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Setting the Stage

Humans have lived and mined copper in the Keweenaw Peninsula, on the shores of Lake Superior, for over 6,000 years. The earliest evidence of human copper mining in the region dates back to 7000 BCE. These miners extracted copper from the rock by heating it with fires and then throwing cold water on the heated metal. This caused the rock around the copper to crack, so the miners could access the copper from the broken rocks with hammers and wooden levers. Ancient Native American groups used Lake Superior copper to make weapons, tools, jewelry, and other items. The Ojibwa people who lived on the peninsula when the French and English colonized North America in the 17th and 18th centuries pulled decorative chunks from the lake or molded copper pieces into spoons and bracelets.

In the first century of colonization, the French made a brief attempt to locate copper mines but were unable to start a copper mining operation. Europeans abandoned the search for copper mines when animal furs, particularly beaver pelts, became the chief valuable export. The colonists and their descendants did not try to mine for copper until the fur trade died down in the 1830s. In 1840, an American expedition discovered a massive copper deposit in the region and copper boomed.1

Mining companies formed, and people came from around the world to work in Michigan’s copper mines and live in mining towns. Many of these mine workers were part of waves of European immigrants who came to the United States in the late 19th century to search for peace and prosperity. Many immigrants stayed in urban areas like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. Others went on to work on farms and ranches in new states and territories in the Southwest. Some immigrants found opportunity in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, where the copper industry boomed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

 

1 Thurner, Arthur W. Strangers and Sojourners: A History of Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1994.


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