Native American Copper Mining
The idea that Europeans settlers could find copper deposits around Lake Superior came from the earliest contacts explorers had with the native peoples. They found tribes from the St. Lawrence River to the Gulf of Mexico using copper implements and ornaments. They also learned that much of this copper had come from the Lake Superior region.
George A. West, in Copper: Its Mining and Use by the Aborigines of the Lake Superior Region, describes how the Indians mined the green metal. First they searched rock outcroppings for green streaks that indicated the presence of malachite which is often found in association with other copper-bearing minerals. They then built a large fire over the rock, and, after getting it very hot, threw water on the rock causing it to fracture. Next, the Indians used stone mauls to break away the cracked pieces of rock. The stone these mauls were made of was very brittle, and so they didn’t last long before the workers had to find another one. As a consequence, Indians littered the areas around their copper pits with the splintered remains of hundreds of thousands of mauls. In the process of mining copper, these early miners excavated trenches 5-15 feet wide, 6-10 feet deep, and up to 20 feet long. In some cases, the Indians used their canoe paddles as shovels.
After separating the copper from the fractured bits of rock, a toolmaker in the tribe worked the metal into one of many items. To strengthen the copper so it could be given a thin edge, the Indians annealed the metal, repeatedly heating the piece being worked on and then dipping it in water. In this way, Indians were able to fashion spear and arrow-points, knives, axes, wedges, piercing implements, fishing implements, and ornaments such as beads, bracelets, rings, and pendants.
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