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A Brief History of Ontonagon



The beginning, the life, and the present and future of the Ontonagon country is bound to the River. The Ontonagon River, which gives it’s name to the present country, is the largest river which flows into the south shores of Lake Superior.  The name Ontonagon is like no other.  There is nowhere else on the face of this earth that is identified with the mane “Ontonagon.”  The origins of the name are in the native Ojibaway language and the word itself was likely corrupted into French, and later on, into English.  Pronunciations have varied through the years and have included Nantounaganing, Nund-Norgan, Donegan, Atounagon, and on the first known map of the area published at Paris in 1672 identified the river as the River Nanton Nagun.

The river was known as the “river of the lost bowl” to the Ojibway who lived at its mouth at the time of the coming of the Jesuit missionaries.  The following is Father Gagnieur’s statement about the name of "Ontonagon":

Let us imagine ourselves now on the famous Ontonagon River that flows into Lake Superior. This name is interesting. It appears in the old relations of 1660 as Nantounaganing. The river is famous more particularly for its copper mines and especially for one enormous mass of pure copper. Let us say here that the Indians today and for years past called it Nintonaganing. When and where and by whom it was changed into Ontonagon, will, I suppose, never by known.

Nintonaganing means " the place of my dish," the legend (according to Bishop Baraga who wrote forty-years ago) being that a squaw washing her dish or bowl either dropped it into the river or the current carried it away, and she exclaimed, "Nia! Nind Onagan! Nind Onagan! --- "Oh! My dish! My dish!" Ontonagon would mean "her dish" --- hence maybe Nintogon.

Another authority claimed that according to the context in which it is used, the word Ontonagon can also mean “hunting river.”  Father Verwyst, O. F. M., says that in maps of the 17th Century it is called Nantonagon (and we saw above, that the Relations call it Nantounaganing). When then did Nantonaganing become Nintonaganing? One map gives the spelling, Riviere de Tonnaganne.  Whatever the case, the Ontonagon River was the highway to the interior for the Ojibway, the French couriers de bois, and later for the seekers of the red metal which first brought the white man in hordes to this peaceful land.


One can not look at the early history of this land without looking to the great copper rock: the Ontonagon Boulder.  The Chippewa Indians had long known about it, and made it a shrine of worship, their " Manitou," or mediator between them and the Great Spirit. The great rock which later served as a magnet drawing the copper prospectors to the area lay on the west branch of the Ontonagon River, near the present-day location of the Victoria Hydroelectric Dam. 

Although there is speculation of men working the copper hills of Ontonagon County as long as 4000 years ago, the first Europeans recorded visiting the Ontonagon country was in the1600's when the French trappers came into the area.  The existence of native copper on the shore of Lake Superior was first published to the world in 1636 in a book by M. Lagarde in Paris, France.  The next notation of Lake Superior copper deposits is found in the books of the Jesuit missionaries for 1659 and 1660.  The missionary, Father Claude Allouez, was perhaps the first white man who saw copper along the shore of Lake Superior. Soon thereafter, missions were established by Father Marquette and Father Menard.  Father Charlevoix, a Jesuit missionary reported an incident of human sacrifice upon the great boulder and stated that this immense mass of natural copper was to the Ojibway a Manitou: a go-between to the Great Spirit. 

Copper found in the vicinity of the River sparked an interest in mineral development of the region.  In 1734, Louis Denis Sieur de la Ronde, the French commandant at Chequamegon Bay (present-day Ashland, Wisconsin) had actually planned mining operations and built a 25-ton sloop for the expressed purpose of transporting copper to Sault Ste Marie, but local conflict between the Ojibway and the Sioux kept him from fulfilling these plans.

In 1765, following the French and Indian War, English fur trader Alexander Henry visited the region and found large masses of copper.  The next year he again visited the Ontonagon area and the Indians showed him a solid mass of pure copper weighing an estimated 5 tons.  During the winter of 1771-1772 he organized a party of English miners, and they came to the Ontonagon River and explored for copper on the property, which later became the Victoria Mine - the first mining venture in what would become this county. Henry erroneously assumed that the boulder’s origin was a great load of pure copper in the river bank.  This attempt was doomed to failure for several reasons, not the least of which was the lack of mining experience by the 26 men left by Henry at the boulder site to drive an adit into the river bank.  Spring rains caused the tunnel to collapse, nearly ending the life of several of the excavators.  No further attempts at copper mining were made for seventy years.  Henry quit his mining venture in frustration, writing  in his journal "The copper-ores of Lake Superior can never be profitably sought for but for local consumption."  

