Mining and Metallurgy by Native Americans

A state of incipient society appears to have existed among the people who erected fortifications and mounds in the Mississippi Valley, which led them to search for the native metals lying on the surface of the country, and, in some instances, buried within its strata, or enclosed in veins. Such traces have been discovered, at intervals, over a very wide area. They extend from the mineral basin of Lake Superior in a southwestern direction towards the Gulf of Mexico. The most striking traits of ancient labor exist in the copper districts of Michigan. There are some vestiges of this kind in the Wabash Valley. They appear also in Missouri and Arkansas, where, by the accumulation of soil, the works appear to be of a very ancient date; and, if we are not misinformed, such indications reappear even in California. Native copper and native gold seem to have been the two chief objects of search.

The state of art, denoted by this character of remains, does not appear to be raised beyond that which may be supposed to be required by the first and simple wants of a people emerging from the hunter state. There is no evidence that they understood, or undertook the reduction of earthy ores. Hammers, wedges, and levers, generally of a rude kind, appear to have been the mechanical powers employed to disintegrate the rock. These incipient arts will be best illustrated by the detailed notices.

Care is required in examining and applying archaeological proofs of this nature,

1. That the state of the art be not overrated.
2. That a false era be not fixed on.
3. That a due discrimination be made in the objects of search, as whether they were metallic or saline.

It is important not to confound the earliest researches by the Spanish and French with those due, clearly, to the mound builders.

Ancient Copper Mining in the Basin of Lake Superior

The copper-bearing trap rock of Keweena Point, Lake Superior, runs, in a general course, west of southwest, crossing the Keweena Lake, and afterwards passing about ten miles distant from the open shores of the main lake. This range crosses the Ontonagon River about ten to twelve miles from the mouth. At this point, and chiefly on location Number 98 under the new grants, are found extensive remains of pits, trenches, and caves, wrought by the aborigines in ancient times, of which the present Indians know nothing.

These remains first appear on the Firesteel River, but in following the copper veins west to the Minnesota location, being Number 98 above named, they are more fully developed. There are three, and sometimes four, of these ancient ” diggings” on veins which are parallel to each other, extending three or four miles. These veins are about nine hundred feet above the lake. They are very regular, pursuing a course of about north 70, east, with a dip north, 20° west.

An observer, in September, 1849, speaks of these remains, which he had contemplated with great interest and curiosity, in the following manner:

“It is along the edges or out-crop of these veins that the ancients dug copper in great quantities, leaving, as external evidences of their industry, large trenches, now partly filled with rubbish, but well defined, with a breadth of ten to fifteen feet, and a variable depth of five to twenty feet. In one place the inclined roof, or upper wall work, is supported by a natural pillar, which was left standing, being wrought around, but no marks of tools are visible. In another place, east of the recent works, is a cave where they have wrought along the vein a few feet without taking away the top or outside veinstone. The rubbish has been cleared away in one spot to the depth of twenty feet, to the bottom of the trench, but the Agent is of opinion that deeper cuts than this will be hereafter found. When he first came to the conclusion, about eighteen months ago, that the pits and trenches visible on the range were artificial, he caused one of them to be cleaned out. He found, at about eighteen feet in depth, measuring along the inclined face or floor of the vein, a mass of native copper, supported on a cobwork of timber, principally the black oak of these mountains, but which the ancient miners had not been able to raise out of the pit.

The sticks on which it rested were not rotten, but very soft and brittle, having been covered for centuries by standing water, of which the pit was full at all times. They were from five to six inches in diameter, and had the marks of a narrow axe or hatchet about one and three quarter inches in width.

They had raised it two or three feet by means of wedges, and then abandoned it on account of its great weight, which was eleven thousand five hundred and eighty-eight pounds, (11,588,) or near six tons.

