Why dead potatoes impacted the copper district

Copper Country's past and people

We have talked a lot about the isolation of the Lake Superior copper district, and its affects on the local pioneer residents of far-flung mining locations. But in another sense, a very real sense, the new mining district was no so isolated at all. In fact, events and policies occurring in Great Britain had a direct and significant impact on the social and economic development, not only of the copper district, but the neighboring iron districts as well.

Col. Charles Gratiot, according to historical documents written by Jacob Houghton, Jr. and Charles T. Jackson, was the first man to arrive in the district actually outfitted and prepared to engage in active mining. Gratiot arrived in Copper Harbor in the second week of June, 1843. In itself, that may or may not be historically significant, depending on your perspective.

What is historically significant about Gratiot’s arrival, however, is that when he arrived, he was in charge of a party of 10 Cornish miners, the first to come to the district, and the vanguard of thousands more to follow.

One question we have not really addressed in our Saturday morning visits, is why these men and their families left Cornwall in such large numbers in the first place, which is important to understanding their significance to the Lake Superior mining districts. There were actually a number of reasons.

The Cornish emigration first began after the Napoleonic Wars of Europe ended, in 1815, and its major contributor was the British Empire itself. Mining districts in the British territories were opening up, and many left Cornwall, Devon, North and South Wales, Ireland, and other mining regions of Great Britain for Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and later Latin America. They also came to the United States.

The newly developing Missouri, Galana (Illinois) and Wisconsin lead districts attracted many, and it is from where Gratiot and his Cornish miners came. Gratiot’s family were pioneers in the opening of both the Missouri and Galena lead districts, and later the Wisconsin district.

In his book The Cornish Overseas: A History of Cornwall’s ‘great migration,’ historian Philip Payton listed the economic situation in Cornwall as another major factor.

“Of course, economic depression, particularly in the agricultural sector, was itself a determinant of emigration,” Payton wrote. “In 1822, a ‘County meeting’ of Cornish landowners and tenants was held in Bodmin, at which there was a demand for a reduction in taxes, tithes, and rents. The poor harvest of 1829 drove many from the land and in April 1832, the West Briton wrote that, ‘The rage for emigration that now prevails in the north of this county is wholly unprecedented in Cornwall.'”

Religious repression after the Napoleonic Wars, Payton wrote, was still another factor of emigration, particularly to the United States, which guaranteed the separation of Church and State. While most of Cornwall subscribed to Methodism, its citizens were forced to pay tithes to the Anglican Church, whether they subscribed to it or not.

In short, British polices, such as forcing citizens to support the state’s church, over taxation, and ridiculous rents had forced the Cornish into a poverty they could never hope to escape from.

If all of that were not enough, in 1845, the unthinkable happened. Then as now, the Cornish did not care to discuss it. All of the Cornishmen we’ve talked about had relatives back home, so those in copper district received letters about it. Josiah Hall and Edward Jennings, at the Cliff Mine, had to have known about it. John Slawson, Joshua Childs, they all heard about it. Many sent funds back to Cornwall for transportation to the copper district, where there was plenty of work, no tithing to churches they did not subscribe to, and wages were better in Michigan than in Cornwall. There was also plenty to eat. Yes, eat.

After several years of poor corn harvests in Cornwall that double the price of the product, the same disease that destroyed the potato crop in Ireland wiped out the potato crop of Cornwall. Payton wrote that by the mid-19th century, the potato had become the staple food of the Cornish poor.

“In the Penwith peninsula of far western Cornwall,” Payton wrote, “the potato had by 1801 become established as a major element of the diet of mining communities or Marazion, St. Just, St. Ives, local farmers learning (ironically, from the Irish experience) that potatoes were a useful prepatory crop for barley on heath or bog land.”

While all of these issues were collectively devastating to Cornwall, for the developing copper district of Lake Superior, Cornwall’s mass emigration came at the best possible time, because the influx of Cornish labor and mining also brought an influx in Cornish mining expertise. And mine owners and managers were very welcoming to the incoming Cornish. Housing was provided for them. They were not only given freedom of worship, the mining companies encouraged it. In almost all instances, the companies donated free of charge of any kind, the land upon which churches were built.

The Cornish were also welcome to keep their customs, including keeping a pig and a potato patch. For that purpose, when a mining company laid out a residential neighborhood, it established personal boundaries of 50 by 100 feet for a yard. That space provided enough room for a pig and a garden. Additionally, most companies also provided a common pasture area for residents who wanted a dairy cow. None of these had been available to residents in Cornwall, and they were deeply appreciated in the copper district.

The disease that devastated the potato crop of Cornwall, Ireland, and the Scottish Highlands, was unknown at the time. It turned out to be what experts call Phytophhora infestans, a very big name for late potato blight. It is still a problem today. Is is caused by a fungus-like organism that spreads rapidly in the foliage of potatoes and tomatoes. It spreads easily during periods of warm and humid weather with rain.