discussed resources that Michigan has is copper. At the very top of the Upper Peninsula (U.P.), there is a piece of land that juts out into the cold waters of Lake Superior. This piece of land is called the Keweenaw Peninsula.

Michigan is in the middle of a region known as the Old Copper Complex. The Old Copper Complex refers both to a geographic region — the Great Lakes — and the ancient peoples who inhabited the area. The Old Copper Complex stretches from western New York to eastern Wisconsin. North to south, it runs from southeastern Manitoba through southern Ontario and down into southern Illinois and Indiana. 

Copper in Michigan is mainly found in the northwestern region of the U.P. This area of the state is known as the Copper Country. Michigan copper is unique among that from other copper sites because the copper is found in a pure form and in large deposits that do not need refinement. This is known as native copper. At most other copper mining sites around the country and the world, copper is found in deposits of copper oxides and or copper sulfides, which require refinement, adding extra cost to the recovery of the metal. 

Great Lakes Native Americans of the Archaic period located 99% pure copper near Lake Superior, in fissures touching the surface and in loose nuggets found in gravel beds. It is believed that Indigenous peoples started migrating into the Great Lakes region 7,000 years ago, where they discovered float copper. Float copper refers to chunks of copper varying in size from very small (ounces) to extremely large (tons) that were stripped from their original location by glaciers, which carried them along and dropped them in new areas. The Native peoples discovered an abundance of float copper in the gravel of streams and lake beds. They followed the little pieces of copper northward to the main source on the Keweenaw Peninsula and Isle Royale.

“The earliest known metalworking in North America began when Native peoples started mining copper on the Keweenaw Peninsula. Digging pits and using heavy stones to break waste rock away from copper masses, they fashioned bracelets, beads, tools, fish hooks, and other items for trade. Objects made of Keweenaw copper have been found in archeological sites across the continent.” 

In 1667, the French missionary Claude Allouez provided the first written account of copper in Michigan. When Allouez encountered the Native American Chippewa tribe, they told him about the copper and showed him and other missionaries the Ontonagon Boulder, which is a 1.5-ton copper boulder located along the Ontonagon River. Based on the missionaries’ accounts of the boulder’s existence, explorers sought it out. The boulder was bought from the Native Americans by a Detroit hardware merchant, who successfully removed it and placed it on display in his store in Detroit. The boulder now resides at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington. It was the revelation of the Ontonagon Boulder and the transfer to the Smithsonian that helped trigger the copper mining boom in Michigan in the 1840s. Michigan’s state geologist helped kickstart a flood of prospectors with an 1841 report about copper deposits. 

The early miners of the 1840s took advantage of the prehistoric Native population’s mining, digging deeper than where the Native people left off in their mines. “Copper mining in the Upper Peninsula boomed, and from 1845 until 1887 (when it was exceeded by Butte, Montana) the Michigan Copper Country was the nation’s leading producer of copper. In most years from 1850 through 1881, Michigan produced more than three-quarters of the nation’s copper, and in 1869 produced more than 95% of the country’s copper.”

Although the copper mining region stretched about 100 miles from northeast to southwest, the most productive early mines, working fissure veins, were those at the north end in Keweenaw County, such as the Central, Cliff and Phoenix mines, or at the south end in Ontonagon County, such as the Minesota Mine.

During the copper rush of the 1840s, 104 mining companies held claims and leases. Individual mines in the U.P. were eventually consolidated into a few large mining companies. “During World War I, copper production reached the highest levels in history. By this time at least 90 percent of the Michigan copper output was controlled by just three companies: the Copper Range, Quincy, and Calumet and Hecla.” 

The outbreak of World War I caused a drop in copper prices, which caused the mines to cut back the workers’ schedules to three-quarters time from full time. By the end of the war, there was an oversupply of copper and no demand. Most of the copper mines had to stop operation because it wasn’t cost effective. The few mines that kept functioning experienced a short period of resurgence during World War II. After the war, there was another fall in copper prices, and the Copper Country went into decline again. In 1965, the United Steelworkers Union negotiated a contract with the Calumet and Hecla mines that left labor too expensive for the companies to maintain the full workforce, so they had to let over 500 employees go. In 1968, when the contract was to be renegotiated, the mining companies sold out to a diversified petroleum company called Universal Oil Products, and the copper mines shut down for good.

It is estimated that 2.5 million tons of copper were mined from the Copper Country of Michigan. The Keweenaw National Historical Park was established in 1992 under President George H.W. Bush. It keeps the history and culture of Michigan’s Copper Country alive. Some historical buildings have been preserved, and now visitors to Keweenaw Peninsula can find a museum of mining and take tours of copper mines. 

Quincy Company House – NPS. For over 100 years, this simple, company-built house was a home for a number of employees at the Quincy Mining Company. One resident was Joshua Martin, an English immigrant, who was hired as a laborer by Quincy. He moved into this house in 1913 with his wife Flora and their nine children. Joshua spent little time in the house he called home; he worked long hours in the mine to pay for the rent and food his family depended on. When he left for the mine every day, Flora prepared lunch for her husband and packed it in a tin pail. Over the course of his 35-year career at the mine, company records indicate only two instances when Joshua was away from work – once for “good time” (perhaps an earned holiday?) and once for a fractured skull after an accident in the mine. One day in 1921, Joshua left for work as usual, but did not return home. He was killed in a mine accident. According to company records, Flora and her children remained in the house until 1925. While they are just one family, their kitchen and story reveals what life was like for many of the working-class mining families on the Keweenaw Peninsula.
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