A Genealogy Gold Mine in Copper Country!

My recent experience researching and processing an archive collection of donated Cornish genealogy research material sent me down an interesting research path. Being Southern and barely paying attention in US History, I was aware of the gold rush and coal mining, but had never considered copper mining as an industry. Quite honestly, I just never even thought about where copper came from.

Copper mining began in earnest in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in the mid 1800s. As mines were established, mining companies began using technologies invented and perfected by the Cornish. The Cornish miners followed. While there were other types of mining active in the US at the time, copper was primarily mined in Michigan through the early 1900s. Other copper mines were established in Montana, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona and many miners followed that path as older mines played out. A great resource for learning more about the Cornish miner migration is the Cornish Mining World Heritage website (http://www.cornish-mining.org.uk/).

Researching a copper mining family can be rewarding. If a mining town has valued its heritage and cultural history, perhaps they have preserved company employment records as well as the usual vital and religious records. Employment records can be very telling, containing the usual vital information, names of family also employed at the mine and other personal information about the family. Because of the copper mining “boom” from 1850-1920, what may now seem like ghost towns were bustling cities with full services and large populations of a variety of ethnicities. Some may have city directories dating from the peak of their population dates. Here’s a hint – if the ghost town has wide streets and wide sidewalks – it was a likely booming metropolis in its day!

Commercial street with wide sidewalks and store fronts, but no people
Just a few souls shy of a ghost town

Multiple churches and meeting houses/public houses were commonly found for every faith or cultural group. Fraternal orders were very common in these towns and available records can help reveal kinships through paternal lines. As paternalistic towns, the mining companies often encouraged the families of current employees to join the company. Michigan Technical University (MTU) in Houghton, Michigan was established in 1885 as a trade school to teach mining skills to the families of immigrant miners. Tangential jobs that followed the mining industry in Michigan were in the shipping and railroad industries.

page of text from Calumet Michigan city directory
Excerpt from 1908 City Directory for Calumet, Michigan

The key to successful research in many of these Copper towns will be whether the towns survived the decline in the industry. Those in Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, Nevada, and Montana still mining copper may have more to offer since they still have a population that is likely rich with past copper miners. Other towns, like those in Michigan where the mines were depleted just too expensive to operate, can be more challenging without successful preservation by local history or genealogy societies.

If you have Cornish ancestry who seem to have just “appeared” in Arizona or Montana in the late 1800s – look at Michigan. MTU, Keweenaw National Historic Park, and the Houghton County Historical Society are great places to start. Or just ask me – I know some people!

One thought on “A Genealogy Gold Mine in Copper Country!

  1. Hi! My name is Jamie Lynn Guy-Ostrowski. My great grandfather, John Guy was a copper miner Calumet from Cornwall around 1891. Thank you for this article. To this day I still collect wheat pennies! As a child I was convinced all copper came from my grandfather’s mine. Many blessings

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