According to the Army, Ruggles didn’t do it

Lt. Daniel Ruggles, 5th United States Infantry, had a scientific mind. Ordered to Copper Harbor in early 1844 with Companies A and B, under command of Capt. Robert E. Clary, Ruggles was to establish a military post to be named after the U.S. Secretary of War William Wilkins. It did not take Ruggles long to find things to challenge his scientific curiosities.

Norm Roy, writing for, posted on Nov. 19, 2016, that Ruggles “studied operations at the copper mines of the Keweenaw Peninsula and collected mineral and geological samples.” It was a bit more complicated than that, as we will see as we discuss Mr. Ruggles’ interesting activities.

Ruggles was a native of Massachusetts and an 1833 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy, graduating 34th in a class of 43. Always inquisitive, always searching, his scientific curiosity at one point led him to a feat of amazing stupidity, for which he would require the military to rescue him.

Thanks to to Brigadier General Hugh Brady selecting the site on which the military post was to be erected, Fort Wilkins sat on the most convenient spot of the three-mile square mineral lease held by the Pittsburgh and Boston Mining Company. Annoyed by the army’s presence on the spot, mine agent John Hays and his party of miners would have to work around the fort in order to search for, and mine, copper.

Busily seeking the ever-elusive mother lode, Hays and his geologist were only able to find odd, irregular deposits of black oxide of copper, and everywhere a deposit was found, Hays dutifully put a shaft in the ground to go after it. In fact, between the two points of the harbor, Hunter’s Point and Hay’s Point, and the area around the military post, the land in those areas began to look like a birthday cake with the candles plucked out.

And around each of these mining attempts were piles of mine rock, some of which contained copper, while other of it did not. All of these rock and ore piles laying around eventually overwhelmed Daniel Ruggles’ mind.

“In consequence of this gradual devellopment [sic] of the Copper Mines in this region around us,” Ruggles wrote to Major General Jessup in Washington City in November 1844, “I am enabled to obtain many characteristic minerals as well as geological specimens which would, in my opinion, form an interesting contribution to the National Institute.”

It would not be accurate to say Ruggles could not help himself. He did help himself — with reckless abandon. He obtained quite a bit of “characteristic minerals as well as geological specimens.” In fact, while the total amount of ore taken was not recorded, it was substantial enough that John Hays was not all delighted with it. In fact, he was furious. So much so that he felt compelled to file charges against Ruggles with Capt. Clary, the post commander.

Of course, as we discussed last week, Clary already had far more on his hands trying to oversee the completion of the fort, laying in enough provisions for the winter for the troops and civilians, and as second in command, Ruggles really had far more important things to do than go out playing on the neighbors’ rock piles. Normally, stealing rocks would be such a trivial thing, it would be ridiculous to consider the charges. But it was the sheer amount of rock taken — which had to have amounted to several tons, that compelled Clary to agree with Hays. Hays had no idea what Ruggles had taken, so he had no idea the monetary value of the copper ore Ruggles took. And Ruggles’ own letter enters evidence of how much he stole.

“It is also my wish to send a collection of some 4-500 pounds to the Cabinet at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point,” he wrote to Jessup.

Clary had no choice but to forward the embarrassing affair up the chain of command and the the military eventually convened a Court of Inquiry, which ultimately wound up floating around between various military departments in Washington, until at last, on July 3, 1845, Adjutant General Roger Jones was directed to send a pronouncement to Clary at Fort Wilkins.

Very little record of the inquiry seems to be available today, but Lawrence Fadner, in his book, Fort Wilkins 1844 and the U.S. Mineral Land Agency 1843, did include what he was able to find, which included Jones’ letter to Clary.

“The circumstances of Lieut. Ruggles having collected a quantity of copper ore (supposed to be large),” the letter stated, “were not distinctly stated in this office, but that the ore had been taken from the ground of the Pittsburg Company — was clearly set forth — and in relation to the fact alone was an expression of opinion given him. It now appears from the proceedings of the Court of Inquiry that Lieut. Ruggles has done nothing amiss or that was objected to at the time by the person left in charge of the lands.”

So, there. It was Hays’ fault that Ruggles stole a couple of tons of ore, while stationed at the fort as part of a force charged with protecting mineral lands and miners. What the military basically stated through Jones’ letter was “we don’t really know what happened, and we don’t know the details, but whatever it was someone didn’t want done, Ruggles didn’t do it.”

The frontier Lake Superior copper district was not “The Wild West” that later mining camps such as those in California, Arizona, Montana, and elsewhere would become. But it was wild by its geographical nature, and was populated by colorful people. There were displays of incredible bravery, determination to succeed, and the will to hang on and survive in a climate that was just not conducive to human comfort.

There were (unfounded) fears of attacks by hostile Indians, the constant threat of starvation, emotional agony from isolation, and winters that seemed to never end. And there was a college-educated army officer sneaking around, stealing tons of ore from a failing mining company.