It was long after the war for independence that interest was again drawn to the area, and once again, the great copper rock was the magnet.  In 1828, Henry Schoolcraft, General Lewis Cass, and a host of explorers visited the great copper rock through the years, and nearly all managed to cut off souvenir pieces, but none succeeded in actually removing the boulder.  Mr. George Johnson, of Sault Ste. Marie, also visited the rock and undertook to remove it, and in such attempt he only succeeded in raising it upon skids in which position he abandoned it.

Mr. Julius Eldred of Detroit, a well-to-do hardware merchant and real estate developer had heard of the legendary copper rock from a member of the former Cass expedition and undertook the project of purchasing the ancient artifact from the Ojibway with the intent of exhibiting the copper curiosity at Detroit. Mr. Eldred outfitted an expedition in 1841 and accompanied by Samuel Ashman of Sault Ste Marie who served as attorney to Mr. Eldred, Eldred purchased the boulder from O-Kun-De-Kun (Konteka), chief of the Ontonagon Ojibway band for $150.00 paid as $45.00 in hard cash, the remaining $105.00 in merchandise from Eldred's hardware establishment at Detroit. Eldred had a signed contract, and a bill of sale, duly witnessed and in every way possible, and had made a good-faith bargain with the Ojibway chief. After visiting the boulder site and raising the great rock up on log cribbing to determine the exact size of the rock, he left for Detroit confident that he had consummated a legal purchase and held a legal title to the copper rock.

In 1840, Dr. Douglas Houghton, state geologist for the young state of Michigan visited the boulder site and again took samples.  In 1842 he published his report on the extraction of a huge bolder of pure copper* from the Ontonagon River.  He also reported the existence of iron in the Upper Peninsula. The report sparked the "copper rush" in which thousands of neophyte miners stormed into the western end of the Upper Peninsula. In just two years a territory that had no towns, transportation system, or agricultural resources was transformed into a patchwork of mines and company towns. By 1845 two copper mines and an iron mine were fully functional.  The Minesota (the correct spelling) mine which operated near Rockland 1846-1865 paid out millions of dollars in dividends.

It was not until 1842 that James K. Paul, then a resident of the lead-mining regions of Wisconsin, and afterward the first pioneer of Ontonagon county, heard of the existence of this rock, when he determined to secure it; and, accompanied by an educated half-breed Indian named Nicholas Myraclur, at once started across the wild, uninhabited country to Lake Superior, which they reached at the mouth of the Montreal River, and then came down the lake to the Ontonagon River. Obtaining a guide, they proceeded to the west branch of the Ontonagon, about twenty miles from the mouth of the main river, where they found the object of their search on the southwest quarter of Section 31, Town 50 north, Range 39 west.

Thus found, they built a cabin near it, to hold their acquired right by pre-emption of the land on which it was situated. Subsequently, Mr. Paul and his men drove a two-mule team into the mountains and loaded the copper treasure upon his batteaux, and removed it to the mouth of the Ontonagon River.  In June, 1842 Eldred returned to the area for his purchased treasure, only to find it in Paul's possession.  Eldred had to buy it again, this time from the group of tough miners who also claimed it was theirs.

After much time and effort Eldred got it to the water and onto a barge and floated it to Detroit where he planned to charge the citizens 25 cents a peek.  Called a "supreme gesture of nature," and a "veritable nugget from the gods," the rock generated nearly as much interest as the Hope Diamond or King Tut's tomb. The Upper Peninsula seemed as far away as the moon to most Detroiters.

So much interest had been generated in the copper boulder that "Manitou" was formally claimed by General Cunningham as agent of the United States Government, who had been instructed by the Secretary of War to remove it to Washington. It was finally agreed that Mr. Eldred should deliver the rock to the Government officers at Detroit, and be paid for his trouble. This was accordingly done, and the celebrated copper rock of Ontonagon, the "Manitou" of the natives, was safely landed in Washington City, and is now one of the curiosities of the Smithsonian Institution. Mr. Eldred received $5,654.98 for his services.

