Minnesota’s First Copper Mining Scheme

<em><a href=”http://www.conservationminnesota.org/wp-content/uploads/tumaheadshot.jpg”><img class=”alignright size-thumbnail wp-image-317″ alt=”tumafeature” src=”http://www.conservationminnesota.org/wp-content/uploads/tumaheadshot-200×200.jpg” width=”200″ height=”200″ /></a>“We hear no more of LeSueur’s copper ore” – </em>William Watts Folwell, A History of Minnesota, Volume 1 – pg41

Far into Minnesota’s past is a strange story about Minnesota’s first copper mining scheme. One of the most enterprising and ambitious early French fur traders to this region we now know as Minnesota was an individual by the name of Pierre Charles le Sueur. In the late 1600s he served on some of the earliest French forays into the upper Mississippi Valley and the Lake Superior region. On one of those expeditions a Dakota medicine man told him of a strange blue earth at a point on the Minnesota River the Dakota called Mankato, which in their language means just that – blue earth. This blue-green clay was used by the Indians as a decorative paint, but despite having no experience with mining, Pierre Charles suspected that the clay contained copper that could be mined sometime in the future.

Pierre Charles took a quick exploratory mission to the spot and discovered this unusual deposit as claimed by the medicine man just a few miles up the Blue Earth River from its mouth into the Minnesota River just west of present-day Mankato. He took a sample of the clay and immediately returned to France. At that same time in order to keep up an alliance with the mighty Fox tribe in Wisconsin and to continue to profit from their abundant beaver pelts, the French suspended trade with the Dakota tribes. Undeterred, the enterprising Pierre Charles with connections in Louisiana came up with a clever scheme of convincing King Louis XIV to give him a grant to mine copper along the Blue Earth River using his blue earth sample as evidence of the claim deposit.

Despite the reality that this blue-green clay had no copper content and likely gained its color from the decaying prairie surrounding the region, Pierre Charles convinced the King’s head chemist, L’Huillier, that the clay was full of copper. With his grant from the king in hand and trading supplies from investors, Pierre Charles traveled to Louisiana with a team of miners and hunters in 1699. Starting in April 1700 they began the arduous trip up the Mississippi with canoes and sailboats reaching the Blue Earth River in September where they hastily constructed a fort they named in honor of L’Huillier.

The next spring they loaded two tons of the best blue clay into one of their boats. The Journal also notes that they loaded many beaver pelts worth far more than the potential copper. Pierre Charles did pretty good trade with the western Dakotas who were likely very desperate due to the Fox having cut off trade with the Europeans through Montréal. There is evidence that the blue clay was loaded on a ship in Biloxi, Louisiana in the fall of 1701, but no historian has been able to discover any evidence over the last 300+ years of whatever became of this grand copper shipment. Was it just a hoax by Pierre Charles to get behind the Fox trade blockade, or was he truly seized with visions of great wealth from copper mining only to discover his blue clay was fool’s copper?

Recently the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) published the Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement for Minnesota’s next potential copper mine near Babbitt and Hoyt Lakes to be operated by PolyMet. Like Pierre Charles, the company has never operated a mine before but has backing from the giant Swiss mining conglomerate Glencore. This foreign corporation has been implicated in environmental disasters, labor violations, and human rights abuses around the world.

One of the most troubling aspects of this proposed mining plan just released by the DNR for PolyMet is the length of water treatment that will be needed after the mine closes. Using the company’s own modeling, water treatment will be needed at the mine site for a minimum of 200 years and at the plant site for a minimum of 500 years despite the fact that the mine will only have a life span of 20 years.

Yes, you read that correctly.  Minnesota will face 500 years of health risks and water treatment costs we will pass on to future generations for just 20 years of mining. Imagine if the Blue Earth mine had taken off and, now 300 years later, the taxpayers of Minnesota tried to go back to King Louis XIV to get him to clean up the mess he created. But wait a sec, that’s right, King Louis’ government no longer exists and several of its predecessors are also extinct.

The just-released environmental review is open for public comment. If you want to learn more about the dangers of this future copper mining go to the <a href=”http://www.miningtruth.org/”>Mining Truth</a> website. It’s important that Minnesota is not played the fool by another copper scheme at a cost for our grandchildren and quite a few more generations.

About John Tuma

John is a former state legislator and litigation attorney. He served in the Minnesota House of Representatives for eight years from the Northfield area, beginning in 1994. Elected as a Republican, John was known for his independent thinking and ability to work across party lines. He is well-known in Minnesota state government circles.
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