The upper surface had been pounded smooth by the stone hammers and mauls, of which thousands are scattered around the diggings. These are hard, tough, water-worn pebbles, weighing from five to fifteen pounds, or even twenty pounds, around which in the middle is a groove, as though a withe had been placed around it for a handle, and most of them are fractured and broken by use. Besides these mauls there has been found a copper wedge, such as miners call a gad, which has been much used. Under the mass of copper, and in almost all the works lately opened, there are heaps of coals and ashes, showing that fire had much to do with their operations.

With these apparently inadequate means they have cut away a very tough, compact rock that almost defies the skill of modern miners, and the strength of powder, for many miles in a continuous line, and in many places in two, three, and four adjacent lines.

The great antiquity of these works is unequivocally proven by the size of timber now standing in the trenches. There must have been one generation of trees before the present since the mines were abandoned. How long they were wrought can only be conjectured by the slowness with which they must have advanced in such great excavations, with the use of such rude instruments.

The decayed trunks of full-grown trees lie in the trenches. I saw a pine over three feet in diameter that grew in a sinkhole on one of the veins, which had died and fallen down many years since. Above the mass raised by Mr. Knapp there was a hemlock tree, the roots of which spread entirely over it that had two hundred and ninety annual rings of growth. These facts throw the date of the operations now being unveiled back beyond the landing of Columbus, and consequently behind all modern operators of our race.

The skill, which is shown, and the knowledge of the true situation of veins, as well as the patience and perseverance necessary to do so much work, all prove that it was the performance of a people more civilized than our aborigines.

It is reasonable to suppose that they were of the era of the mound builders of Ohio and the Western States, who had many copper utensils. This metal they must have obtained either here or at the Southwest, towards Mexico; perhaps in both directions.

The successors to the Minnesota Company have sunk a shaft about forty feet on the vein above the great copper boulder; over to the west, and about one hundred and forty feet from it, another shaft near sixty feet in depth, and have connected them by an adit.

The average width of the vein is four feet, extending to eight feet in places. It has well-defined walls, and is filled with quartz, epidote, calcareous spar, and copper. The copper exists in strings, sheets, nests, and masses, sometimes across the vein, sometimes on one side, and sometimes on the other. The thickest sheet I saw was two and a half feet.

When we consider that the ancients, who went through the tedious process of beating and mauling away the rock here, found copper enough to compensate them for years, perhaps centuries, of labor, the richness of these mines, prosecuted with our means and knowledge, can scarcely be exaggerated. I should have mentioned a copper chisel, with a socket for a wooden handle, which has also been found, about five inches long and one and a quarter inch wide.

These discoveries throw all the old explorations of the French and English on Lake Superior into the background. The Indians have no knowledge of the works I have been describing, although the second chief of the Fond du Lac band is understood to claim that his family have had the chieftainship more than seven hundred years; and he gives the names and ages of his ancestors back to that period. The people who wrought them must have cultivated the soil in order to sustain themselves. What did they cultivate? It is here, doubtless, that many of the silver ornaments found in the mounds of the Southwest were obtained, for the copper contains scattered particles of that metal.

It is recorded that the Egyptians had the art of tempering copper so as to cut stone as well as wood, and that their great stone structures were wrought with tools of copper only. I have been told by a person who has seen the Egyptian stone-cutters tools preserved in the British Museum at London, that there are some very much like those found here.

We have already copied from a Western paper an account of the remarkable discovery of a mass of pure copper, near the Ontonagon River, Lake Superior, in the course of explorations last spring. This mass has since been cut up into manageable pieces of three thousand to four thousand pounds each, and thus hauled to the Lake and shipped to this city, and two or three of them may now be seen in front of the store 239 Water Street. They are richly worth a short walk to any one not already familiar with the notabilities of the copper region.

