A Meskwaki Mine in the Upper Mississippi River Lead District by James M. Collins, Office of the State Archaeologist-The University of Iowa, Paper presented at the 2004 Joint Meeting of the Midwest Archaeological Conference and the Southeastern Archaeological Conference, St. Louis, Missouri, October 22, 2004. Copyright © 2004. All Rights Reserved. Cannot be used without written permission.
Recent work sponsored by the Iowa Department of Transportation provided an opportunity to survey a cross-section of the lower Catfish Creek valley in Dubuque, Iowa. The most significant result of this work was documentation of a Native American lead mine. Frontier mining technology suggests the site is affiliated with the Meskwaki. A discussion of late-18th and early-19th century Meskwaki relations in the Dubuque area is presented along with evidence of the mine, designated 13DB799. The site is the first Native American mine so far identified in the Dubuque area.
The significance of Catfish Creek in the history of the upper Mississippi valley, the colonial period in North America, the American frontier, and the state of Iowa can hardly be overstated. Indeed, thousands of pages in the historical and archaeological literature have been devoted to the complex processes of human endeavor associated with this small “rivulet” that enters the Mississippi River just south of the modern city of Dubuque.
No doubt Catfish Creek was widely known during prehistory as a source of galena, a mineral used in various forms (powder, paint, fetish) for decorative and magic arts, religious ceremony, and in the mortuary programs of Native Americans throughout the midcontinent and beyond. Walthall (1981) documented the widespread use of upper Mississippi valley galena during both the Archaic and Woodland periods, suggesting this natural resource found along Catfish Creek has been culturally significant for at least 8,000 years (e.g., Collins 1996).
The first Europeans to explore the Mississippi River, Marquette and Joliet, floated past the mouth of Catfish Creek in late June, 1673. Other French adventurers soon followed. Perhaps most significant among these early arrivals was Nicholas Perrot. Perrot came to the upper Mississippi valley in 1685 as a member of the French military, establishing a post at Prairie du Chien.
It was there, in 1690 (fully 140 years before this sketch was drawn), that the chief of a delegation of Miami Indians, then living about 60 miles downstream, made Perrot a gift of a piece of lead ore. Shortly thereafter, Perrot visited the Miami village and was given more galena. Perrot eventually found the source of the mineral at Catfish Creek (Hoffman 1930).
The Catfish Creek locality subsequently became known as the “Mines of Nicolas Perrot” and was referred to as such in the journals and maps of Le Sueur’s exploration of the upper Mississippi in 1700. The location of the lead mines at Catfish Creek was noted on most subsequent maps of the North American interior, and knowledge of their existence was widely held on this continent and in Europe.
At least in the minds of Europeans, France continued to control the region until Spain took dominion in 1763. The area remained under Spanish jurisdiction until 1800, returned to French control for three years, and then became American territory in 1803 as a result of the Louisiana Purchase.
During the early years of Spanish dominion, the mines at Catfish Creek were worked by the French frontiersman Jean Marie Cardinal, and maybe a few other whites (Hoffman 1930). However, throughout this time the mines were actually in the possession of, and were being worked, by Indians. Although it is likely that earlier resident tribes had exploited the Catfish Creek mines, it is the Meskwaki who are most intimately connected to the area in the historic record.
The Meskwaki took up permanent residence in Iowa around 1733, and by 1780 the Kettle Chief’s village was established at the mouth of Catfish Creek and it’s inhabitants were actively working mines in the vicinity. Shortly thereafter, the wife of the Meskwaki Chief Peosta opened a rich mine.
Within the decade, the French trader Julien Dubuque, apparently through force
of personality, ingratiated himself into the good will of the Meskwaki. Then,
at Prairie du Chien on September 22, 1788, Dubuque received written permission
to operate mines in the Iowa lead region from a full council of Meskwaki chiefs
(Van der Ze 1915).
Dubuque appears to have largely employed his Indian friends in prospecting for lead mines. When their discoveries were reported to him, he would send Canadians to prove the claims and sometimes to work them; although, in many cases, he was content with proving the claim and allowing the Indians to work it themselves, the product being brought to his large trading-house on the west side of the river [Thwaites 1895:282].
Dubuque’s name soon usurped Perrot’s in association with the mines at Catfish Creek, but Dubuque was also politically savvy. In a masterful stroke of flattery, Dubuque began to refer to his diggings as “The Mines of Spain” after the then ascendant colonial authority. In 1796, he “humbly” petitioned the Baron de Carondelet, Spanish Governor of Louisiana, for formal recognition of his mineral rights, specifically a roughly rectangular parcel extending 21 miles along the west bank of the Mississippi and 9 miles inland roughly centered on what is now the City of Dubuque. The shrewd Dubuque no doubt knew that Carondelet at that time was issuing tax-free land to many settlers of Louisiana in hopes of averting an invasion of the territory by the British in Canada (Hoffman 1930). Carondelet approved Dubuque’s petition on November 10, 1796.
