Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Ontonagon Boulder

The first roadside attraction along the south shore of the big lake was the fabled Copper Rock of Lake Superior, later rechristened the Ontonagon Boulder.

White folk heard about the boulder before any actually saw it and after the 1st of us started moseying around the basin, we searched it out. At a time when almost none of us dared traverse much beyond the immediate wild shore, men traveled more than 30 dangerous miles up the Ontonagon River just to marvel at a rock. Then they went back the way they came.

Don't go looking for the boulder today. It isn't there. Neither is the place it was found. And where the Ontonagon Boulder is today, you can't see it.


The boulder is a piece of mass copper, current weight 3,708 pounds. We've extracted and melted down far larger hunks of copper from Michigan's Copper Country, but the Ontonagon Boulder once resisted fire and became world famous.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

We figure glaciers left it along what would later be the Ontonagon River's low water edge at a nearly inaccessible stretch of fast water woven through steep rock, where few men ever went.

In 1765, Alexander Henry became the first white man to record seeing the boulder. He broke off a hundred pound souvenir and went on his way. He returned in 1771 on the strength of that souvenir and under warrant of the Duke of Gloucester to make the trip profitable. It wasn't, so Henry later declared Superior's now famously abundant supply of copper ...can never be profitably sought..."

The entire area went over from Britain to America after the War of 1812.

In 1820, Michigan's Governor Cass set off to explore the south shore of Superior to see what he could see. Expeditions were valuable to both scientific & commercial inquiry. They also intended to gauge the strength and disposition of the Anishinabe people, who stood square in the way of progress.

Securing a guide to lead the expedition to the Copper Rock proved difficult, as the Ojibwa considered the place sacred. Cass prevailed upon Wa-Bish-Kee-Pe-Nas (called White Pigeon) to lead them to the stone, which they thought might be myth or at least couldn't be as represented. Though White Pigeon knew the route, the party inexplicably lost their way and were forced to return to camp.

White Pigeon's people believed agencies of the Manitou that protected the rock had shut the way.

The expedition eventually reached the boulder, which proved disappointing when compared to legend and lore. About it, Henry Schoolcraft wrote:

 ...the quantity may...have been much diminished since its first discovery, and the marks of chisels and axes upon it, with the broken tools lying around, prove that portions have been cut off and carried away.

Then the Cass Expedition did their best to destroy the thing.

Thirty cords of wood were cut and set ablaze around the Copper Rock. With the fire at its height they threw cold water over it, hoping the boulder would fracture. It didn't. When they tried to cut pieces off, their chisels broke. The Cass Expedition left the thing relatively intact, though four or five feet removed from where they'd found it.

The nature of this fabled rock was at last confirmed. When Schoolcraft (who rarely let truth get in the way of a good story) published his sketch of the Boulder, its fame only grew. The buzzard in the tree is a nice touch, considering...

Image courtesy of the Philip J. Kucera collection

In 1826 at Fond du Lac Superior (near present day Duluth), White Pigeon showed up at the door of Colonel Thomas McKenney, head of the nascent Bureau of Indian Affairs. According to the Colonel, the Indian looked if he had been deserted by every friend he ever had.

That'd be because after White Pigeon's abortive attempt to lead Cass to the Copper Rock of Lake Superior, his tribe shunned him. Again, from McKinney:

The game of the forest avoided him; his weapons failed to perform their fatal office; and the conviction became settled that he was a doomed man. Deserted by his tribe, and satisfied in his own mind that his good spirit had forsaken him, he wandered about the forest a disconsolate wretch, deriving a miserable subsistence from the roots and wild fruit of that sterile region. 

Moved by this Indian's plight, the Commissioners gathered at Fond du Lac decided to restore his pride.

They supplied him with good words and gifts and an Indian peace medal, which was often highly prized. White Pigeon's likeness later made it into McKenney's notable and notably troubled "History of the Indian Tribes of North America", illustrated primarily by Charles King.

And that's how the image of Wa-Bish-Kee-Pe-Nas today hangs on my wall, forlorn countenance forever intact:

A Detroit merchant got wind of the boulder and determined to own it. He thought a man might even get rich, charging folk to see it. For sixteen years Julius Eldred made himself a plan. Then in 1841, at the cusp of Michigan'sCopper Boom, he sprang to action.

