During the mid-17th century, Indians living along the southern shore of Lake Superior treasured pieces of copper that weighed between 10 and 20 pounds. The Indians believed that these large copper nuggets contained powerful benevolent spirits. They were kept carefully wrapped and passed down from generation to generation.

Larger boulders of copper lying in the forests or along riverbanks or lakeshores were also venerated. One of these was the most famous "rock" ever found in Michigan - the Ontonagon Boulder, or as it was known in the 1840s, "the copper rock of Lake Superior." Rumors of this and other large boulders were known to French missionaries and explorers even before they arrived in the "Copper Country." The first European to actually report seeing the Ontonagon Boulder was Mackinac trader Alexander Henry. In 1766, Henry traveled thirty miles up the Ontonagon River and cut a 100-pound piece from the boulder.

Other early Michiganians who paid a visit to the boulder include Douglas Houghton and Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. They reported that there were numerous ax and chisel marks on the rock, which indicated that an unknown quantity of copper had been removed by prehistoric and historic Indians and souvenir hunters.

Fame, however, doomed the boulder. Julius Eldred, a Detroit hardware merchant, heard about the great copper rock and became determined to possess it. Eldred did not want the boulder for its metallic value, which only would have been about $600. Instead, he intended to tour eastern cities and charge visitors to see what Michigan U.S. Senator William Woodbridge called "a splendid specimen of the mineral wealth of the ‘Far West.’" In 1841, Eldred, armed with a trading license from the U.S. government and an interpreter from Sault Ste. Marie, met with local Chippewa Indians on whose land the boulder was situated. He purchased the boulder for $150 - $45 in cash and the remainder in goods to be provided two years later.

Eldred made little progress in moving the boulder out of its isolated valley. In 1843, he discovered that someone else had claimed the section of land where the rock lay, and he was forced to pay $1,365 to regain possession. Finally, a twenty-one man crew built a "sectional and portable railway and car" using capstans and block and tackle, and they cut a 4.5-mile right-of-way over 600-foot high hills and dense forest. Eldred moved the boulder to the navigable portion of the Ontonagon River and then down to the mouth of the river. General Walter Cunningham, the United States mineral agent for the area, described the effort as "one of the most extraordinary performances of the age."

While arranging transportation back to Sault Ste. Marie, Eldred discovered that Secretary of War James M. Porter had ordered Cunningham to seize the boulder. Porter agreed to "fully and fairly" compensate Eldred, but the sum was not to exceed $700. Cunningham allowed Eldred to transport the boulder to Detroit where it was placed on exhibition from 11 October until 1 November. On 9 November the boulder began its trip to Washington.

 Although larger and purer boulders of copper were discovered in the copper country, none eclipsed the Ontonagon Boulder’s fame. (All of the other rocks were eventually melted down.) From its permanent home at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, it has been returned to Michigan from time to time for exhibition at rock and mineral shows.

Some of the text on this page is excerpted from a past issue of Michigan History magazine.

This material has been compiled for educational use only, and may not be reproduced without permission.  One copy may be printed for personal use.  Please contact Randall Schaetzl ( for more information or permissions.