The never-changing brutality of winter

Copper Country's past and people

“No thought of agriculture – the cultivation of the soil thus laid bare by these sturdy pioneers,” John H. Forster wrote in describing pioneer life in the Lake Superior copper district. Forster himself was an early pioneer of the district, a prolific speaker and a prolific writer. He left many detailed accounts and descriptions of winters in the region. By many of his writings, it could be argued that Copper Country winters scarred him for life.

In the first year the district was open to mining and exploration, there were very few indeed who relished the thought of spending winter in the region, so during that first year, agriculture and storing up food for six months was not a concern.

General Walter Cunningham, the U.S. Mineral Land Agent, spent that first winter of 1843 with his small staff in newly constructed log quarters on Porter’s Island, just inside Copper Harbor, while his assistant, Major Campbell, wintered in similar but smaller quarters on the opposite bank of the Ontonagon River from James Paul’s cabin, who also spent the winter in his log hut.

The following winter saw an increase in population, though. Colonel Charles Gratiot and a party of miners spent the winter of 1844 near the Eagle River, about three miles back from the Lake Superior shore. At Copper Harbor, John Hays and his mining party spent the winter in the vicinity of the newly constructed military post, Fort Wilkins. There, Captain Robert E. Clary and his garrison of 103 enlisted men and officers wintered. At the post there were also a number of wives, children, and servants. According to surviving records, boredom was the most nagging problem suffered by the garrison.

The winter of 1844 was not good to those who chose to remain the copper district, owing largely to the wreck of the brig John Jacob Astor at the fort dock in Copper Harbor on September 18. The Astor and the schooner Algonquin were the only two ships plying the Lake that year, and the loss of the larger ship so late in the season created immediate shortages of winter provisions.

Clary placed his garrison on reduced rations, then found himself obligated to loan Hays and his party provisions enough to sustain them through the winter without starving. At Eagle River, Gratiot and his miners leased whatever small watercraft they could obtain to go to Sault Ste. Marie to retrieve the supplies the Astor was supposed to deliver to his mine.

Those in the vicinity of Keweenaw Point were not the only ones to suffer as a result of the loss of the ship.

“I saw, when she landed at Copper Harbor,” wrote Forster, in recalling the event, “the half-breed woman who, owing to the wreck of the brig Astor, was left with her husband on Isle Royale without provisions to winter as best they could.” During the winter, the husband died and his wife buried his body in the snow near their cabin. She survived the winter by snaring rabbits.

The increase of ships on Lake Superior did little, if anything, to relieve the effects of winter. Forster painted a vivid picture of frustration, despair, frustration, and alcoholism, some of it due to Victorian class distinction.

“Buried in the depths of the woods, remote from other settlements, with no society except that of the rudest kind, living in huts with only the necessaries of life, often short on rations, without newspapers, and with a letter mail arriving monthly by dog sled, if the weather favored, the educated young pioneer found himself aggravated in the winter season but the seep snows which rendered exercise, except on snowshoes, difficult, with short days and long nights and intense cold.” In this paragraph of Forster’s, being constructed of one sentence, one can almost feel the anxiety Forster seemed to have felt as he wrote it.

“Without the stimulus of companionship and conversation,” he went on, “it was not to be wondered at if he fell into despondency.”

There were some who could not endure the long winters any longer, and instead, chose to risk death by walking out of the region.

“The poor soul pining for home and milder climate,” Forster wrote in another article, “had presented to him three hundred miles of trackless wilderness to overcome, with no human habitation by the way, on snowshoes, carrying his blanket and provisions on his back, and sleeping at night by a camp-fire, in all pervading snow.”

Forster also wrote of the winter he was superintendent of an unnamed mine at which he discovered a shortage of pork for the inhabitants of the four “block pine” cabins. While potatoes were abundant, and some flour, only fish remained in quantity, and the occupants of the cabins lived the winter on just those food stuffs.

“During the winter we had but one dish of fresh beef,” Forster recalled of that year, “and that came to us through the accidental death of work ox of a neighboring mine.”

While long harsh winters created food shortages, anxiety, depression, boredom, and the sometimes irresistible need to quit and run, Forster noted there were always ample supplies of alcoholic beverages at any location.

“If there was ever a scarcity of provisions there was by some mysterious providence no lack of wine and liquors,” he wrote.

John Forster moved on from the Lake Superior copper district, to much warmer climates, but by the articles he wrote years later, it is clear that the brutality of Lake Superior winters remained vividly etched in his memories.