How Benjamin Franklin put the Iron Range on the map

To envision what the Iron Range looked like before the lumbering and mining interests arrived, it helps to have some photos taken around the beginning of the 20th Century. In this photo taken in 1904, we see the massive trees which swept across the landscape at that time. This road cut through the trees leads west from Hibbing’s original townsite to the Stevenson Mine north of Keewatin. Within a few years the trees would be cut for the great lumber mills and the very ground would be dug up for the iron ore which would be on its way to the steelmakers’ furnaces.

January 17, 1706, is the birthday of Benjamin Franklin. It’s hard to overstate the intelligence and abilities of this man. Looking at his life is truly awe-inspiring. A leader in the American Enlightenment, newspaper editor and writer, active in civic organizations that worked to improve life, initially a slave owner who became an abolitionist, these are just a few of the touchstones in Franklin’s life.

So, you ask, what does this Founding Father of America have to do with northern Minnesota?

In the course of his life he was an incredible diplomat who became an important representative of the American colonies to England and to France prior to the American Revolution. The French came to admire him greatly. After the American Revolution, he was named a commissioner to negotiate the treaty ending the war.

It was in his capacity as a diplomat that Franklin becomes a part of the story of the Iron Range.

In telling the story of this land, we acknowledge the Anishinaabeg people who inhabited this land first. These people include the Cree, Dakota, and Ojibwe.

The following article is from the Hibbing Historical Society collection. It was also printed in the Hibbing Daily Tribune as part of the 1993 Centennial Celebration Edition. No author is noted, nor is the date when this article was originally written.

Had it not been for Benjamin Franklin, the iron and steel industry of the United States might never have attained the important place it now holds in the nation’s life.

That may seem at first to be a very surprising statement, for it has never been reported that the great man had any extensive interest in iron and steel. Yet to him this national industry owes a great debt. For it would have been a feeble business at best without the rich iron ore deposits of the Lake Superior district. And it was only because of the astuteness of Benjamin Franklin, and because of the inaccuracy of a map, that this region, later to yield such vast mineral wealth, came to belong to the United States instead of Canada.

Although the northern boundary of the United States was not definitely fixed until the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842, its rough location was described in the Treaty of Paris of 1783, between Great Britain and the newly-freed colonies. Franklin was one of the commissioners sent to Paris to negotiate the treaty.

Ralph D. Williams, in his book “The Honorable Peter White,” (Published in 1905, it is a “biographical sketch of Lake Superior Iron Country” and is considered one of the foundational histories of iron mining in this region.) says about the boundary settlement: “It might have been a Canadian tale of iron had it not been for the foresight of the great Benjamin Franklin, who deflected his pencil a bit on a certain memorable occasion and caused the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to be included within the American boundary.”

The truth of this statement has never been definitely established, but if it is true, then Franklin deserves credit for our country’s possession of a region that has yielded millions of tons of iron ore. If, as the legend goes, he is the one who drew the boundary through Lake Superior, bringing the boundary line up to the mouth of the Pigeon River, leaving half of the Lake Superior on the Canadian side and half on the American side, it was a drawing that had a lot of consequences.

The great Iron Ranges of Minnesota – The Cuyuna, Mesabi, and Vermilion – are on the northwest side of Lake Superior, the area known as the Arrowhead of northern Minnesota. This land, like Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with its Menominee, Marquette, and Gogebic Iron Ranges, perhaps came to the United States as the result of a “fluke,” for the only map available to Franklin and the commissioners at Paris in 1783 was inaccurate.

In a decision for which Franklin was at least partly responsible, it was decided that the boundary between the United States and Canada should go through the Lake of the Woods. Franklin and the other commissioners based this decision on a map drawn by John Mitchell in 1755. According to the map, the water from the Lake of the Woods flowed into Lake Superior through the Pigeon River, and so it was decided to make this long water route the boundary. That’s where Franklin’s line across Superior ended, at the mouth of the Pigeon River.

Not until some years later was it discovered that the Pigeon River did not in fact connect the Lake of the Woods to Lake Superior. The Pigeon River went inland from Lake Superior only about 30 miles. All water north and west of that point flowed towards Hudson Bay, not towards the Great Lake.

Had the commissioners known that, they probably would have made the St. Louis River, rather than the Pigeon River, the boundary. Franklin’s line across the Lake would have ended at the mouth of the St. Louis River, at Duluth. And thus, the region which contains the rich ores of the Mesabi and Vermilion Iron Ranges would have belonged to Canada since the St. Louis River is south of those iron deposits.

Although it was not until the latter half of the 19th Century that the Iron Ranges of the Lake Superior region were industrially developed, the district had been of great commercial value for many years before that.