Dubuque worked his mines and entered into other entrepreneurial endeavors without significant political interference despite the fact that dominion of the territory was in constant flux. Spanish sovereignty ended in 1800 with the retrocession of Louisiana to France. In turn, Napoleon agreed to sell the Louisiana territory to the United States in 1803. Dubuque continued to work the mines until his death in 1810. Unfortunately, his business acumen failed to match his political skills, and he died bankrupt and heavily in debt.
Dubuque’s fortunes had begun to fail as early as 1804. At that time he was unable to make payment on his debts to St. Louis financier Auguste Chouteau. On October 20th of that year Dubuque “conveyed to Chouteau seven undivided sixteenth of all the land included in his claim” (Hoffman 1930:101-102). As part of the agreement Chouteau also managed to obtain rights for he and his heirs to Dubuque’s remaining nine-sixteenth share in case of Dubuque’s death. This transaction, however, would be disputed for the next half century because while Dubuque had acquired a right to “peaceful possession” of his claim from the Meskwaki, and this right had been affirmed by Carondelet, Dubuque’s prerogative to sell the land was far from clear and was ultimately repudiated by the United States Supreme Court in 1853.
Chouteau knew very well when he took over his share of Dubuque’s property that he was making a wild speculation. All he was purchasing was Dubuque’s right to “peaceful possession” which he knew the Indians would consider Dubuque had no right whatever to sell. Nevertheless, Chouteau [upon Dubuque’s death] made an arrangement with a Colonel John T. Smith and others to work the mines and hardly had the body of Dubuque been laid to rest when Smith led a party of white men to work. The Indians first howled and demonstrated and then, seeing the invaders gave no indication of departing, they burned down the mine buildings and so frightened the white men that they all returned to St. Louis leaving the mines and the Indians in peace.
For some twenty years, the Foxes defiantly maintained this attitude and rebuffed all attempts by white men to work the mines. The Indians themselves worked the mines a little, obtaining just enough lead to satisfy their needs in trade.
The long hiatus in the white settlement in the Mines of Spain area was punctuated by sporadic forays by miners into the area during the 1820s and early 1830s [Peterson 1952:209-211]. But the prospectors were considered squatters by the Meskwaki, and by the government, and were expunged by U.S. military intervention. “Then came the Black Hawk war, ending in the defeat at Bad Axe, in August, 1832. The battle was soon followed by a treaty, whereby all the lands lying along the west bank of the Mississippi, including the land which had been claimed by Dubuque, were ceded to the United States. The Indians were given till June, 1833, to vacate. But the immigration prior to that date was too strong to be prevented” (Brigham 1915:27-28), thus ending the period known to us as “Antique Dubuque.”
A recent archaeological survey for Iowa Department of Transportation across the lower Catfish Creek valley, identified site 13DB799, an obviously tool-dug excavation along a gash vein at the base of a palisade-like dolomite escarpment. It is obvious that fires had been placed along the base of the bedrock face immediately below the excavation. The main excavation, or adit, into the bedrock is eight meters in length and approximately 1.2 meters high on average. Penetration into the mineral seam varied along the face but was slightly more than one meter at its deepest extent.
Included in the definition of site 13DB799 are several less extensive excavations into smaller exposures of the same gash vein which are located along the bedrock face at various distances to the west. These smaller veins also exhibit evidence for fire below the diggings. Interspersed between these horizontal veins are a number of vertical crevices, also showing evidence of heat-modification.
The diggings at 13DB799 were excavated in order to exploit mineral (galena) deposits occurring in the first opening of the Galena Dolomite. Galena commonly occurs above the water table “in large irregular pieces of disintegrated veins known as chunk lead and in aggregates of large cubic crystals known as cog lead. Galena less commonly forms small individual crystals known locally as dice mineral and veins called sheets (Brown et al. 1957).”
Site 13DB799 represents a relatively crude exploration for Galena into the cap rock unit of the Galena Dolomite. There is a natural re-entrant formed by the porosity of this unit, but tool marks, un-natural rock-cuts, and the evidence of heating by fire at 13DB799 all argue for mining activity at the site. “Mining of crevice lead deposits above the water table is relatively simple. Because much of the galena occurs as large chunks in unconsolidated dolomite sand, clay, and solution-softened rock, the ore and gangue can be easily separated by hand cobbing” (Brown et al. 1957).
