Independence Day Celebrations in the Lake Superior Copper Region date back to 1840

Douglass Houghton, Michigan’s first state geologist, had the task of conducting geological surveys of the state, since Michigan had entered the Union in 1837. In July, 1840, Houghton reached Keweenaw Point.

Bela Hubbard, who was with Houghton that summer, kept a journal of the expedition, as did Charles Penny. Later, Hubbard gave a talk before the Detroit Pioneer Society, Jan., 1874, at which his talk was recorded, and is now in the Library of Congress.

Hubbard related that Houghton’s team for the expedition was composed of Houghton; his two assistants, C. C. Douglass and Hubbard’s brother Frederick. Bela Hubbard, took charge of instrumental observations; and, for a part of the way, H. Thielson, a civil engineer; and Charles W. Penny, a young merchant of Detroit, supernumeraries ( along for the ride).

According to Houghton’s notes, he and his team reached Gros Marais (now known as Copper Harbor) on July 3, at which time they examined La roche verte.

“On the third of July, we encamped at Copper Harbor, and spent several days in exploration of the surrounding country, and in blasting for ores,” Hubbard wrote.

Here, he described using the closest thing they could find to use for fireworks the next day’s celebration:

“Several blasts were got ready for the great national jubilee, which we commemorated in the noisy manner usual with Americans, by a grand discharge from the rocks,” he wrote. “We succeeded in producing a tremendous report, and the echo, resounding from the placid water as from a sounding-board, pealed forth in corresponding reverberations for several minutes.”

The fare chosen for their celebration feast would be, by today’s standards, less than desirable, yet Hubbard stated it was equally grand to the report of the explosion of rock.

“It consisted of pigeons, fried and stewed, corn and bean soup, short-cake and hard-tack, pork, and — last but not least — a can of fine oysters, which had been brought along for the occasion,” he wrote. “Truly a sumptuous repast for a party of wilderness vagrants, even on a Fourth of July anniversary!”

This Independence Day celebration, the first recorded in the Upper Peninsula, occurred three years before the United States Senate had ratified the treaty of La Pointe, allowing Americans into the last regions of the Northwest Territory, or the Old Northwest, giving Copper Harbor the bragging rights to being the location of the first Fourth of July celebration in the Upper Peninsula.

Frank Emery, in his 1932 publication, “Fort Wilkins 1844-1846,” mistakenly credited the July 4, 1844 celebration at Fort Wilkins as “the first one held in the Copper Country.” Although it was not, that celebration is by no means less important to the history of the copper region.

Captain Robert E. Clary, commanding Companies A and B, of the 5th United States Infantry, was well aware of the short construction season on the shore of Lake Superior, and the military post of Fort Wilkins was under construction when he took the fourth of July to celebrate Independence Day.

United States Army Regulations called for a parade and the reading of the Declaration of Independence. But Clary was aware of the unreasonable work load he had placed on his men since May 28, when fort construction began, and they needed a day of rest and recreation.

So, a “special dinner” for everyone was included in the day, along with a pageant that included the residents of the Ojibway village on the south shore of what is now called Lake Fanny Hooe. It must have been a sizable village. Emery wrote that:

” …from the other side of the Lake came the wild whoops of the Indians, and soon across came as score or more canoes which were soon beached along the shore.”

A score equals 20. Twenty or more canoes would indeed suggest a high village population.

The pageant, Emery said, included one of the staff from the Mineral Agency named Erastus Powell. Powell’s name, however, is not found among the employees or contractors listed at the Mineral Agency in 1844. According to the Register of all Officers and Agents, Civil, Military, and Naval in the In the United States, in 1844, the Mineral Land Agent was Walter Cunningham, and two assistants, Thomas Michler and James B. Campbell. Powell’s name only comes to us from Emery, so unfortunately, we do not know who he was.

While the post at Copper Harbor conducted its first celebration in 1844, history reveals that Independence Day was probably celebrated in Ontonagon a year previous.

The U.S. Congressional Record, in 1961, included an entry of Representative John B. Bennett, from June 14. Bennet read into the record a historical essay written for inclusion in the Record by a Judge named Charles F. Willman, of the Ontonagon Historical Society.

The village of Ontonagon was first settled in 1843, a year before the Army began construction on Fort Wilkins.

“Here, from the time the first settlers arrived in 1843,” Willman wrote, “the Fourth of July was celebrated with genuine — fervor — the event diligently commemorated with a degree of hilarity but also that touch priority befitting the occasion.”

Willman wrote that in the early years, when the population was small, it was a day for a special fest, with toasting and singing and reading of the Declaration of Indendence. The population of the Ontonagon County in 1850 was 389, Wilman wrote; within just the next 14 years, it had ballooned to 5,408.

Fourth of July celebrations, wrote Willman, then started at sunrise, with the firing of a cannon, that had been sent in 1855 by the state adjutant general. Parades followed. There was band music, athletic events, sailboat races, patriotic speeches, and always someone read the Declaration of Independence.

Ontonagon’s earlier celebrations were similar to those described by school teacher Henry Hobart in 1863 and 1864, when he was a resident at Clifton, the neighborhood community of the Cliff Mine, on the west branch of the Eagle River, in Keweenaw County.

Hobart kept a diary during the two years he taught school there, which was later published in book form under the title, “Copper Country Journal: The Diary of Schoolmaster Henry Hobart, 1863-1864,” published by Wayne State University Press, in 1991.

Hobart was a young Vermont native. Although educated, he lacked very little life experience beyond the farming community in which he grew up, so he lacked understanding of the fact that at Clifton, he was surrounded by western European immigrants who did not really grasp Independence Day. While he complained repeatedly about the lack of patriot spirit for the United States by the Cornish, Irish and German immigrants, he was at least able to record that some Clifton residents celebrated the Fourth of July with parades, singing and a reading of the Declaration of Independence.


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