Mining in 19th Century Wisconsin

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Mining has been an important part of Wisconsin and its economy for over 200 years. Many minerals have been mined in the state from copper to iron but the best known and most important metal to be excavated in the state was lead. Evidence suggests that long before Europeans came the First Nations People knew about and mined the lead deposits. Whenever it began, mining has had a massive impact on the state’s economy from before it was founded. Mining has had such an impact on the state that a miner is one of two figures on the state flag (the other is that of a sailor).[1]

Pre contact to 1820

It is thought that the native people of Wisconsin knew of and mined the deposits of lead near the surface. In fact if it hadn’t been for the First Nations People it is doubtful that the French, the first Europeans to explore the state in the 17th and 18th century, would have known of the rich lead deposits in the southern part of the state.[2] Many French explorers traded goods for lead from native peoples but the mines were usually kept secret from the French. That was until a Frenchman named Nicholas Perrot was given a piece of lead ore by a Miami Chief.[3] After being given the ore Perrot started a trading post so the natives would give him the location of the mine it came from.[4] These early mines were almost all near the current day borders of Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin. The French stayed in the area until the land was lost to Brittan in the 1760s. After that there was little of note in the lead region until the 1820s and 1830s.

1820 to 1840

Outside of a few traders who had good relations with the Native Americans there was little mining done by white men. Between 1800 and 1835 most Native American land south of the Wisconsin River was relinquished to the US government. It is after this time when there was a sort of mining boom in southwestern Wisconsin, mainly near the Fever (A.K.A. Galena) river.[5] During the 1830s there was a mass migration of miners from all over the world. Some of the first miners came from Missouri, a state that itself had a lead boom a decade before.[6] Later on news reached Cornwall, a centuries old hard rock mining location in England, causing even more to migrate to Wisconsin.[7] This influx of miners were so ready to start mining that they dugs holes into hillsides to find lead and create a home. This practice garnered miners the nick name “badgers” due to the similarity to how a badger creates its burrow; this name has lived on into the modern day due in part to the UW Madison’s mascot Bucky Badger.[8] There were so many mines that a land office opened in Mineral Point in 1834. Through the 1830s mining was relatively easy due to the deposits being close to the surface, but as the 1830s came to a close many of the easy to reach deposits started to be depleted.

1840 to 1880

During the 1840s lead mining saw a decline in southwestern Wisconsin. By 1844 one third of the people living in this part of state had left.[9] The reasons for this exodus was because the lead was becoming harder to find and more expensive to extract. This along with iron and copper mines springing up in other parts of the country didn’t help. The last event to pull people away from the southwestern part of Wisconsin was the California gold rush in 1849. The people who remained decided to put down roots in that corner of the state and start farming. Many of these farmers continued to mine part time to add income to their farm.[10] As time went on the few large mines that remained switched from mining lead to zinc due to the fact that most of the lead was gone from the land. In the 1850s mining had shrunk so much that 90% of the land was now farm land. Although most mines in the lead region were gone by the 1840s, a few managed to hang on through until the next century.[11] Just as the lead mining began to tail off iron mining began to start all over the state. As early as 1849 Sauk, Dodge, and Jackson counties began to be mined for iron ore, these deposits were miniscule in comparison to deposits in the northern part of Wisconsin near the border with Upper Michigan.[12]

1880 to 1900

Starting in the 1880s iron mining began in the northern part of the state near the border with Upper Michigan. There were numerous mines operating in both the U.P. and Wisconsin. Most of the ore was extracted from the Montreal Mine near Montreal and Cray Mine near the town of Hurley.[13] These two mines lasted until the 1960s where as the smaller mines that sprang up around them only lasted until the First World War.

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What is left of the Plummer Mine headframe in present day Iron County Wisconsin. Source: Wikimedia Commons[1]

Ecological Impacts

It is hard to quantify the ecological impact of mining in the 19th century due to many reasons. One of the largest is the lack of knowledge about the environment at the time. Although anecdotal evidence suggests that there may not have been much of an impact due to the well known fertility of the land in areas previously mined and the existence of the wilderness of the north woods.

Conclusion

Mining has helped shape Wisconsin into the state it is today. Although not as prevalent today as it once was mining is still done in the state and may expand in the future. In the modern era many question whether mining is worth the ecological costs that it entails. Whilst others argue that the economic impact out weights the ecological cost. What is known is that mining will continue to shape the political discourse and impact the economy of the state of Wisconsin today and in the future.

References

  1. “Wisconsin State Flag,” Wisconsin DNR, accessed December 9, 2015,http://dnr.wi.gov/eek/nature/state/flag.htm
  2. “Lead Mining in Southwestern Wisconsin” Wisconsin State Historical Society, accessed December 8, 2015, http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/turningpoints/tp-026/?action=more_essay
  3. Thwaites, Reuben Gold, "Notes on Early Lead Mining in the Fever (or Galena) River Region" Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, vol. 13 (Madison, 1895): 271-292. Online facsimile at http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/turningpoints/search.asp?id=896
  4. Thwaites, Reuben Gold, "Notes on Early Lead Mining in the Fever (or Galena) River Region" Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, vol. 13 (Madison, 1895): 271-292. Online facsimile at http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/turningpoints/search.asp?id=896
  5. Meeker, Moses, 1790-1865. "Early history of the Lead Region of Wisconsin." Wisconsin Historical Collections, vol. VI (Madison, 1872): 271-296. Online facsimile at http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/turningpoints/search.asp?id=895
  6. Meeker, Moses, 1790-1865. "Early history of the Lead Region of Wisconsin." Wisconsin Historical Collections, vol. VI (Madison, 1872): 271-296. Online facsimile at http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/turningpoints/search.asp?id=895
  7. “Wisconsin Mines,” David Johnson, accessed December 7, 2015, http://www.miningartifacts.org/Wisconsin-Mines.html
  8. “Lead Mining in Southwestern Wisconsin” Wisconsin State Historical Society, accessed December 8, 2015, http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/turningpoints/tp-026/?action=more_essay
  9. “Lead Mining in Southwestern Wisconsin” Wisconsin State Historical Society, accessed December 8, http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/turningpoints/tp-026/?action=more_essay
  10. Wisconsin Historical Society, Wisconsin Local History & Biography Articles; viewed online at http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/turningpoints/tp-026/?action=more_essay on December 10, 2015
  11. “Wisconsin Mines,” David Johnson, accessed December 7, 2015 http://www.miningartifacts.org/Wisconsin-Mines.html
  12. “Wisconsin Mines,” David Johnson, accessed December 7, 2015, http://www.miningartifacts.org/Wisconsin-Mines.html
  13. “Wisconsin Mines,” David Johnson, accessed December 7, 2015, http://www.miningartifacts.org/Wisconsin-Mines.html

Archival Resources for Further Research

Walter, Pollock, "Wisconsin lead mines: a region once the mecca of hosts of fortune seekers."; Online facsimile at: http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/turningpoints/search.asp?id=721; Visited on: 12/11/2015

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