Native American Heritage

Archaeological History of Isle Royale

By: Caven Clark


he cultural historical framework used to organize the Isle Royale's archaeological history is consistent with nomenclature employed in the northern tier of the Upper Great Lakes states and adjacent provinces. Cultural stages are divided into substages or phases that represent episodes in the cultural evolution of the historic Native Americans. Isle Royale's prehistoric record began about 4,500 years ago, in the Archaic stage, which continued up to around 100 B.C. when pottery was introduced. It was during the Archaic stage that copper mining and working began in earnest, although associated artifacts and habitation sites are only now being identified.

"The dwellers on Lake Superior seem to feel the most superstitious reverence for copper, which is so often found on the surface-soil in a remarkable state of purity. They frequently carry small pieces of copper ore (sic) about with them in their medicine-bag; they are carefully wrapped up in paper, handed down from father to son, and wonderful power is ascribed to them."

---- Johann Georg Kohl (1859)

The subsequent Initial Woodland substage is known from its distinctive ceramics related to coeval or somewhat earlier Middle Woodland developments to the south. Laurel culture (Wilford 1941), identified by its distinctive ceramics, has a geographical range from the northern plains across the Superior basin. Laurel dates broadly from about 1000 B.C. to A.D. 600 when it was gradually supplanted by or evolves into the Terminal Woodland substage. Laurel groups came to Isle Royale, camped, and mined copper; but little of a specific nature can be said of them, owing to the almost universal mixing of Initial and Terminal Woodland components at archeological sites.

The Terminal Woodland substage, dating from ca. A.D. 600 to contact with Europeans around the middle of the seventeenth century, is made more complex by the proliferation of stylistic variability, reflecting an ongoing process of local group development. Stone tools, the primary artifacts by which preceramic cultures are classified, assume a homogeneity in form that is interrupted only by the introduction of the bow and arrow, ca. A.D. 900-1000, marked by the appearance of small triangular arrow points. Ceramics, on the other hand, trace the subtle undulations of cultural interaction across the Upper Great Lakes. Nearly all Great Lakes archeologists and ethnohistorians comment on the puzzling heterogeneity of ceramics on Terminal Woodland sites. Indeed, the image one derives to account for this archeological phenomenon is one of permeable territories, constant exchange or trade, and high mobility of groups.

"The lump of copper in the forest is a great treasure for me. It was so to my father and grandfather. It is our hope and our protection. Through it I have caught many beavers, killed many bears. Through its magic assistance (I) have been victorious in all my battles, and with it I have killed our foes. Through it, too, I have always remained healthy, and reached that great age in which thou now findest me."

-----Kohl 1859 - as spoken by Keatanang,
headman of the Ontonagon Band

The major Terminal Woodland archeological cultures represented on Isle Royale sites suggest that groups journeyed to the island from a widespread area that encompassed the entire Lake Superior basin. Included are the Straits of Mackinac sequence from the Juntunen site, the Lakes phase and its cognates from northern Wisconsin, Blackduck culture, Selkirk composite, and Wanikan culture from the rice district of northern Minnesota and adjacent areas of Ontario and Manitoba, and the Huron-Petun from northern Lake Huron. The cultural-historical sequence is explained in more detail below.

Cultural-Historical Sequence

Copper Mining

By: Lawrence Rakestraw

Hammerstones, McCargo Cove, 1954: Dr. Hakala (NVIC: 50-545), ISRO Archives.

Copper mining on Isle Royale is no recent thing--in fact it has spanned a period of more than 4,500 years. When man first arrived in the New World, perhaps 15,000 to 20,000 years ago, Isle Royale was still covered with thick glacial ice. By the time the ice receded from the Lake Superior Basin and Isle Royale rose above the waters of the lake about 10,000 years ago, Indians already had begun to occupy parts of the Upper Great Lakes.

It will never be known when the first man ventured out across Lake Superior to Isle Royale, but by 2,500 B.C. or shortly thereafter, North American Indians began to exploit the pure copper deposits that were exposed on the surface of the island. Archeologists feel that the Indians may not have deliberately prospected for copper, at least at first, but in the course of their travels about the island, they would watch for nuggets and veins of the bright metal. Eventually a method was developed of extracting the raw copper from the bedrock by beating it free with rounded, hand-held beach cobbles. Thus, numerous pits were dug in the most productive locations on the island, especially along Minong Ridge. Recent archeological excavations have uncoverd large numbers of hammer-stones from the ancient mines which are now filled in by soil and covered with vegetation.

More than 1,000 pits attributed to the Indians have been located on Isle Royale, but since the activity covered a period of at least 1,500 years, there is no basis for suggesting any highly organized efforts to procure the copper. Rather, the mining probably was pursued in the course of an annual round of hunting, fishing, and collecting berries and plants. The copper itself was cold-hammered into knives, points, and a variety of ornaments, either on Isle Royale or taken to the mainland and then worked. Artifacts of Lake Superior copper ultimately made their way to the southern Lake States and New England. Unfortunately, very little is known about the way of life of these earliest miners, since no habitation sites from the mining period have been located on Isle Royale.


  1. Clark, Caven P. Archeological Survey and Testing at Isle Royale National Park, 1987-1990 Seasons. Lincoln, Neb: U.S. National Park Service, Midwest Archeological Center, 1995. Print.

  2. Rakestraw, L., United States., & Isle Royale Natural History Association. (1968). Commercial Fishing on Isle Royale -- 1800-1967. Houghton, Mich.: Isle Royale Natural History Association in cooperation with the National Park Service.

  3. Wilford, Lloyd A. 1941. A Tentative Classification of the Prehistoric Cultures of Minnesota. American Antiquity 6(3):231-249.