The Exploitation of Ontonagon (Pt. 1)
By Bruce Johanson
By Bruce Johanson
The settlement at the mouth of the Ontonagon River that eventually became the Village of Ontonagon has always been dependent, more or less, on the bounty that nature endowed the area with. The area was rich in minerals, particularly copper, and later the eyes of the world noticed the vast timber potential of the area. The river itself became the highway to the interior and a major tool of the exploiters that followed, but we are getting ahead of ourselves.
Let’s start at the beginning.
In the beginning, there was the river. The Ontonagon River is the largest that flows from the south shore of Lake Superior into the greatest of the Great Lakes. At the mouth of the river, on the west bank was a small band of Anishinaabe who basically used the river as their base of operations for fishing. The Anishinaabe, also called Ojibway (Chippewa is also used but is not proper), fished in the summer and gathered berries. In the winter, the band moved to the mouth of the Iron River, the site of present-day Silver City, where they lived off the abundant game over the winter. Spring brought the sap running in the forests and the tapping of the great maple trees. The point is that the Anishinaabe lived off the land, and used the land quite comfortably. They dug no holes; they cut no large trees, they gathered berries, wild rice, and maple sap, and fished or hunted wildlife in accord with their actual needs.
The next round of exploitation came with the French traders, however, these white men from far away were interested in fur. The Anishinaabe were great hunters and trappers who could provide the fur. The French traders provided the Native Americans with items to make their lives easier. Metal axes and knives, iron pots and pans, soft cloth for clothing, blankets, a host of decorative trinkets, and other items. Perhaps the most sought after by the Native Americans were firearms that would expedite their hunting for food and leave them more time to trap for furs to buy the other desirable items from the white traders. With the French it was a symbiotic relationship with the “Red Man” and both used the bounty of the land.
After 1763, the French, who had lived with and among the Native Americans, had been forced to cede the area to the British. An English fur trader, Alexander Henry, began to trade with the Ojibway, and unlike many of the other Englishmen, Mr. Henry traded fairly. He won the trust of the Ojibway to the point where he was actually shown one of the greatest treasures of these people; a massive boulder of nearly pure copper that lay on the West Branch of the Ontonagon River. It wasn’t until 1771 that Henry was able to attempt to capitalize on this find. He organized a company to mine copper near the site of the great boulder. For reasons too lengthy for this discourse to explain, the mining attempt failed and only a few years later, the site of the copper boulder, as well as the entire Ontonagon area was now a part of the United States of America.