Wars and destitution drove settlement of copper district

Copper Country's past and people

Like nearly every other European immigrant, the German people were just sick of wars, the devastation they caused, the poverty, starvation, and disease they left in their wake, and being conscripted to fight in those wars for the goals and ambitions of some emperor or king. Like the Irish, the Germans were just tired of being killed for someone else’s cause.

The French Revolution, together with the Napoleonic Wars, lasted 23 years and claimed between two and a half and three and a half million military lives, and nearly three million civilian dead. They engaged nearly all of Europe, and those who survived were left to clean up the destruction, bury the dead, and try to put some semblance of order back into their lives. Somebody said it was the Age of Enlightenment.

Most historians agree that the Middle Ages ended with the beginning of the Age of Enlightenment in the late 17th century as an “intellectual movement.” The movement emphasized reason, individualism, skepticism, and science, rather than religion. One religious idea that came from this period, spread across Europe and to the United States, was called Deism.

In a nutshell, Deism promoted the idea that God created the heavens and the universe, set everything in motion under the laws of nature, then went away, leaving man to his own devices. There were no divine revelations. God was knowledge through reason, science, and nature.

It is probable that most of the peasants and the serfs throughout Europe never heard of an “intellectual movement,” and probably fewer of them noticed that the Medieval Period had ended and the Enlightenment began. It is just as probable that had the peasants and serfs heard of such nonsense, they would have laughed in the faces of those historians who would later come to write about the time period long after the peasants were dead and rotted. No matter how much intellect got tossed around the manor homes and palaces of Europe, the peasants knew of two things: God and death.

The peasants were the on the very bottom rung of the European Feudal social and economic ladder. The serfs were below them. A peasant farmer may or may not have owned the land on which he farmed. But from that small farm, he paid rents to the Lord of the Manor in produce, so many days per month working on the lord’s property, and paying a tithe to the church on the lord’s lands. He paid all of this in exchange for military protection — at least in theory, anyway. A serf was less than that. The serfs were landless, and were, for all intents and purposes, slaves. They were tenant farmers who had no freedoms or rights. They were not permitted to leave the manor lands without permission, they were not even allowed to marry without the consent of the lord.

In the American colonies, the British attempted very ardently to establish a Feudalistic system. The colonists gave their opinion of that by starting a revolution. The American Revolution struck disbelief and fear into the hearts of the French monarchy and nobility. The French Revolution struck terror into the hearts of European governmental leaders, and in particular, Great Britain.

The success of the French Revolution led Napoleon to see it as an opportunity to crush the new French Republic government. Having done that, he declared himself Emperor and set about taking over Europe. Great Britain, fearing a conquest of that magnitude would destroy trade and economics, and went to war against Napoleon. It was nothing new for the peasants, however. The English had been attacking France since the 12th century, and whoever ruled, the life of the peasants went on much as it always had.

By 1815, when the wars finally ended, more than three million Europeans and civilians had been killed and many of the Cornish, Welsh, Irish, Germans, and others, had had enough Feudalism, kings, lords of manors, wars, religious oppression. There were also high rents, high taxes, and tithes to the church. For those who had a skill or a trade, there was a way out.

The early 19th century marked a time of expansion in America, as mining fields were discovered and opened. Those who had the skills, left Cornwall, Devon, Wales, Ireland, and Germany. Some found work in the eastern coal fields. Others went further west to the frontier, and mined in the Missouri, Galena, and Wisconsin lead mines. Many of them migrated again, this time to the Lake Superior copper district. Others joined them from the old country. And in the Lake Superior copper district, they came together and formed an odd bond. And through that bond, they sewed the seeds of a culture that still exists in what today is known as the Copper Country.

Three excellent examples are Eagle River, Clifton, and Ontonagon. These three, among many others, became home to Cornish, Irish, and German pioneers, who opened the wilderness, advanced it to a frontier, which became a settled region.

Today, they are all gone. Many of them did not even leave their names behind. But they left their mark. They left the cavernous mines, and the communities, and a new and unique culture, for their descendants to enjoy and appreciate.