By Theo. Lyon 1887
This county was laid off by act of the Legislature, approved March 9th, 1843, under the name Ontonagon, and was made to include Isle Royale and the adjacent islands.
Its boundaries were changed by an act approved April 3d, 1848, by the omission of Isle Royale.
The name is derived from the Indian word, Nunda-Norgan, signifying hunting river. The county seat is at the village of Ontonagon. The Legislature of 1886-7 has still further reduced the extent of the county by laying off the new county of Gogebic.
Although explorations for mining purposes had been extensively made in all the region bordering the lake, attention had not been specially attracted to Ontonagon county till, upon the discovery of the famous Minnesota mine, it at once became prominent as a producer of mass copper.
Mr. John H. Forster (Bio. Col. vol. 8, page 137) says: “This mine was discovered by the late Samuel 0. Knapp (a well known and esteemed horticulturist) of Jackson, who opened it at a point where the so-called ancient miners had worked in pre-historic ages. When ho had penetrated to the depth of eighteen feet, he came to a mass of native copper, ten feet long, three feet wide, and nearly two feet thick, weighing over six tons. On digging round the mass, it was found to rest on billets of oak, supported by sleepers of the same material. The wood, from its long exposure to moisture, was dark colored and had lost its consistency. It opposed no more resistance to a knife blade than so much peat. Tho earth was so firmly packed as to support the mass of copper. The ancient miners had evidently raised it about five feet, and then abandoned the work, as too laborious. The number of ancient (stone) hammers which he took from this and other excavations, exceeded ten cart loads. They were of green stone and porphyry boulders. Selecting a stone of the desired size and form, the ancient miner cut a groove, arched it so that it might be secured by a withe, and thus wielded as a sledge hammer.”
After this discovery the Ontonagon district speedily assumed such importance as to overshadow the older Keweenaw district. It was settled by a hardy, intelligent population, who subdued the dense forests, and planted flourishing towns and villages. They built a harbor at the mouth of the river without governmental aid. Mr. Cash and other far-sighted individuals cleared fields for agricultural purposes. The soil of some parts of the county, owing to a proper admixture of clay, invited the farmer to enter upon a profitable industry. Lands in mining regions are generally thin, poor and unproductive, but, where farm crops can bo raised to advantage, the farmer always finds, in mining regions, quick sales with large profits.
The agricultural interests of the county gradually grew to such importance as to warrant the forming of an agricultural society, which was accordingly organized in 1867.
An address by Alexander Campbell, of Marquette, (Pio. Col., vol. 3, pages 249-60) says:—
What is known as the copper or trap range, running from Keweenaw Point to the Montreal river, in places rises from five hundred to twelve hundred feet above the level of the lake. Along these ranges, even, there is much good soil, where farming is, or may be, carried on successfully. During the past year Messrs. Anthony & White raised on the Minnesota farm, belonging to the great Minnesota mine, 10,848 bushels of potatoes, 2,100 bushels of turnips, 150 tons of hay and 100 tons of oats. Other persons also raised 3,000 bushels of potatoes and turnips. The Lake Superior Miner of December 29th, 1860, says: “The hay and oat crop of Ontonagon county was not less than seven hundred tons, and the product of potatoes and turnips was certainly from 25,000 to 30,000 bushels.”
Wheat has not yet been grown to any considerable extent, as there is lack of facilities to manufacture it, but Messrs. Sales and Cash, at Ontonagon, and persons at other points, have grown it as an experiment, and foi it, in both quantity and quality, to exceed their anticipations. Mr. Cash, on his farm near Ontonagon, grows as fine strawberries and currants as are to be found anywhere, and in his orchards tho apple, plum and the cherry prove successful.
C. D. Lawten also reports hardy varieties of apples, as well as plums Morello cherries, and many small fruits, as successful in this county. The census of 1884 shows, in Ontonagon county, of apple orchards 1 at 40 bearing trees, yielding, in 1883, 30 bushels of fruit.