Note:  Since 1858 the "Manitou" sits in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C.   The weight of the rock, after losing many pieces previously cut off as relics and specimens, was found to be 3,708 pounds.  The irregular shaped boulder measures roughly 4' 3" by 3' 11" and is about18" thick.


On March 9, 1843, the legislature of the State of Michigan approved the establishment of the County of Ontonagon together with Isle Royale on Lake Superior. Then on April 3, 1848, the legislature designated the separated County of Ontonagon. According to the legislation, the law creating the County of Ontonagon reads as follows:

"All that portion of the State embraced within the line between ranges thirty-seven and thirty-eight West, the north boundary of township forty-one, and the Montreal River and Lake Superior, shall be laid off as a separate county and known and designated as the County of the Ontonagon."

Ontonagon County was laid off, boundaries defined and named, by an act of the Legislature entitled "An act to divide the Upper Peninsula into six counties and define the boundaries of the same," approved March 9, 1843.  It was attached to Chippewa County for judicial purposes. An act approved May 18, 1846, entitled "An act to organize the counties of Houghton, Schoolcraft, Ontonagon and Marquette," provided that the county of Ontonagon, as laid off and bounded by the act of 1843, should be organized by an election of county officers, to be held on the first Monday of August, 1846, including a County Judge.  The county was, by this act, attached to Honghton County for judicial and other purposes.

The 1846 Act also provided that the first election should be held for all this territory, including Ontonagon, at Copper Harbor, Eagle River and L'Anse. By another act, approved March 17, 1847, it was provided that an election for county officers in Houghton County, including Ontonagon as attached territory, should be held in all the townships thereof, on the first Tuesday of July, 1847. Another act, approved April 3, 1848, was passed, providing for the organizing of four counties in the Upper Peninsula, Section 3, and defining and naming Ontonagon County as one of them. The act also repeals the County Judge system in each county, and substitutes a District Judge for all the counties. It also provided for the election of county officers on the first Tuesday of July, 1848, in Ontonagon County, which, with Marquette and Schoolcraft, are attached to Houghton for judicial purposes. None of these acts were carried out by the perfection of a separate county organization of Ontonagon, although a special election was held therein on the last Tuesday of September, 1852, and an organization thereof thus perfected, but was held illegal because it was irregularly held as to time and manner. However, a curative act was passed, approved January 17, 1853, which provided "that the election of county officers in Ontonagon County, held on the last Tuesday of September, 1852, and the organization of said county under and by virtue of said election, be and the same is hereby held and deemed to have been duly organized on and after January 1, 1853."

The same act also provided "that all of Houghton County lying west of the line between Ranges 35 and 36, heretofore constituting a part of said county, is hereby annexed to and constitutes a part of Ontonagon County."  Thus the detachment of Ontonagon County from Houghton for election, judicial and revenue purposes, and the complete organization thereof by itself, dates from January 1, 1853.   The seat of justice of Ontonagon County was established by a commission of three persons, appointed by the Governor, under the organic act of 1846, at the mouth of the Ontonagon River, which is some two hundred feet wide at that point, and flows into Lake Superior. The place was named Ontonagon after the river and county, the origin of which is noted in the early part of this county's history. The village is 336 miles from Sault Ste. Marie, and sixty miles from Isle Royale, which is northward, in Lake Superior.

When Ontonagon County created, it extended west to the Montreal River on the Wisconsin border. The county included two townships - Ontonagon and Pewabic. Pewabic included the present townships of Carp Lake, Matchwood, Bergland, and all of present Gogebic County. The first, or organizing election of the county was held on the last Tuesday of September, 1852, as before noted, at two voting precincts - one in the township of Ontonagon, and the other in the township of Pewabic. 