This mass was found on the location of the Minnesota Company, of this city, in the process of exploring an old open-cut or aboriginal digging, which was discovered by the appearance of a slight depression on the surface of the ground. In the bottom of this cut, covered by fifteen feet of earth in which were growing trees fully five hundred years old, lay this mass of pure copper, weighing eleven thousand five hundred and thirty-seven pounds, with every particle of rock hammered clean from it, supported by skids, and surrounded by traces of the use of fire either in the hope of melting it or to aid in freeing it from the rock. Near it were found several implements of copper, showing that the ancient miners possessed the arts of welding and of hardening copper arts now unknown. It would seem that they failed in their attempts to break up this immense boulder, or to lift it out of the cut; but it may be that their efforts were suspended by reason of war, of pestilence, famine, or some other general calamity. This may have been thousands of years ago. The works of the old miners may be traced for two miles on this vein, and on other veins in the vicinity for a considerable distance. They evidently were ignorant of the use of iron, and worked very awkwardly.

The locality of these developments is the cluster of hills known as “The Three Brothers,” two miles east of the Ontonagon, about twelve miles up that stream (twenty by water,) and some three hundred feet above the level of the Lake. There are three- large and rich veins here within a short distance of each other, at least one of them rich in silver. The vein which the Minnesota Company is now opening is about eight feet wide, though of unequal richness. The mineral is a native copper diffused through the rock. The Minnesota is working some thirty hands this winter, and preparing to prosecute its enterprise still more vigorously next spring.”

The era of these ancient operations must have preceded the occupation of the country by the present families of the Ojibwas and Dacotahs; for the simple reason, that none of the various bands of these two generic nations preserve any traditions respecting them.

It is not necessarily to be inferred, that very great numbers of men were employed on the works, at the same time. It is more natural to suppose that the works are due to the labors of successive parties of miners, during a long epoch.

Neither does the working of the mines necessarily presuppose a high state of civilization. The mechanical powers of the wedge and lever were employed, precisely as we should suppose, prior, they would be, among rude nations.

One of the most powerful means of operating on stones and ores among the aboriginal tribes, was fire and water. These were employed alternately, to disintegrate the hardest rocks. And it is apparent, that after removing the super incumbent soils, these were the most efficacious agents used here in pursuing veins.

In looking for the era when these works were in the most active state, we may suppose it to have been coincident with the time of the greatest amount of population in the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys. The mound builders, and also the roving tribes of the West, had many uses for copper. It was, in fact, the copper age. They made a species of axes and chisels of it, for mechanical purposes. It was also extensively used for bracelets, for tinkling ornaments, such as are appended to the leather fringes of warriors leggings and back dresses. It is a metal much esteemed by all the tribes, at the present day, and all our testimony is in favor of its being held in the same regard by the ancient tribes. We find it, along with seashells, bone beads, pendants, and other antique articles, in the largest tumuli of the West. It is one of the chief things found in our antiquarian works and mounds, over about eighteen degrees of latitude, which is the length of the Mississippi, and a longitudinal area, reaching from the Rocky Mountains to the seacoast of New England.

It is apparent, that the ancient Red miners of Lake Superior supplied the demand, in its fullest extent. They probably received in exchange for it, the zea maize of the rich valleys of the Scioto and other parts of the West; the dried venison and jerked buffalo meat of the prairie tribes; and sea-shells of the open coasts of the Atlantic and Gulf. It is not improbable, indeed, when we examine the rocky character of much of the Lake Superior region, and the limited area of its alluvions and uplands, which appear ever to have been in cultivation, that parties of various tribes performed extensive journeys to this upper region, in the summer season, when relieved from their hunts, to dig copper, that it was a neutral territory; and having supplied their villages, in the manner the Iowa and Minnesota Indians still do, in relation to the red Pipestone quarries of the Coteau des Prairies, returned with their trophies of mining.

No tribes, indeed, whose history we know or can guess, possessed civilized arts to sustain themselves in this latitude during the winter solstice. The shores of the lake yield neither wild rice, nor Indian corn. They did not anciently cultivate the potato. They depended upon game and fish, and it is only necessary to have passed a single winter in the lake latitudes, to determine that a large body of miners could not have been kept together a long time for such a purpose, without a stock of provisions. On the contrary, as the theater of summer mining, in a neutral country, or by self dependent bands, hundreds of years may have passed in this desultory species of mining.

