An interesting pioneer of the copper district

Throughout the more than a century of mining in the Lake Superior copper district, investors from one state often knew investors from another, and it was not at all uncommon for them to have business connections with one another, creating what we call today a network. Cyrus Mendenhall, of Cleveland, and Thomas Bakewell, of Pittsburgh, were just two examples.

Cyrus Mendenhall was the president of the Cleveland and North Western Lake Company, and part owner of the schooner “Algonquin,” the first American-owned merchant vessel to enter Copper Harbor. In 1837, Mendenhall was at the convention of the Cleveland and Pittsburgh Railroad, where he and Thomas Bakewell sat together on several committees. A few years later, Bakewell would become a director on the board of the Pittsburgh and Boston Mining Company, which owned the Cliff Mine. Bakewell would also sit on the board of the North Cliff Mining Company. The Pittsburgh and Boston also briefly operated at Copper Harbor, where John Hays was that mine’s agent. Hays and Mendenhall, both from Cleveland, were members of the same religion and seem to have known each other. In 1858, Mendenhall wrote a letter to Hays, who was involved in the organization of a company called the Green Mountain Mining Company, located in the Porcupine Mountains of Ontonagon County.

Mendenhall’s ship, the “Algonquin,” was skippered by Captain James Smithwick, who became president of a mining company he organized on Isle Royale called, unimaginatively, Smithwick Mining Company. Mendenhall would establish his own mines on the island.

Mendenhall was aboard the Algonquin during the summer of 1843, along with Colonel Charles Gratiot and Joab Bernard, who, although not partners, were exploring the Lake Superior region seeking copper lodes to develop. Also on board was one Julius Eldred, who was on his way to the Ontonagon region to remove the already legendary copper boulder from the bank of the Ontonagon River. U.S. Mineral Agent, Gen. Walter Cunningham was also touring Lake Superior to get some understanding of the mineral region of which he was in charge. They visited Isle Royale, as well as the Ontonagon region, including the Porcupine Mountains.

The south shore of Lake Superior was actually not new to Mendenhall, nor was mining. Mendenhall had been a fur trader among the Ojibwe People, and he was friends with many of them, and knew every village along the Lake. According to the 1884 Ohio Mining Journal, Mendenhall had been responsible for the opening of the Massillon, Ohio Coal region in 1832.

As a fur trader and a fisherman with friends among the Ojibwe, along with being an associate of the Methodist Episcopal Mission Society, Mendenhall, who seems to have been everywhere, was present at the Treaty of La Pointe negotiations in 1842.

The 1850 presidential order of Zachary Taylor, which ordered the removal of Native Americans of Michigan and Wisconsin to Minnesota Territory was met with uproar from both the Ojibwe and the whites in the regions.

Mendenhall, too, was outraged, and he rallied local officials, merchants, businessmen, doctors, loggers, and even mining officials, from La Pointe to Sault Ste. Marie, and circulated a petition to bring a stop to the order, Mendenhall, like nearly everyone else in the Great Lakes region, understood full well the degree to which the Ojibwe and the whites were dependent upon each other, socially, culturally, and economically. So did the Wisconsin Legislature, which fought back against the order.

It could be very well that Mendenhall had been guided by Ojibwe friends into the Porcupine Mountains, where he secured the permit to a lease and organized the Lafayette Mining Company in 1845. Mendenhall was also responsible for the organization of two or three mining companies on Isle Royale, and at least two in the Ontonagon district.

When the Lake Superior Copper Company suspended operations in 1848, liquidated is assets and dissolved. it rose from the ashes as a new company, with new board, named the Phoenix Mining Company. The mine Gratiot had opened in 1844 on the west bank of the Eagle River was abandoned in favor a lode either overlooked or ignored by C.C. Douglass and Charles Jackson in 1845. The new mine site was to the west, and about a mile and a half south of the original workings, and gave rise the village of Phoenix.

Mendenhall did not, in the end, strike it truly rich in the Lake Superior copper district, and his name tends to be overlooked in historical research. Yet, he was a major contributor to the opening and the development of the region, and he was a major player in protecting the Ojibwe from being forcibly removed from their ancestral home by the president of the United States.

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