The Ontonagon Boulder – A Copper Country Legend

As the Glaciers receded from the lands of Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula, they left behind a great boulder of pure native copper. On a branch of the Ontonagon river thirty-five miles from the mouth, it rested in the waters guarded by 50 foot cliffs and cascading waters untraversable by boat. To get to the boulder meant crossing harsh terrains of several hundred foot peaks and marshy canyons. The boulder rested there for thousands of years, held sacred by local Indian tribes who felt it a glorious gift from the gods.

As the early settlers caught bits of tales of the boulder, explorers would from time to time set off to find it. Those that did brought back stories of the boulder, but due to its location and size, none could move it. The first stories about the boulder held that it was five tons. One early explorer was able to chip a one hundred pound piece from the boulder. Whether many were able to do this despite the hardness of the rock, whether the stories had been exaggerated, or maybe a for a bit of both reasons, the boulder, when finally pried from it’s resting place, in actuality weighed 3,708 pounds.

There are several stories of how the boulder was eventually won. The one with the most evidence of truth is one of the most colorful stories of Michigan’s Copper Rush era.

When negotiations with the Indians were started in 1826, the Government commissioned a party to take the boulder, thinking that their negotiations would be successful. Neither the negotiations nor the recovery party were, but word about the expedition spread rapidly.

Julius Eldred, a merchant from Detroit, came into wind of the stories of the great boulder and grew obsessed with obtaining it for himself. He was not interested in it for the value of the metal, but had visions of making his fortune by putting the boulder on public exhibition. His vision eventually led him to search out the boulder with Samuel Ashmen, a justice of the peace from the Northern Michigan territory who understood the local Indian cultures and language. Julius, with the help of his companion, was able to make purchase of the boulder from the Indians for $45.00 up front and $105.00 worth of goods when Eldred’s crew had the boulder in their possession. Eldred then proceeded back home to gather up the manpower and supplies he would need to bring the boulder home.

Early in 1843 Eldred went back with full gear to retrieve the boulder. He did not realize that Colonel Hammond, of the Plattville, Wisconsin territory was also on the way with a party of men to retrieve the boulder. Little did either of these parties know that the Secretary of State had issued a Colonel White the first exploring permits issued when the purchase from the Indians of the Keweenaw Peninsula area had been signed at about the same time that year.

When White’s party reached the boulder they found Hammond’s party already there. After a bit of a ruckus, White sold his permit to Hammond’s company for an undisclosed sum. Arriving at the boulder with specialized equipment and a full and ready crew of workers, Eldred was surprised to find his boulder being guarded by Hammond’s troops. Of course a purchase from the Indians held no merit against a government permit. Once again Eldred was forced to negotiate a price for possession of the boulder. Hammond, with Eldred’s check for $1,365.00, took his troops and left Eldred and his men to retrieve the prize.

They had to hoist the nearly two ton boulder up the 50 foot cliff, and place it on a flat car the crew had built for it. Then they cleared a four and a half mile track of road over the rough terrain. They laid down 25 feet of railroad track to slide the cart. A second section of track was placed in front of it and as the cart was rolled to the end, the track behind was picked up and placed in front. This also meant anchoring the cart while the tracks were picked up and put down. How long this effort took, there is no record of, but it is said that raising the boulder from the river to the top of the cliff alone took over a week. At the main stream, the boulder was floated on a raft to the mouth of the river where they were once again met by Colonel Hammond himself.

Hammond had been to Detroit where he had tried to cash Eldred’s check, but it had not been honored. He demanded the boulder back. Eldred was forced to leave the boulder and go with the Colonel to cash the check. Afterwards, Eldred arranged for a schooner from Copper Harbor to transport the prize. He arrived in Copper Harbor only to find General Cunningham there with orders to seize the boulder in the name of the United States Government. His permit was completely unconsidered. Cunningham had been directed to reimburse Eldred $700.00 for the rock. Being understanding that this was a pittance that did not begin to cover Eldred’s expenses, he agreed to allow Eldred to take the boulder back to Detroit, pending an adjustment in the reimbursement by the war department.

Finally Eldred and the schooner reached the mouth of the Ontonagon river again to find his boulder waiting on the raft. So was Chief Okondoken. Once the Chief’s goods were delivered to him, the boulder was on it’s way back to Detroit with a very weary Julius Eldred. Arriving in Detroit on October 11, 1843, Eldred wasted no time in putting the boulder into an exhibition hall where he charged the public a quarter a head to see the now quite famous rock. His problems now seemed a fortune for the publicity it gave his venture.

The boulder was seized from Eldred by the War Department on November 9th. He was allowed to go with the agents to deliver the boulder personally to it’s resting place on display in the yard of the War Department. Julius Eldred was later reimbursed $5,664.98 for the boulder by Congress.

How large the boulder was when the Glaciers left it in it’s protective resting spot and how many copper hunters chipped away at it over the thousands of years will remain forever a mystery.

Today the Ontonagon Boulder rests at the Natural History building of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, holding within it a quiet testimony to the vibrant histories and legends of the early explorers and prospectors during the settlement of Michigan and the Copper Rush era.

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