The mining of metal in America started long before the advent of the gold rush era or before the first explorers came to claim and settle this new frontier. It was not until the advent of carbon dating that anyone realized how long mining had been going on in America. The path of the discovery of ancient copper mining in America goes all the way back to the early explorers.
When Columbus came to the new world he reported back to his homeland that the natives had possession of impressive copper weapons. Other early explorers in America and also made notes of copper in the possession of the island and mainland natives. In 1536 Jacques Cartier was given nuggets of pure copper by Indians in the St. Lawrence river area. The list of explorers noting copper amongst the native people goes on. Because the native Indians held copper as sacred, it took some time for explorers to uncover where it was that the copper came from.
By 1800 there had been enough evidence for mass quantities of a very pure grade of copper in Keweenaw Peninsula (which is the Upper Peninsula of Michigan) that Congress passed a resolution to study the copper. By 1820 it was confirmed that the Keweenaw Peninsula held worthy amounts of a very pure copper. Had the area not still been in possession of the Indians, the first metal rush in America would have been copper. The Gold Rush of Georgia in the late 1820’s preceded the copper rush for that fact alone. By 1843, the peninsula became part of the American territories and the copper rush was on.
In 1848, Samuel O. Knapp, an Agent for a company which would eventually become the Minnesota Mining Company, was out looking over a snow covered hillside and noticed a line of indentations in the snow. He followed these for a ways until he came to a cave like opening. Exploring inside, he found that the “cave” was actually a man made hole, and that there were remnants of tools inside. After explorations were made of other pits, it was discovered that there were masses and veins of copper within the pits. It was not long before it became the mode to mine these pits whenever found. Many tools were discovered. Much archaeological information was destroyed.
In 1955 studies with carbon dating were begun on tools found in the areas of copper pits and the findings have resulted in much study of the pits and the surrounding land. The pits are dated back approximately 4,000 years at the latest. Because of the purity of the copper and a unique occurrence of silver with the copper, artifacts of this area’s metal can be easily traced throughout North and Central America and neighboring islands. That copper mining had been established as a commerce is clearly seen. What is not known is who these ancient miners may have been.
It is known that the miners came to the area shortly after the recession of the glaciers, at a time that copper could have been picked up from the surface of the ground, the land still barren of forestry making this an easy task. The waterways were also at a higher level facilitating travel. As the copper float became scarce, digging would have been necessitated. It is estimated from the thousands of pits found on Keweenaw peninsula, and hundreds more on Isle Royale that at least 500 million pounds of copper were extracted by these early people.
An endeavor of this size would take many human resources, boats, housing, food provisions, and so on. Temporary camps, if not whole towns, would have been in place. Yet no trace of these people has been found other than the digging tools and one or two personal effects. No evidence of housing, of transport, food gathering or farming. It is thought that because of the region’s harsh winters that the miners came and went seasonally, but from where is unknown. One expert has convincing evidence that these people may have been here as early as 7,000 years ago and had come from Egypt. Other possibilities are that they came from Russia, from the North. Others suggest that they may have been Aztec or another Central American culture. Near St. Louis archaeologists are uncovering the ruins of a fairly advanced civilization from about 6,500 years ago and there is thinking that these may be the lost miners but not much is known about this culture yet.
While the conjecture and debates go on, all experts seem to agree that the miners were not the ancestors of the Native Indians. The Indians had no knowledge or legends of these people and the craftsmanship of the tools found points to a culture far more advanced than the Indian cultures. The only thing that we can know with certainty is that these people were here, they were here in the ages that man first started using copper, and that artifacts made from the copper they mined can be found in the ruins of many ancient cultures.
Perhaps these early miners left no trace other than the tools they left in their mining pits. Perhaps important evidence was destroyed in the early American Copper Rush. With luck, some clues still remain hidden yet to be uncovered by some fortunate archaeologist or treasure hunter. Whatever the answers are to be found, they are sure to be intriguing.