Vestiges of Mining in Indiana and Illinois

In the deep alluvial formation on the banks of Saline River, vessels of pottery, which appear to have been used in boiling saline water, have been raised from great depths. On visiting the site, in 1821, 1 there appeared, on examination of such facts as could be got, no doubt that these were to be regarded as evidences of their having been used in the evaporation of saline waters. That the native tribes did not make salt is well known; and this discovery of subterranean boilers of clay is presumptive evidence, one would think, that the work S due to Europeans, or some other civilized race. But if so, the country must have had the elements of a foreign population before the deposition of the Illinois alluvions of the lowest altitudes.

Indiana was visited by the French from Canada early in the seventeenth century. Vincennes was founded in 1710. 2 Several vestiges of attempts to mine, as well as other archaeological data, appear in the Wabash Valley, of which we have been promised some account. It is important to preserve these notices, whatever value may be attached to their age. Personally, we are not disposed to assign a remote age to these labors: nor do they appear to denote a very high metallurgic knowledge, although that knowledge may be deemed of foreign origin.

Vestiges of Ancient Mining Operations in Arkansas and Missouri

In descending the Unicau, or White River, from its sources in the Ozark hills of Arkansas and Missouri, in the early part of the winter of 1819, my attention was arrested by several features of ancient occupancy; some of which denoted an attention to mining. These vestiges of occupancy, at an antique period, consisted of the remains of a town site; of bones, apparently calcined, and of pottery, which appeared to have been used in saline, or metallurgic operations. These remains, in the White River Valley, were all seated above the present site of Batesville. The Arkansas papers have since, during the building of the town of Little Rock, published an account of an ancient furnace discovered about A. D. 1838, under the soil, and of kettles of pottery.

A high antiquity has been claimed for these latter remains, without offering, however, any conclusive data, which have come to our notice that they are not of an early Spanish or French era. The whole western banks of the Mississippi were ransacked early in the 16th century, under the delusive hope of finding gold and silver.

Evidence of Ancient Mining Operations in California

It was late in the month of August, (the 19th,) 1849, that the gold diggers at one of the mountain diggings called Murphy s, were surprised, in examining a high barren district of mountain, to find the abandoned site of an antique mine. “It is evidently,” says a writer, “the work of ancient times.” 3 The shaft discovered is two hundred and ten feet deep. Its mouth is situated on a high mountain. It was several days before preparations could be completed to descend and explore it. The bones of a human skeleton were found at the bottom. There were also found an altar for worship and other evidences of ancient labor. Strong doubts are expressed whether the mine will bear the expenses of being re-opened.

No evidences have been discovered to denote the era of this ancient work. There has been nothing to determine whether it is to be regarded as the remains of the explorations of the first Spanish adventurers, or of a still earlier period. The occurrence of the remains of an altar, looks like the period of Indian worship. The facts should be properly examined, with a view to their historical bearing. Such examinations, if carefully conducted, may enlighten us in the nationality of the ancient people whose relics we here behold.

By another notice in the papers now submitted, it will be observed that remains of mining have been also recently discovered on Lake Superior, in addition to those before mentioned. Other parts of the country may afford similar evidences, and the facts from different latitudes deserve to be generalized. It is a duty we owe to archaeology, to put on record every discovery of this kind. In no other manner can the knowledge of this branch of history be advanced. We have too long wandered in the mazes of conjecture. A complete archaeological survey of the country should be executed.Citations:

  1. Vide Travels in the Central Portions of the Mississippi Valley[]
  2. Law’s Hist. Discourse[]
  3. Private Corr.[]

History, Mining,

Schoolcraft, Henry Rowe. Archives of aboriginal knowledge. Containing all the original paper laid before Congress respecting the history, antiquities, language, ethnology, pictography, rites, superstitions, and mythology, of the Indian tribes of the United States. Philadelphia, J. B. Lippincott & Co. 1860.

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