Evidence of mining activities in and around Dubuque is extremely common (Abbott 1982, 1983, 1988; Celmer et al. 1984; McKay 1988; Perry 1997; Schermer and Kurtz 1986; Snow 1998; Stubbs et al. 2001, 2002). But, despite the importance of the early lead mining in the region, there is precious little description of the Indian mining techniques. Almost all historic references rely on a few descriptions provided by frontier travelers.
Schoolcraft’s 1820 description, based on a visit to the Meskwaki mines
on Catfish Creek, reads as follows:.
The ore at these mines is now exclusively dug by the Indian women. Old and superannuated men also partake in the mining labor, but the warriors and men hold themselves above it. In this labor, the persons who engage in it employ the hoe, shovel, pick-axe, and crow-bar. These implements are supplied by the traders at the island, who are the purchasers of the crude ore. With these implements they dig trenches, till they are arrested by solid rock. There are no shafts, even of the simplest kind, and the windlass and bucket are unknown to them, far more so the use of gunpowder in the mining operations. Their mode of going down into the deepest pits, and coming up from them, is by digging an inclined way, which permits the women to keep an erect position in walking [Schoolcraft 1855:172-173].
The description provided by Meeker, an miner in Illinois during the 1820s,
They would form an inclined plane where they went deep. I saw one place where they dug forty-five feet deep. Their manner of doing it was by drawing the mineral dirt and rock in what they called a macock, a kind of a basket made of birch bark, or dry hide of buckskin, to which they attached a rope made of rawhide. Their tools were a hoe made for the Indian trade, an axe, and a crowbar, made of an old gun barrel flattened at the breach, which they used for removing the rock. Their mode of blasting was rather tedious, to be sure; they got dry wood, kindled a fire along the rock as far as they wished to break it. After getting the rock hot, they poured cold water upon it which so cracked it that they could pry it up [Meeker 1872:281].
Historian, Bruce Mahan (1926:192), relying on French sources, offered a description of an Indian mine that is very similar to 13DB799: He wrote “Ledges containing ore were laboriously cracked by building a fire beneath, then pouring cold water on the heated rocks.”
The excavations into the bedrock at 13DB799 appear to have been executed by tools such as the hoe, axe, and crowbar. It also seems clear that the evidence for the intentional heating of the bedrock face immediately below the excavations at the site is typical of the Indian technique for heating and cracking rock. White miners, even during the early 1800s did not use this technique, preferring instead the use of black powder explosive for such work (Abbott 1988:4). The use of fire as an extractive technique is perhaps the most diagnostic feature of 13DB799, and on this evidence the site is identified as an Indian, and probable Meskwaki mine.
Two other statements from the ethnohistorical literature lend support to the
interpretation of 13DB799 as a Meskwaki mine. In 1820, Captain Stephen W. Kearny
upon passing the mouth of Catfish Creek while on a journey down the Mississippi
commented that he:
. . . stopped at a settlement of traders, opposite a “Fox village” of 17 lodges, & 100 inhabitants. On a high hill, at one end of the village, we saw a small building, covering the remains of Mr. Dubuque, who obtained from the Spanish government . . . the title to the “Lead Mines,” which commence one mile from this place. These mines are at present worked by 5 or 6 of the “Fox Indians” [Kearny 1908:119-121; quoted by Kurtz 1996:62-63].
The other important reference is the 1753 account by Claude Charles Le Roy
Bacqueville de la Potherie who stated:
The French discovered the mine of lead, which they found in great abundance; but it was difficult to obtain the ore, since the mine lies between two masses of rock, which can, however, be cut away. The ore is almost free from impurities, and melts easily; it diminishes by a half, when placed over the fire, but if put into the furnace, the slag would be only one-fourth [quoted in Hoffmann 1930:32].
It seems always to be assumed that de la Potherie was referring to two vertical masses of rock, but if one considers the possibility that he actually meant two horizontal masses, it might be suggested that his description fits that of 13DB799 where the ore was excavated from the first opening of the Galena dolomite, a zone of lithologic change from even-bedded shaly dolomite above to massive crystalline dolomite below.
Site 13DB799 may not represent either mine described in the quotes just offered, but it is almost exactly one mile above the Kettle Chiefs village, as described by Kearney, and it does lie between two masses of rock, as described by de la Potherie.
Mines and prospect pits are ubiquitous in the Dubuque area and individually are not normally considered overly significant. Management documents developed for the Mines of Spain area and the lower Catfish Creek watershed include protohistoric Indian mining as an important local context, but there were heretofore no sites of this type identified. Technological methods observed at 13DB799 and the sites location and description are consistent with early historic accounts of Meskwaki mines along Catfish Creek. Site 13DB799 is therefore significant because it is the first identified Indian lead mine in the lower Catfish Creek valley.
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