The following were the county officers thus chosen: District Judge, Ira D. Bush; Judge of Probate, J. W. Edwards; Circuit Court Commissioner, W. W. Spaulding; Clerk and Register of Deeds, H. R. Close; Treasurer, T. B. Hanna; Sheriff, Peter Dean; Surveyor, Charles Merryweather. These officers, together with the Board of Supervisors, organized and placed the civic machinery of the county in operation. The first Board of Supervisors was composed of Augustus Coburn, of Ontonagon Township, and James Van Alstine, of Pewabic Township, chosen, with other township officers in their respective townships, at the said first election.

The first records of the county were made at the early county seat of Houghton County, at Eagle River, such as the first deed, mortgage, marriage license, criminal and other actions in the first court held. The first District Judge holding court in Ontonagon County was Daniel Goodwin.


By legislative act, approved March 16, 1847, Ontonagon County was divided into two civil townships, and named as follows:

1. "All that part of the county of Ontonagon lying east of the line between Ranges 40 and 41 west, be and the same is hereby set off and organized into a separate township by the name of Ontonagon, and the first township meeting shall be held at the house of Daniel S. Cash, in said township."

2. "All that part of the county of Ontonagon lying west of the line running between Ranges 40 and 41 west, be and the same is hereby set off and organized into a separate township by the name of Pewabic, and the first township meeting shall be held at the house of Thomas Palmer, in said township."

The first election in these townships or precincts, under the separate and independent organization of Ontonagon County, of which any record or information is found, was held April 2, 1849. At the organizing election thus held in Ontonagon Township, there were twenty-one votes cast by the pioneer electors, as follows: Samuel O. Knapp, Daniel P. Cash, J. B. Townsend, P. B. Eastman, John Smith, Francis Anthony, Edmond Lockwood, James K. Paul, Edwin Emmons, Josiah B. Jeffrey, Henry H. Wolcott, Asa A. Jeffrey, Daniel Beaser, W. French, S. Shelley, J. W. Parker, George B. Mansfield, Thomas McDonald, Peter Geise, Lathrop Johnson and Josiah Chandler.

The first officers thus elected by the above constituency were: Supervisor, Daniel S. Cash; Clerk, P. Eastman; Treasurer, Josiah Chandler; School Inspectors, Peter B. Eastman and James B. Townsend; Assessors, Edward C. Rahm and William French; Highway Commissioners, Daniel Beaser and S. O. Knapp; Justices of the Peace, S. O. Knapp, Edwin Simmons, Daniel Beaser and Edmond Lockwood; Constables, George B. Mansfield, H. H. Walcott, F. W. Anthony and James W. Parker; Overseers of Poor, William French and Asa Godfrey. The Inspectors and Clerk of this election were J. B. Townsend and P. B. East man respectively. Daniel Beaser, one of the Justices of the Peace elect, at once went to Eagle River, about one hundred miles, to be qualified, so he could administer the oath to the other township officers elect, which he did on his return, that being the nearest point where he could " swear." Thus the civic machinery of Ontonagon Township was placed in operation.


As an illustration of the hardships and deprivations of pioneer life, it was noted in the Miner newspaper of Ontonagon, January 12, 1856, thus:

On Monday last, the first mail from 'below,' containing a small part of the matter due us, reached here, after a delay of over sixty days, allowing fifteen days for its passage from Green Bay to this place. The dog train brought us all they could carry, and of course left what they could not bring. Whether any of it has got as far as Marquette we are not advised. Below that point the mail may still be carrying pork, as it was at our last advices. The five bags which were abandoned on the lake shore are there yet for aught we know. This mail matter, it will be recollected, contained the first news from ' below' since the close of navigation.

At Chandler's shanty, Escanaba, three bags were thrown off to make room for the barrel of pork mentioned above. The same paper contains a mention of the delay of mails the winter prior, 1855, relating "another mail failure; our first mail from below left in the woods; one bag containing a few letters from Marquette and L'Anse was brought to the village to-day by an Indian."

Another account says: "On Monday last, two Indian mail-carriers arrived at L'Anse with a small mail bag containing letters from Marquette, who reported that they had left five bags of mail matter hanging on the trees near the lake shore." Complaints were sometimes made that the mail matter arrived in a wet condition, when it would be ascertained that the Indian carriers had broken through the ice on Green Bay, and had been hauled through the water at the end of a rope, with the mail bag on his back. Such were the tribulations of pioneer days.

