The Mineral Land District

This is the first in a series of posts providing an historical context for the Cliff Mine beginning with the creation of the State of Michigan and ending with the discovery of the Cliff vein.

Immediately after Michigan’s admittance into the Union in 1837, a statewide geologic survey was called for in anticipation of a new onrush of settlers to the state. Douglass Houghton, one of the leading experts in the mineral deposits in the Upper Peninsula, was selected to lead the survey, and for the next 4 years Houghton compiled geologic information that would set the stage for the future development of Michigan. It wasn’t until 1840 that Houghton made it back to the Upper Peninsula and the Keweenaw, but the data collected would arguably be the most important of his career.

La Roche Verte off Hays Point on Copper Harbor. (Photo by S. Gohman)

Accompanied by Bela and Fred Hubbard, Douglass’ cousin Columbus C. Douglass, and Charles W. Penny, the group arrived in mid-summer and went about surveying the geology of the Keweenaw. Camping at Copper Harbor, Houghton mapped what would later be called Hays Point, noting native copper outcrops and La Roche Verte, a spar vein of copper silicate known since the days of French fur trapping voyageurs, and  blasted some samples free from it to take back for further analysis. As summer continued, a visit to the Ontonagon Boulder and several other native copper veins near the Eagle River, provided Houghton with enough samples to make the 1840 season the most productive yet in the understanding of the copper country.

Houghton’s report the following year would become the guiding light for the copper rush about to descend on the Keweenaw. Houghton’s findings outlined in specific terms where mineral explorations could take place, commenting that native copper appeared to be more prevalent in compact rock, not that of a soft or cellular nature. Houghton had little doubt the district would, “eventually prove of great value to our citizens and to the nation,” but feared, “that it may prove the ruin of hundreds of adventurers, who will visit it with expectations never to be realized.” A lack of infrastructure and hard data about the district simply couldn’t ensure success. It didn’t matter; Houghton’s attempts at caution fell mostly on deaf ears. The “Copper Report” of 1841 heralded a copper rush to the Keweenaw, hard data and infrastructure be damned.

By 1843, a full fledged copper rush hit the Keweenaw. In February, Congress ratified the Treaty of La Pointe, which finally ceded all lands from the Chocolay River (near Marquette, MI) to the head of Lake Superior (near Duluth, MN) in exchange for promised annuities in equipment and improvements. The treaty’s ratification meant that the Keweenaw and its minerals were the property of the United States, and by April of that year, an agent for the copper lands had already been appointed, General Walter Cunningham.

Lands ceded to the U.S. in the Treaty of La Pointe

Previously in charge of the lead mine district agency in Galena, IL, Cunningham was authorized to grant leases and permits for mining and smelting on the peninsula. Cunningham set up a land agency office on Porter’s Island, just a few hundred yards from La Roche Verte, and began issuing one-year mining permits covering 3 square miles. For convenience (but without foresight), permits were also granted in Washington D.C., and the opportunities for confusion and corruption in the lease/permit system abounded. Permits for the same property were often either granted to different people or the same person twice. Also, the boundaries themselves were rarely accurate, as a proper survey never took place before the establishment of the land agency. Inevitably, men arriving in Copper Harbor from Washington with permit in hand often found someone else already working the same ground. In the hopes of curbing corruption, General John Stockton replaced Cunningham in August of 1844.

Corruption may have been tackled with the appointment of Stockton, but confusion still reigned. The original system called for the granting of 1 year, 3 mile permits, after which one could apply for a 3 year lease on the same land secured with a $20,000 bond. These leases could then be renewed twice more, meaning any one permit holder could conceivably mine a specific property for 10 years without owning it. As payment, 6% of the profits from raised copper would then be remitted back to the land agency. The number of prospectors far outnumbered the available land and by 1845, the size of permits needed to be reduced to 1 square mile. For all the confusion and corruption, at least 700 permits were still issued in the first 3 years of the program, yet no rental fees had been collected. This, combined with the ease in which anyone could obtain a permit, forced the government to halt all permitting/leasing by 1846.

View of Copper Harbor with Porter's Island located center-left. (Photo by S. Gohman)

In theory, the lease system meant that the U.S. government was assured a cut of the profits made in the district. In reality, leasing prevented the kind of investment necessary to explore a property sufficiently and secure a profit. In fact, by 1846 only two operations raised enough ore to demand the 6% payment to the land agency. Clearly, Houghton’s caution was warranted, but in order for the district to succeed, risk and capital would be required. Therefore, on March 1st, 1847, Congress declared the establishment of a new land district for the purposes of selling mineral lands under the rules of pre-emption. Now lease holders could own their land and minerals in totality. One of these holders was the Pittsburgh and Boston Mining Company, eventual operators of the Cliff Mine.


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About Sean Gohman

Currently a PhD Degree seeking student in the Michigan Tech University's Industrial Heritage and Archaeology program.

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