Timeline of Michigan Copper Mining Prehistory to 1850

Colton’s 1872 Lake Superior Map
Colton’s 1872 Lake Superior Map

At least 8,000 years ago

The earliest known metalworking in North America begins when Indigenous Peoples start mining copper on the Keweenaw Peninsula. They dug shallow mines and used heavy stones to break waste rock away from copper masses. The copper was used to fashion bracelets, beads, tools, fishhooks, and other items for trade. Objects made of Keweenaw copper have been found in archeological sites across the continent.



Etienne Brule was sent by the French on a mission to learn the Ojibwe language and build a trading relationship with the many independent Ojibwe bands (NatAm 38). They must have been persuasive, for by the mid-1600s the Ojibwe had allied themselves with the French and were well-engaged in the fur trade. The Keweenaw was certainly rich territory: in 1659, the explorers and traders Pierre Radisson and his brother-in-law Medart Chouart Sieur des Groseilliers paddled along the south shore of Lake Superior to Keweenaw Bay, where they encountered an industrious population of beavers, pieces of native copper, and a convenient, well-established portage route that made traveling across the lake much easier (NatAm 39). Ten years later, Jean Talon, the man in charge of the colony of New France, sent Louis Joliet to “find the copper mine from which pieces of pure copper had been brought.” Although he failed to locate it, his journey was one among many which opened the door for French priests to establish thriving missions around Lake Superior (NatAm 40).



Alexander Henry makes the first English attempt to mine copper on the Keweenaw Peninsula near the Ontonagon River. At the time, the nearest English settlement is nearly 300 miles away at Sault Saint Marie and the region is completely undeveloped and mostly unmapped. Poor planning cripples Henry's adventurous spirit, and in the spring of 1772 his mine collapses after producing little copper.

"The copper ores of Lake Superior can never be profitably sought for but local consumption. The country must be cultivated and peopled before they can deserve notice." - Alexander Henry



Delegates to the Continental Congress convene in Philadelphia and on July 4, 1776, adopt the Declaration of Independence.

George Washington by Gilbert Stuart
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
George Washington by Gilbert Stuart
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


George Washington is elected president of the United States in a vote by state electors. The U.S. Constitution goes into effect, after being ratified by nine states.

Paul Revere by John Singleton Copley
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Paul Revere by John Singleton Copley
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston


Paul Revere, who would later be made famous in H. W. Longfellow’s poem "Paul Revere's Ride," creates the Revere Copper Company, the first copper rolling mill in America. This Massachusetts-based company specializes in copper roofing and sheathing for ships. The limited U.S. supply of copper forces Revere’s company to import most of its metal.



The United States agrees to pay France $15 million for the Louisiana Territory, which comprises about 830,000 square miles and extends west from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains. The addition nearly doubles the size of the country and includes rich copper deposits in the area now within the state of Montana.

Despite Douglass Houghton's description of the Ontonagon Boulder as "a mere stone, a large pebble," Henry Rowe Schoolcraft's illustration greatly exaggerated the real size of the boulder, making it larger than a six-man canoe.


While leading an expedition through the Upper Peninsula, Michigan Territorial Governor General Lewis Cass visits the Ontonagon Boulder, a large piece of float copper along the Ontonagon River.

One cannot help fancying that he has gone to the ends of the earth, and beyond the boundaries appointed for the residence of man."- Henry Schoolcraft, describingthe Keweenaw Peninsula in 1820



Michigan becomes the 26th state admitted into the Union. The Upper Peninsula is added to Michigan after the state relinquished its claim to land around Toledo, Ohio.



Douglass Houghton, state geologist of Michigan, publishes a report on the geology of the Upper Peninsula and describes the Keweenaw's copper deposits. Despite his appeal for caution, a land rush would soon start as investors, miners and entrepreneurs attempt to acquire copper-rich real estate.



The Ojibwe sign the Treaty of La Pointe, ceding their mineral-rich lands in the Upper Peninsula to the United States. As part of the agreement, the Ojibwe would retain hunting and gathering rights in their ancestral home lands in the Keweenaw, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and parts of northern Wisconsin.



The United States Government opens a mineral land agency office in Copper Harbor.



The Pittsburgh and Boston Mining Company begins mining near Copper Harbor. The operation is abandoned in 1845 after a $28,000 investment, but only $2,968 returned. Though the company produced little copper, it was the first serious American mining attempt.

Sale of copper wire leaps after the message "What hath God wrought" is sent by telegraph from Washington to Baltimore on May 24th, ushering in the electronic communication era. By 1846, iron wire replaces copper due to its greater tensile strength and lower maintenance costs.

The town of Clifton and Cliff Mine in Keweenaw County in the late 1800s.

Keweenaw NHP Archives, Jack Foster Collection


The Cliff Mine near Eagle River opens. It is the first large-scale, profitable mine on the Keweenaw Peninsula. Before it closes in 1870, Cliff Mine rewards its investors with $2,519,000.



The Portage Mining Company and the Northwestern Mining Company resolve a land lease dispute by forming the Quincy Mining Company. After exploring the hillside above Portage Lake, the company digs its first shaft in 1848.

Panning on the Mokelumne
From Harper’s Weekly, 1860
Panning on the Mokelumne

Harper’s Weekly, 1860


On January 24th, gold is discovered at Sutter’s Mill in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. The Gold Rush will reach its height by 1849, with prospectors moving to the area from all over the world.


Last updated: April 29, 2024

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