There are many lies which are told and re-told about American Indians and about the history of North America prior to the European invasion. One of the common lies claims that American Indians were a “stone age” people and were, therefore, unaware of the utility of metal and did not engage in mining. As “stone age” people living in various stages of “barbarism” and “savagery”, American Indians didn’t know how to develop any mineral or mining resources on the lands they had retained (commonly known as “reservations.”) Any potential mineral resources on reservations, therefore, had to be separated from the reservations so that they could be mined by non-Indians.
In spite of the lies, Indian people had, in fact, operated mines for many centuries before the coming of the Europeans, and they made metal artifacts.
In the Ohio and Mississippi River Valleys, Indian people mined copper and manufactured many different kinds of metal objects. Copper tools included adzes, awls, fishhooks, harpoons, socketed axes, and weapons. The copper which they used was from the Lake Superior area. The copper was generally worked without smelting.
According to the archaeological record, the Indian people in the Great Lakes area were using copper for tools and ornaments by 6000 BCE. To obtain the copper, the Indian people in the Lake Superior area conducted rather sophisticated mining operations. The remains of some of these mines were first discovered in 1848 by Mr. S. O. Knapp of the Minnesota Mining Company. John Baldwin, writing in 1871, reports:
“At the Minnesota mine, the greatest depth of their excavations was thirty feet; and here, not far below the bottom of a trough-like cavity, among a mass of leaves, sticks and water, Mr. Knapp discovered a detached mass of copper weighing near six tons.”
This mass of copper had been raised several feet, on timbers, by means of wedges. There was also a stone maul weighing 36 pounds and a copper maul weighing twenty-five pounds. Old trees with 395 growth rings stood in the debris.
With regard to Keweenaw Point, John Baldwin reports:
“All through this district, wherever modern miners have worked, remains of ancient mining works are abundant; and they are extensive on the adjacent island, known as Isle Royale.”
In one instance, the ancient miners had tunneled into the face of a vertical bluff. The mine was 25 feet in length, 15 feet high, and 12 feet in width. Some of the stone blocks removed from this ancient mine were estimated to weigh 2-3 tons. As with many modern mines, the ancient Indian miners had to deal with the problem of water so they made a trough out of cedar which carried water out of the mine.
John Baldwin reports:
“Works of the ancient miners are found at all the mines of any importance; and they show remarkable skill in discovering and tracing actual veins in the metal.”
The Adena people in Ohio fashioned bracelets from copper by 1100 BCE. To make a bracelet, a copper nugget would be hammered into a thin sheet and then rolled into a cylinder. This cylinder would then be bent to form the bracelet. In addition to copper bracelets, the Adena people also made copper rings in a similar fashion.
Copper was also used by the Indian people in the American Southwest. A thousand years ago, for example, the Sinagua people in Arizona were extracting copper from a number of mines.
In 1583, the Spanish explorer Antonio de Espejo made contact with the Hopi village of Awatobi in what is now Arizona. The Spanish noticed that the Hopi were painting their bodies with mineral pigments. With the help of Hopi guides, the Spanish visited the Hopi mines which are located in Yavapai territory. The mines were located in the Jerome Mountains and had been mined by the Yavapai for centuries. The Spanish found that the mine shafts burrowed deep into the mountain, but they were disappointed to find that the mines contained copper rather than silver and gold.
In 1598, a small Spanish group under the leadership of Captain Marcos Farfan de los Godos set out with Hopi guides to the Indian mining areas in the San Francisco Mountains. Here they encountered Jumano settlements and they persuaded the Jumano to guide them to the mines. They found mines which were being operated by the Yavapai. The ores extracted from the mines were used as pigments and were considered by the Indians of the area to be a valuable trade commodity. The Spanish immediately laid claim to the mine.
In 1599, the Spanish found an old shaft at the Indian mine near Jerome, Arizona. They brought back samples of the ore (which turned out to be copper) as well as sea shells which the Indians claimed came from an ocean thirty days to the west.
In addition to copper, the people of the Northwest Coast were making small and large metal knives as well as metal adz blades when first contacted by European explorers. Some anthropologists have suggested that this metal came from wrecked Asian junks that had crossed the Pacific on the Japan Current and been cast ashore on the American coast.
While it is often reported in textbooks that the Northwest Coast Indians did not have iron prior to European contact, both the reports of the early explorers and the archaeological record suggests otherwise. In addition, the early explorers report that the Indians had an understanding of smelting.
In the American Southwest as well as farther south in Mexico, turquoise was a valuable commodity associated with economic and social power. The Ancestral Puebloan peoples (sometimes called Anasazi) and the Hohokam operated a number of mines in what is now Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado from which they obtained turquoise which was used in manufacturing jewelry and in trade with the Mesoamerican civilizations.
At Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, the Ancestral Puebloans processed large quantities of turquoise into finished jewelry and other items. The turquoise was not mined in the area, but came from more than 100 miles away. According to archaeologist David Hurst Thomas:
“the key to spiritual and economic good fortune at Chaco may have been turquoise.”
By 700 CE, the Arizona Hohokam (whose primary homeland was near present-day Phoenix) had developed turquoise mines in the Mojave Desert area near present-day Halloran Spring, California.
Cross Posted at Native American Netroots
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