Paying the local Ojibwa $45 down with $150 promised on account, Eldred set off to claim the Copper Rock of Lake Superior. He failed. Twice, over two years. Managed to get the thing up on skids, so there's that.

Eldred returned to Detroit to refine the plan. Meanwhile, across the Copper Country Treaties were being signed and Houghton blew up La Roche Verte. The rush was on.

The indomitable Julius Eldred traveled back to Superior in 1843, this time with a Mineral Agency permit and the makings for a portable railroad. But when Eldred reached his claim, he found the Secretary of War had issued a mining permit for it to interlopers from Wisconsin. Undeterred, he bought the rock again, this time for $1,365.

The river was too wild to float the rock out. It took Eldred and his crew of 21 men a week just to muscle it up the nearest cliff. There they built a railroad powered by men with capstan & chain. They moved the boulder along it; disassembling track behind, reassembling in front. It's described in breathless, likely accurate prose issued by the U.S. National Museum in 1895:

For four miles and a half, over hills 600 feet high, through valleys and deep ravines; through thick forests where the path had to be cut; through tangled underbrush, the home of pestiferous mosquitoes, this railway was laid and the copper boulder was transported; and when at last the rock was lowered to the main stream, nature smiled on the labors of the workmen by sending a freshet to carry their heavily laden boat over the lower rapids and down to the lake.

Almost enough to think Julius Eldred's luck had turned.

At Superior there awaited an order from the Secretary of War to confiscate the rock, declaring Eldred had no right to it. While offering to compensate him to the tune of no more than 700 bucks just the same. Eldred was in for $1,400 and change. Not to mention the crew of men. And the railroad. And eighteen or so years.

Ever beneficent, the U.S. Government allowed Julius Eldred to display the hunk of copper he'd won for them. He did that in Detroit during October of 1843, charging .25 cents a head. Michigan's Senator Woodbridge called the thing "a splendid specimen of the mineral wealth of the Far West" and Henry Schoolcraft visited the rock he'd first tried to destroy some 23 years before. I wonder if Eldred comped him the quarter...

Then the Feds decided that was enough of that and less than a month in, laid permanent claim to the Copper Rock of Lake Superior.

In 1847 Congress authorized the Secretary of War to settle the matter and Julius Eldred received $5,664.98 for his troubles.

The Ontonagon Boulder sat in the yard of the Quartermaster's Bureau of the War Department for 12 years. Spent the next two or so at the Patent Office then was transferred over to the National Museum, later rechristened the Smithsonian Institution.

Which is where it's not on display today.


When the Victoria Dam opened in 1931, the wild stretch of Ontonagon River cut through forbidding canyons that birthed a legend became a placid reservoir. Today it funnels electricity out from the wilderness to points beyond.

Beneath that reservoir is the sacred place of the Copper Rock of Lake Superior, sans rock

Periodically, someone else lays claim to the thing. The good citizens of Ontonagon would sure like to have it. No less so, now that the mill's gone.

In 1991, the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community petitioned the Smithsonian for repatriation of the big hunk of copper that once belonged to Anishinabe, if ever it belonged to anybody. Their claim was deemed insufficient.

In deciding the issue, the Smithsonian leaned heavy on the treaties of 1826 & 1842, in which the Ojibwa ceded all mineral rights over to white folk.

And on the $45 dollars that in 1841 Julius Eldred paid to an Ojibwa "head man" for the pleasure of destroying their Manitou.

Thus keeping the Ontonagon Boulder safe from the designs of men...


  1. Did anyone try again, to appeal to the Smithsonian Museum to return the boulder to the UP? A lot of new information has come to light since the 1991 decision. Maybe they will better understand why its rightful space is on the earth, rather than in a museum.

  2. In museum storage, no less. That makes no sense to me and certainly, the Ontonagon region would benefit from a repatriation. You're right, '91 seems like the Jurassic Era when it comes to this sort of thing. Should I hear of an ongoing effort, I'll be sure to pass the news on.