Copper Country heritage goes back to Bronze Age

MTU Archives Drop stamps like these in the ruins of Central were of Cornish design and relied on steam power to operate them in the ore crushing process.

As mining declined in the Lake Superior copper district, the population tended to decline along with it. The Great Depression was waning, and displaced mine workers left the area, seeking better jobs, a brighter future, and as a bonus, more reasonable climates.

For those who chose to remain, most looked forward rather than back, and it is probable that very few who did look back realized that they stood in a region where its mining heritage and culture stretched back more than 3,000 years to the Bronze Age.

Historical accounts state that When Colonel Charles H. Gratiot landed at Eagle Harbor in June of 1843 to begin exploring that area for mineral, he was at the head of a party of miners from Cornwall, England, Cornish miners who came from a long tradition of hard rock- deep shaft mining.

Archaeological evidence indicates that mining in Cornwall began as long ago as 1,800 years B.C. Because bronze is an alloy of copper and tin, Cornwall was an important producer of tin, as well as copper and other metals, the basis of the Bronze Age.

At first, Cornish miners engaged in a type of ore extraction referred to as streaming, which involved washing away lighter sands and wastes from tin-rich gravels to leave the heavier tin ores which were then collected and smelted. A similar process was used during the stamping process of Lake Superior copper ores thousands of years later.

Streaming was not possible or feasible in all areas of Cornwall and its eastern neighbor, Devon, however, and so a system developed that was the forerunner of deep shaft mining. Lode-backing was a system by which shallow shafts were opened along a tin vein, and then connected below ground by tunnels.

During the early Medieval Period, between A.D.410 and 1066, manufacturing of tin, copper, pewter, and bronze placed Cornwall in a position of prominence. There is strong archaeological evidence for a heavy trade between Cornwall, Northern Europe, and the eastern Mediterranean region. By 1600, however, existing technology had done all it could to keep the ever-deepening mines free of water.

This was addressed by a native of Devon by the name of Thomas Newcomen, who owned a company which designed and manufactured iron mining equipment and tools for the area mining industry, and he came up with a steam engine that would pump water from mines. It was expensive to operate, however, and over time, several improvements were made on its design, particularly by James Watt, who improved the efficiency of the engine, and making it far less costly to operate. Forming a partnership with Matthew Boulton, the Boulton and Watt Company designed and manufactured marine and stationary steam engines. Their improvements on the Watt engine made deeper mining possible.

Cornwall’s and Devon’s smelting processes were a bit more complicated to work out than pumping water from mines, sadly. Smelting was more capital-intensive than mining, and therefore more profitable. Tin smelting was controlled by just a few families and they controlled it tightly. Money was advanced to mining companies, or those miners working independently, and was to be repaid in refined tin. As it worked out, a similar system was developed in the lead mining regions of Missouri, Illinois, and Wisconsin, where Charles Gratiot had grown up.

The Gratiots were pioneers of the lead district, and had relied heavily upon miners and mining industry personnel from Cornwall who were experts in mining, smelting, and machine design. Gratiot knew the Cornish, their heritage, and their culture well.

Gratiot also knew that the Cornish distinguished themselves from the rest of England, and were fiercely independent, a trait they learned as far back as 1066 when William the Conqueror invaded England. Cornwall kept much of its native Celtic language, and many of the mining terms known throughout the Copper Country were terminologies used by the Cornish when they came to Michigan.

Gratiot wasn’t the only one to employ Cornish workers in the Copper Country. When John Hays, agent for the Pittsburgh and Boston Mining Company began mining in and around Copper Harbor in 1844, historical accounts record that Hays originally employed German miners from the Pennsylvania regions. In the winter of 1845-1846 when the work began of clearing the base of what would become the Cliff mine, again Hays employed German miners.

In 1846, Hays either resigned or was relieved -there are conflicting reports – he was replaced by a Captain Edward Jennings, who was a mining engineer from Cornwall. Under Jennings, the workforce at the Cliff mine became predominantly Cornish.

Through their centuries-long heritage of mining, the Cornish understood hoisting and pumping machinery. The type of ore reduction employed throughout the Lake Superior copper district employed what came to be called the Cornish Drop Stamp. The Cornish system of mining teams was also adopted in the Copper Country, with teams of six drift workers divided into two three-man teams. One team worked the night shift; the other worked the day shift. Usually mining teams consisted of eight men divided into two teams. And similar to the mines of Cornwall and Devon, men worked, rather than as employees of a company, under contract. Workers, both underground and on the surface, were considered independent contractors and could choose from contract to contract where they would work.

There were other management systems transferred from Cornwall to the Copper Country, systems, techniques and technologies employed in the Lake Superior copper district that could trace their roots back to mining during the Bronze Age.

Editor’s note: Graham Jaehnig can be contacted at