Lake Superior pioneers formed an army of Daniel Boones

Cyrus Mendenhall and Charles Gratiot were two more early pioneers of the Lake Superior copper region, both of whom we have talked about at great length over the years. Of them, Gratiot is probably the most remembered forgotten pioneer on Keweenaw Point.

Gratiot Lake is named for him, as is the Gratiot River and Gratiot Street in Copper Harbor. Yet, very few people today seem to know who these places were named for. Who or what was Gratiot? Why are so many things named after a man no one is familiar with? Gratiot was the first superintendent of the first mining company organized to mine for copper in the Lake Superior region.

The Lake Superior company was organized as an association, rather than a corporation, in Boston, on Feb. 22, 1844. Rather than a board of directors, the company was governed by three trustees: David Henshaw, a Boston lawyer and politician; Lemuel Williams, a Cambridge, Massachusetts, lawyer and politician; and De Garmo Jones, a Detroit businessman and politician.

According to michigan.gov’s Military and Veterans Affairs, Jones “was prominent in the development of the Lake Superior copper mines.” The website took Jones’ brief biography, verbatim, from the 1888 publication, Early History of Michigan: With Biographies of State Officers, Members of State Officers, Members of Congress, Judges and Legislators, by Stephen D. Bingham. Born in Albany, New York, in 1787, Jones passed away in 1846, dying two years before his mining company did. Contrary to Bingham’s assessment, Jones sadly did not become prominent in the development of Lake Superior copper mines. What Jones did as a trustee of the Eagle River company, had a deep and far-reaching impact on the development of entire Lake Superior Mining District, including the iron ranges, because what Jones did was contract Col. Charles H. Gratiot to superintend the mining venture on the west branch of Eagle River. Gratiot, in turn, brought the first Cornish miners to the copper district. We discussed this topic back on Dec. 11, 2021:

“De Garmo Jones, one of the three trustees of the Lake Superior Copper Company that operated on the Eagle River in the Keweenaw Point district,” we mentioned, “recruited Gratiot to oversee the mining and development of the mine there. Gratiot, in turn, recruited a dozen or so Cornish immigrant miners from the Mineral Point, Wisconsin area, and they were the first Cornish miners recorded in the Lake Superior mining region.”

Gratiot was the first to introduce Cornish miners to the new mineral district.

Gratiot was in his early teens when his father and an uncle left the Galena lead region and established one of the first lead mining businesses in the Wisconsin Lead Mining District, in 1826. Galena and Wisconsin Territory were popular destinations for Cornish miners, many of whom migrated to those districts from the Pennsylvania coal fields. When he accepted Jones’ proposal, it is almost certain that Gratiot recruited his team of Cornish miners from the Mineral Point, Wisconsin, region.

Mendenhall made his fortune in coal mining in Columbiana County, Ohio. He started a fishing company in 1839, which probably was a front for examining the copper situation in the Lake Superior region. Mendenhall was among the first to obtain mining leases from the War Department, many of them on Isle Royale and one in Ontonagon County. He began the first mining operation on the island; he was among the very first to begin mining in the Ontonagon district. He operated on a tract on Keweenaw Point, immediately to the east of the Pittsburgh and Boston property at Copper Harbor, but War Department records state he did not secure a lease for the tract.

Mendenhall came into the district with more than average fanfare, but like most of the other early pioneer mine managers, left without saying good-bye. He just dropped out of the copper region historical record.

The investors of the Copper Falls Mining Company, which was organized in 1845, purchased the tract from the Lake Superior Copper Company. The directors contracted a lead miner named Joshua Childs to superintend the opening of the mine. They probably hired Childs on the recommendation of Charles Gratiot — Childs was his nephew.

None of them remained in the copper district for long, although Childs was still at Copper Falls in 1852. While none of them became famous for mining copper, they all did what other pioneers did all over the United States: They entered a wilderness and transformed it into a frontier. They were the pathfinders that opened the region for others who would follow them.

Gratiot, for example, first explored the land around Eagle Harbor in 1844 where, according to a report by geologist Charles T. Jackson, built a large log cabin for the shelter of himself and his crew. The location was soon abandoned when a copper deposit was discovered on the west branch of Eagle River. Jackson wrote in his report that: “the miners have now erected several log cabins near the principal vein on Eagle River, and have removed thither, leaving the old house for a store, in which the provisions brought by the brig (John Jacob Astor) may be kept until they can be carried to the mines.”

“Carried to the mines.” — If this is accurate, it suggests that Gratiot and his men cut at least a foot path through the forest to carry provisions from the store house to the mine. That is only my speculation, though. What is fact is that the several log cabins near Eagle River established the location known today as “Old Phoenix.” Records from the early period of the Lake Superior company, and Jackson’s reports, do tell us that Gratiot cut a road from the mine site to the shore of Lake Superior, along the west side of the Eagle River. Simon Mandlebaum in 1849 organized the Phoenix Copper Company to purchase the abandoned Lake Superior property. Three years later, they abandoned the mine on Eagle River and moved inland to the area now called Phoenix. The road that was cut from that location connected with the one Gratiot had cut through eight years before.

Joshua Childs, agent of the Copper Falls, also cut a road from that mining location to the waterfront at Eagle Harbor in 1845, while Mendenhall also had cut a road through the forest to his location in the Ontonagon district that later became the Lafayette Mine.

Gratiot, Mendenhall, Childs — these three men are just a few examples of those who ventured into a wilderness, built small settlements, opened roads and transformed that wilderness into a frontier. Daniel Boone is a great American historical legend, but in the Lake Superior copper district, it was just something mining men did on a regular basis.


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