Ontonagon Boulder dispute is finally settled

Photo: U.S. Army Ordnance School George Talcott, the chief officer of the Ordnance Dept., issued an order to confiscate to seize the Ontonagon Boulder, which touched off a fire storm in Washington.

At 64 years old in 1844, Senator William Woodbridge had had a long history in the political sphere. Born in Connecticut in 1780, he was 10 years old when he moved with his family to Marietta, Ohio, where he went on to study law. He was a member of the Ohio House before being elected to the Ohio Senate in 1801, and developed a close friendship with Lewis Cass. Cass was the governor of Michigan Territory in 1814 when he started encouraging Woodbridge to accept appointments as secretary of the territory and as collector of customs at the Port of Detroit. Woodbridge was elected as the governor of Michigan, and resigned in 1841to take his seat in the U.S. Senate. Woodbridge had also held the office of Judge of the Supreme Court of Michigan Territory, and in 1844, was the Chairman of the Committee on Public Lands and was the Committee of Patents and Patent Office. As committee chairman, he sent a letter of inquiry to the War Dept. requesting an explanation for the order to seize Julius Eldred’s Ontonagon boulder, he received a response dated Feb. 22, 1844 from Secretary of War, William Wilkins.

“In answer to your letter of the 17th instant,” Wilkins wrote, “I respectfully transmit, herewith, a report of the officer in charge of the Ordnance bureau, to whom your communication, of the Committee on Public Lands, has been referred. The report contains a brief history of the proceedings of Mr. Julius Eldred relative the the ‘copper rock’ brought from Lake Superior by him, and now in the yard of the War Office, together with his accounts of charges and expenditures in procuring and transporting the same.”

The officer in charge of the Ordinance Bureau, Lieutenant-Colonel George Talcott’s reply was not something he should not have written to a man of Woodbridge’s experience and political strengths.

He explained, as if Woodbridge was not aware of it, that Gen. Walter Cunningham had been appointed Mineral Agent of the Lake Superior copper region to sign lease permits and to “prevent any person from entering upon or occupying any of these mineral lands, or mining or smelting any lead or copper ore, except under permits or leases from the Government, and upon the terms and conditions laid down.”

Talcott then wrote that a permit had been granted a pair under the name of Turner & Snyder, whose agent sold “the right to the rock” to several persons, who then forced Eldred to pay an additional $1,4440 for the copper rock he had purchased from Okondekon two years before.

Talcott’s reasoning then was that whether Eldred legally owned the rock, or just the right to it, was immaterial. What was at issue was that Eldred was not entitled to the copper rock because he did not secure a permit to remove the rock, and therefore tried to avoid paying the 10% duty on it, so by that condition of the Mineral Land policy, Eldred forfeited his right to the rock to the government. Talcott did however, out of his kindness and generosity, authorize Cunningham to pay Eldred $700 for the rock, $300 of which had already been forwarded. Furthermore, Talcott stated, he felt it was proper for him to say that “as all the tools and machinery must have remained in the hands of these claimants, a reasonable deduction should be made from their cost.” At that point, Talcott assumed the arrogance to instruct Woodbridge as to what compensation Eldred was entitled to, and that “the amount paid to the Indians and to the laborers, and for passages to and freight,” should be allowed in full.

Talcott finished his letter by saying that in regard to a charge of $6,500 for three years’ services of Eldred’s three sons, “I must remark, that there is nothing in the correspondence with this office which shows any personal attendance on their part, much less that three full years were devoted by them to this matter; and if there were, the charge would appear to be a very extravagant one, after charging all their expenses. The letter of Mr. Woodbridge is herewith returned.”

Talcott unwittingly revealed one of the major failings of not only the Mineral Land leasing policy, but of his Ordinance Office as well: Talcott wrote to Woodbridge that a permit for the land upon which the Ontonagon Boulder was located was leased to Turner & Snyder. Correspondence from Cunningham to Talcott’s office, however, stated that Daniel T. Raymond, Julius Eldred, Elisha, Francis E. and Anson Eldred (Julius’ sons) were entitled to a permit for one section of land, “which surround the copper rock, taking the copper rock as the center, and they are to have a permit for the same.” On Oct. 30, 1843, Raymond sold his share of the permit to the Eldreds for one dollar. Two unrelated parties had been granted permits for the same mineral tract, which was not an uncommon occurrence.

On April, 1, 1844, Woodbridge submitted his report from the Committee on Public Lands to the Senate. In a nutshell, it stated what was already known by everyone involved except Talcott.

Eldred, the report concluded, had entered the “Indian country” legally, without any infraction of the law. While Eldred was competent to buy whatever it was the competent to sell, Okondekon was, in deed, competent to sell the copper rock. In short, Eldred purchased the copper rock legally from the Ojibway chief, who possessed the legal right to sell it, because it was purchased more than a year before the treaty at La Pointe was negotiated. Further, the report went on, Walter Cunningham, as special agent of the War Dept., was deputized to grant agreements for leases or permits, which he did when issuing a permit to Eldred and his party, that permit comprising the land upon which the boulder sat. In considering that Eldred already owned the copper rock, which he proved he did, and Cunningham was told by Okondekon that Eldred had, in fact, purchased the boulder, which in itself was all that needed for Eldred to remove the rock.

“…even if no property in the boulder had been acquired by (Eldred), anterior to the treat of Lapointe” the report declared, “a right on the part of the Government to seize, not merely a percentage as for rent, but the whole mass obtained, can hardly be supposed to have existed!”

Woodbridge’s report was submitted in conjunction with a Joint Resolution “concerning the ‘copper rock of Lake Superior,'” which stated that the War Department was authorized and directed, by the House and the Senate, “to deliver to Julius Eldred & Sons, of Detroit, in the state of Michigan, upon their demand therefor, the ‘copper rock of Lake Superior,’ (so called) now lying in the public ground back of the War Office, in the City of Washington.” If, on the other hand, the Eldreds preferred, the Secretary of War was to enter enter into and conclude a contract with them, for the purchase of the rock, “for a reasonable sum of money as may be agreed upon by and between the said parties, to be paid out of any moneys [sic] in the Treasury not otherwise appropriated.” The amount to be paid was reimbursement for money expended “in and about the purchase, the obtaining and taking possession, and the removing of said rock, and for the sectional and portable railway and car, and other machinery, by said Julius &Sonse constructed, or caused to be constructed, for the purpose aforesaid, and for a reasonable compensation for his and their labor, time, risk, and services, in and about said matter.”

In the final settlement, Eldred received $5,664.98. In today’s economic value, that would be approximately $204,469.23 At the time, the copper boulder was worth, based on copper prices at the time, about $500, or about $18,046.71 today.

Graham Jaehnig has a BA of Social Science/History from Michigan Technological University, and an MA in English/Creative Nonfiction Writing from Southern New Hampshire University. He is internationally known for his writing on Cornish immigration to the United States mining districts.


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