Like many other sections of the North American continent, this region owes its earliest development by white men from Europe to the worldwide demand for furs. Before any white men had traveled as far inland as the head of the Great Lakes, the Indigenous Peoples were making the long, difficult canoe passage all the way to Montreal, where the French traders provided a ready market for their furs. It was inevitable that some of the Frenchmen should attempt to reach the country from which the Indigenous Peoples came.

The first to do so were two particularly adventurous men, Pierre-Esprit Radisson and his brother-in-law Medard des Groseilliers. They are supposed to have entered the Lake Superior area about 1655. Their first shipment consisted of about 120 tons of furs, transported to Montreal in 60 large deep-water canoes, each powered by four to six men. These were the first “voyageurs,” those men, many French-Canadian, who would transport the trading goods into the interior of the continent and bring out the furs prepared by the Indigenous Peoples.

Radisson became dissatisfied with his treatment at the hands of the French merchants and turned to England for support. In 1670, he formed the Hudson Bay Trading Company, which for nearly a hundred years did an enormous fur business in the Northwest.

It is believed to have been in 1679 that the French adventurer and trader, Daniel Greysolon, Sieur du Lhut, landed at the site of the city that was to bear his name – Duluth.

The most colorful figure in the Northwest fur trade was a German immigrant who had come to the United States in 1784 – John Jacob Astor. He set up a fur business in 1786. His first source of supply was New York State, but in subsequent years he extended his operations farther and farther westward until finally he had a string of fur posts stretching clear across the continent to the Pacific Coast.

Earlier, in 1763, after the French and Indian War, the land which would become known as “Minnesota” east of the Mississippi was ceded to England by France; in 1783 that area became part of the newly created United States; and in 1803, with the Louisiana Purchase, the United States acquired the land between the Mississippi and the Rockies, encompassing the rest of the land which would form Minnesota.

In 1809, Astor founded the American Fur Company with a capital of $1,000,000, and after the War of 1812 his company secured a practical monopoly of the fur trade in Minnesota. In 1817, a trading post was established at Fond du Lac – near the site of today’s Duluth.

The fur trade began to fall off in the middle of the 19th Century, but the lumber trade took its place as the chief claim to commercial importance in the Lake Superior region.

Simultaneously with the clearing of the forests, the great iron ranges which had been sleeping quietly all this time were beginning to be discovered.

Of course, the presence of copper in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula had been known to the Indigenous Peoples who mined it and made items from it long before the Europeans arrived on these shores. Eventually, white prospectors would investigate, leading to the copper in the Upper Peninsula being mined on a commercial scale.

Iron ore was first discovered in the Marquette Range in 1844 near the city of Negaunee, Michigan, by a United States government surveying party. The surveyors noticed great variations in the direction of their compass needle, and in searching for the cause, found outcroppings of iron ore.

Some of this ore was mined from time to time, but no great demand for it developed until the Civil War. The opening of the ship canal at Sault Ste. Marie in 1855, the completion in 1857 of the Iron Mountain Railway, and then the Civil War gave impetus to mining and ironmaking in the Upper Peninsula.

Although ore had been discovered on the Menominee Range some years before, the first practical development there was in 1872 at the Breen and Vulcan mines near Iron Mountain, Michigan. A lack of facilities for shipment prevented extensive development until completion of the Menominee branch of the Chicago and North Western Railway.

The Gogebic Range had been mapped by geologists prior to its opening in 1884. The Colby Mine, the first mine to ship ore on this range, was located in 1873 by a man who had been attracted by rock exposed in the upturned roots of a large tree. He took some of the rock and found it to be pure Bessemer ore.

In 1865, reports of gold in the vicinity of Lake Vermilion in the Arrowhead region of Minnesota precipitated a gold rush to that district. However, the rough trails only led to pyrites or “fool’s gold,” a compound of iron and sulfur which has fooled hundreds.

But among the “get rich quick” prospectors there were also serious men, such as George Stuntz, a surveyor who returned to Duluth with the news that there was no gold, but there was iron, plenty of iron, in the Vermilion area. With the backing of a Pennsylvania millionaire named Charlemagne Tower, the development of the Vermilion Range began.

Another who had headed north seeking gold was Lewis H. Merritt. He came back to his growing family in Duluth with no gold, but with a bit of red iron ore whose importance and value he taught to his sons. They would grow up to be become renowned woodsmen, but they never forgot their father’s teaching. Eventually, joined by three nephews, the “Seven Iron Men” located the deep veins of rich ore their father had believed in. Mountain Iron, Minnesota, was on the map with their first mine in 1890. The Mesabi Range, the “Sleeping Giant,” the greatest Range of them all, had been awakened.

Ben Franklin and a misinformed mapmaker had placed this wealth, and the security of iron ore for steel, into the hands of the United States.


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