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Historic Diaries: James Doty, 1820

June 28, 1820: Quest for the Giant Copper Boulder

Editor's Note:

This unusually long entry describes the party's attempt to locate a giant boulder of copper that had been reported since the 17th century by previous travellers.


In fact, copper mining on Lake Superior's southern shore dated back thousands of years and remained important for so long that we give Doty's account of the day's exploration in its entirety.


Schoolcraft explained how the parties got separated: "The Governor had been so much exhausted by clambering up the river hills, that he determined to return to his point of landing in the river. In this attempt he was guided by one of the Ontonagon Indians, named Wabiskipenais, who missed his way, and wandered about he knew not whither."


Schoolcraft also gives a sketch of the boulder, which came to rest two decades later in the Smithsonian Institution..



Location: near modern Mass City, Mich.


View Doty's handwritten manuscript of this page

View page in the 1895 printed edition

We rose and embarked at half past 3 o'clock. Having gone about two miles up a very strong current, and frequently a rapid, the Indians informed us there was a path leading across from that place to the copper mine — that it was a good level path, there being but one hill in the whole distance — that it would be impossible to reach the mine in canoes and that we should be compelled to walk at least 6 miles. It was therefore concluded that Capt. Douglass, Mr. Schoolcraft, Doct. Wolcott and myself with two of the men & 2 Indians as guides should take the path, but before the Indians would consent they were very anxious to know our numbers. In this and frequently on our route they showed how very suspicious they were of us.


A few minutes before 7 we started, taking a few pieces of biscuits in our pockets, and without having ate a morsel of anything for breakfast. We immediately found ourselves at the foot of a very high mountain which we ascended. For the whole distance we kept the Indian pace and did not walk 2 miles over level ground — it was continually ascending and descending mountains from 5 to 600 feet high. The Indian who acted as guide lost the path soon after leaving the river, & we did not regain it until we came to a sugar camp of his fathers within 4 miles of the mine. In going this distance he led us wherever his fancy dictated, and with a swiftness of pace which accorded better with his strength than ours.


I never underwent as great fatigue. The mercury in the Thermometer stood at 90 in the canoe — on the mountains the heat was oppressive. To see the wind waving the tops of the trees, without a single breath reaching us rendered the heat more intolerable. We passed several fine springs of water but our blood was so heated that we dared not taste them. At length we became so completely overpowered with fatigue & heat, the Doct, particularly, that we were obliged to rest every 90 or 100 rods, and when we arrived at the path I could not have gone 40 rods farther. It was about one o'clock when we stopped. Here we rested half an hour when the Gov., Lt. Mackay & several of the men arrived on their way across the portage to the mine, 2 miles from the canoes. We left 2 men and an Indian to return with the Gov. to the canoes, while we took the ham and crackers he had brought and went on until we came to a spring, where we set down and made a most excellent meal. We ate ham raw. We crossed one ravine and then commenced our descent towards the river.


They led us directly to the rock or mass of copper which lies at the foot of the bank & close to the water. We were greatly disappointed as to size, its length being but 3 feet 8 inches, its breadth 3 feet 4 in., & its thickness about 10 or 12 inches, & containing 11 cubic feet as measured & computed by Capt, Douglass. The copper is embedded in stone, of which I should think it did not compose one half. The copper might perhaps weigh one ton. With great difficulty we cut off some very small pieces. What this mass might have been I cannot say, but at present it in no respect equals the account heretofore given of it. It may have rolled from the mountain back of it, but of this there is no appearance — I should as soon believe it was deposited where it is by some freshet with the other rocks. It appears to be no stranger as to situation, for it has a regular place among them. Perhaps this is not the mass generally spoken of, but is the only one of which we could obtain any information.


The distance from the mouth of the river to the rock is about 35 miles. I think it might be approached in light canoes, but they usually make a portage of 6 ms. Any man in his senses having crossed this once will hardly venture again. The river lies in a S. Easterly direction from the place where we landed to walk.


We returned from the mine to the canoe a little before sun set, and were much surprised to find the Gov. had not yet returned with the men who accompanied him. In no way could we account for his absence, and we all felt very anxious for his safety. Firing guns and halloing were resorted to, but without effect. One of the canoes was manned and sent up the river in search of him. Having proceeded about 8 miles up their gun was answered by a pistol and soon the Indian who had went with the Gov. was seen stretched at length floating down the rapids on 2 logs of which he had made a raft. In a short time they all arrived safe at the camp to the great satisfaction of every one.


When crossing over the mountains I had blamed myself for bringing my pistol, powder and hatchet with me. When we left the Gov. I gave them to a soldier to carry to the camp. But when I found the Gov. was absent I felt satisfied with myself knowing of what service they would be to him. He found them all of use. After these adventures it was with pleasure we found ourselves comfortably in camp together at night.

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