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18th Century

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Searching for the Northwest Passage (1700 to 1800 CE)

Apart from proselytizing the faith, a perennial interest on the part of the French religious communities, the exploration of the Upper Country was strictly a means to an end - the discovery of the route that would open direct trade between Europe and Cathay and Japan. Eventually, the region came to be appreciated for its own qualities by Europeans and Euroamericans who sought to exploit its vast resources rather than merely use the land as a base for seeking a waterway through the continent to the fabled "La Mer de l'Ouest."

As French and Spanish commercial interest in the interior of the North American continent increased, the eighteenth century witnessed fierce mercantile and military competition between the British and the French. French control of the St. Lawrence waterway and the Great Lakes region ended with the military defeat of the French and the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1763, which ceded that vast region to Great Britain. With the French eliminated as a political power in North America, British and Canadian merchants vigorously exploited the fur resources of the interior, aided, ironically, by a workforce of largely French and French-Canadian ancestry.

European interest in Lake Superior copper may be characterized as sporadic and indifferent. Some prospecting was done by the French in 1739 at the bidding of De la Ronde, who employed two German miners in the Ontonagon area. In 1771 Alexander Henry established a mine on the Ontonagon River that failed the following year. Mining of copper and silver by Euroamericans did not begin on Isle Royale, however, until the 1840s, by which time any tangible link between the prehistoric miners and their historic descendants had been largely obscured by the processes of cultural change. Goods of European manufacture had since supplanted the exchange in native copper, although it continued in use locally and was revered in its natural state (Halsey, 1983).

European interest in the mineral resources of the region appears to have focused on the Ontonagon area and not Isle Royale. It is indeed surprising that so few references to the island exist for this period, given the traffic between Grand Portage and Montreal. Even Captain John Carver, who spent some time at Grand Portage in 1766 and was a collaborator with Henry on the Ontonagon mining project, failed to note the presence of the island in his survey and manuscript journals (Parker, 1976:145). Carver did, however, remark on the island in his published journal (Parker 1976). Carver's cartographic report of Lake Superior apparently drew heavily from extant sources when the major islands of the lake were plotted, and it is highly unlikely that he ever visited Isle Royale.

Few sites on Isle Royale can be attributed to this time period. Trade goods (especially glass beads, gunflints, gun parts, and iron hardware) in an otherwise prehistoric context help identify a major eighteenth-century site at Indian Point near the entrance to McCargoe Cove. Otherwise, the small amounts of glass trade beads at other sites suggest either a low intensity of native occupation or little interaction with traders.

(Clark, 1995)

Isle Royale National Park

Last updated: April 19, 2021