Transportation was difficult and the high quality of the ore made it inappropriate for the closest smelters in Jackson.  Thus, the miners of Michigan constructed their own furnaces on site.  Fired by hardwood charcoal and filled with iron ore and limestone from the cliffs of Lake Michigan, the furnaces produced some of the most desirable bar iron available.

One of the most disastrous fatalities occurring in the Lake Superior region was the foundering of the steamer Sunbeam, between Eagle River and Ontonagon, August 21, 1863, with twenty-five passengers on board, all of whom perished save one man to tell the sad story of  terror. 

On the 6th of July, 1865, the most devastating flood occurred in the county ever witnessed. Its damage to property was destructive and extensive, especially along the river and mining range, to mills, dams, bridges, timber and logs and roads, and above the Forest Landing, on the Ontonagon River, barns, stables and other buildings were swept away, in one stable of which ten horses were lost. The damage of this flood in the county was estimated at $60,000.

There were doubtless many other fatalities and incidents in the county, from its pioneer days to the present time, not mentioned here.


A journey from the Gogebic mining area to the county court house at Ontonagon meant a loss of nearly a week’s time. On June 4, 1866, a meeting of the citizens of several townships of both parts of the county was held at Ironwood. The session was organized by the election of Captain W. E. Parnall of Rockland as chairman. The secretary chosen was B. F. Chynoweth of Greenland. In stating the purpose of the gathering, Parnall advocated the removal of the county seat from Ontonagon to some more central point on the mining range, in lieu of a diversion of the county.  However, it became apparent that the plan of removal was considered an impractical one by a large majority of those present at the meeting. As a result, Supervisor W. L. Pierce of Ironwood moved that  that Ontonagon County be divided, which motion prevailed with only one dissenting vote. The division line between the two counties was amicably agreed upon, and the name "Gogebic" which had already become familiar, was appropriately adopted for the new county.


The first wireless telegraphy was done in Ontonagon County by Ayers Stockley, shortly after the laying of the first successful Atlantic cable in1866. Ayers Stockley (also spelled Ayres Stockly) used crude homemade apparatus, but succeeded in transmitting telegraphic messages correctly, for a distance of nine miles, by utilizing the magnetic earth currents traversing the cupriferous strata.  Original historic documents still available indicate that Ayer Stockley was in Ontonagon county in 1868, as he signed a petition on March 7, 1867, relating to the building of the Military Road. Efforts have been made to establish the truth of the claim that Stockley sent the first wireless message; no official government agency has yet been able to prove the contrary. Consequently, unless something now unknown is disclosed, Ayers Stockley successfully experimented with wireless seven years before Marconi was born. The later inventor did not come to the United States until 1899.

By the 1880's the copper boom had gone bust.  Ontonagon County would again find prosperity in one of its natural resources, the vast stands of giant white pine.  Over the next two decades millions of board feet of lumber were cut and shipped to markets in the big cities to the south.  With the logging came the development of the South end of the county. Ewen became a large boom town rivaling Ontonagon for the county seat. 

Beginning in the 1880's, the pine forests began to bring in lumber companies, the largest was the Diamond Match Co. that brought out many of the smaller companies.  A fire in 1896 destroyed the town of Ontonagon, including the Diamond Match Co., and marked the end of the pine era. 

Over the years Ontonagon County has survived with mining and the forest product industry.  Mining was carried on to some degree until about 1918, and then again from 1952 to 1995 at White Pine.  Logging is still a major industry with the forest products being used in building, furniture and paper products.  Today Ontonagon County again relies much on one of its natural resources, its beauty, as tourism becomes a very important part of the County's economy. Each year millions of visitors come to Ontonagon county for many recreation and tourist activities.


Courter, E. W. Michigan's Copper Country. Lansing: Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Geological Survey Division, 1992.
Reardon, Kathryn & Kathleen Rubatt.  Gogebic County History: Little known facts of the Gogebic Range.
Stevens, Horace J.  The Copper Handbook, Volume X 1911.  Houghton: Mining Gazette Co., 1902,  page 190.

Western Historical Company. History of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Chicago: The Western Historical Company, 1883.