Quebec History Marianopolis College

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L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Use of Copper by Canadian Natives



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico . It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]


Copper had come into very general use among the tribes N. of Mexico before the arrival of the white race in the Mississippi valley and the region of the Great lakes . The reign of stone, which in early times had been undisputed, was beginning to give way to the dominion of metal. It is probable that copper came into use in the N. as a result of the discovery of nuggets or small masses of the native metal among the débris deposited over a large area S. of the lakes by the sheets of glacial ice that swept from the N. across the fully exposed surface of the copper-bearing rocks of the lake Superior region.


These pieces of copper were at first doubtless treated and used as were stones of similar size and shape, but the peculiar qualities of the metal must. in time have impressed themselves upon the acute native mind, and implements were shaped by hammering instead of by pecking. At first the forms produced would be much the same as those of the stone implements of the same people, but after a while the Celts, hatchets, awls, knives, drills, spearheads, etc., would take on new forms, suggested by the peculiar properties of the material, and other varieties of implements would be evolved. The metal was too soft to wholly supersede stone as a material for the manufacture of implements, but its pleasing colour and its capacity for taking a high polish must have led at an early date to its use for personal ornaments, and on the arrival of the whites it was in great demand for this purpose over nearly the entire country.


A knowledge of the discovery of deposits of copper in the lake region passed in course of time beyond the local tribes; and it is not unlikely that it extended to Mexico , where the metallurgic arts had made remarkable headway and where the red metal was in great demand. That any extensive trade sprang up between the N. and the far S., however, seems improbable, since such communication would have led inevitably to the introduction of southern methods of manipulation among the more advanced tribes of the Mississippi valley and the Gulf coast and to the frequent presence of peculiarly Mexican artifacts in the burial mounds.


There can be no question that the supply of copper used by the tribes of E. United States came mainly from the Lake Superior region, although native copper in small quantities is found in Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Arizona, New Mexico, and Nova Scotia. It is not at all certain, however, that the natives utilized these latter sources of supply to any considerable extent before the coming of the whites. There seems to be little doubt that copper was somewhat extensively used in Alaska before the arrival of Europeans. It is possible that a small percentage of the copper found in mounds in the Southern states came from Cuba and Mexico , but there is no way of satisfactorily determining this point. The Lake Superior copper can often be distinguished from other copper by the dissemination through it of minute particles of silver.


The processes employed in shaping copper were at first probably confined to cold hammering and grinding, but heat was employed to facilitate hammering and in annealing, and possibly rude forms of swedging in moulds and even of casting were known, although little evidence to this effect has yet been obtained. It appears that in dealing with thin sheets of the metal, which were readily made by hammering with stone implements and by grinding, pressure with suitable tools was employed to produce repoussé effects, the sheet being laid for treatment on a mould of stone or wood, or on a pliable pad or a plastic surface. Certain objects of sheet copper with repoussé designs obtained from Indian mounds in Illinois, Ohio, Georgia, and Florida have attracted much attention on account of the very skilful treatment shown. That primitive methods of manipulation well within the reach of the aborigines are adequate to accomplish similar results is shown, however, by experiments conducted by Cushing.


The very considerable progress of the native metallurgist in copper working is well shown by examples of plating recovered from the mounds in Ohio and elsewhere. A head-dress belonging to a personage of importance buried in one of the Hopewell mounds, near Chillicothe , Ohio , found by Moorehead, consists of a high frontal piece made of sheets of copper covered with indented figures, out of which rise a pair of antlers imitating those of a deer. The antlers are formed of wood and neatly covered or plated with sheet copper (Putnam). Other examples from the same source are spool-like objects, probably ear ornaments, formed of thin sheets of copper over a wood base, and most skillfully executed. Willoughby has very effectively imitated this work, using a bit of native copper with boulders and pebbles from the beach as tools. Of the same kind of workmanship are numerous specimens obtained by Moors from mounds on St. Johns r., Fla., the most interesting being jaw-bones of wolves plated with thin sheets of copper. Other objects similarly treated are discs of limestone and beads of shell, bone, wood, and possibly other materials.


A popular belief exists that the Egyptians and other ancient nations, including the Mexicans and Peruvians, had a process for hardening copper, but there is no real foundation for this belief. The reputed hardened product is always an alloy. No specimen of pure copper has been found which has a greater degree of hardness than can be produced by hammering.


Although copper probably came into use among the northern tribes in comparatively recent times, considering the whole period of aboriginal occupancy, there can be no doubt of its extensive and widespread utilisation before the coming of the whites. That the ancient mines of the Lake Superior region are purely aboriginal is amply shown by their character and by the implements left on the ground; and the vast extent of the work warrants the conclusion that they had been operated hundreds of years before the white man set foot on American shores. It is true that the influence of French and English explorers and colonists was soon felt in the copper-producing districts, and led in time to modifications in the methods of shaping the metal and in the forms of the articles made from it, and that, later, foreign copper became an important article of trade, so that, as a result, it is now difficult to draw a very definite line between the aboriginal and the accultural phases of the art; but that most of the articles recovered from aboriginal sites are aboriginal and made of native metal cannot be seriously questioned.


Considerable discussion has arisen regarding the origin and antiquity of certain objects of sheet copper, the most conspicuous of which are several human figures in elaborate repoussé work, from one of the Etowah mounds in Georgia, and a large number of objects of sheet copper cut in conventional patterns, found in a mound on Hopewell farm, Rose co., Ohio. Analysis of the metal in this and similar cases gives no encouragement to the theory of foreign origin (Moore). The evident antiquity of the mounds in which these objects were found and the absence in them of other objects open to the suspicion of foreign (European) origin or influence tend to confirm the belief in their American origin and pre-Columbian age.


The state of preservation of the implements, utensils, and ornaments found in mounds and other places of burial varies greatly, but many specimens are in perfect condition, some having retained the high, surface polish acquired in long use. It happens that the presence of copper objects in association with more perishable objects of wood, bone, shell, and textile materials, has, through the action of the copper carbonates, resulted in the preservation of many precious things which otherwise would have entirely disappeared.


Of the various implements of copper, the celt, or chisel-like hatchet, has the widest distribution. The forms are greatly diversified, and the weight ranges from a few ounces to several pounds. The implement is never perforated for hafting, although hafts were undoubtedly used, portions of these having been preserved in a few cases. As with our own axes, the blade is sometimes widened toward the cutting edge, which is convex in outline. Many specimens, however, axe nearly straight on the sides, while others are long and somewhat narrower toward the point. They could be hafted to serve as axes, adzes, or gouges. Some have one face flat and the other slightly ridged, suggesting the adze or gouge. The celt forms grade into other more slender shapes which have chisel edges, and these into drills and graver-like tools, while following in turn are needles and poniards, the latter being generally cylindrical, with long, tapering points, the largest examples being 2 or 3 ft. in length and weighing several pounds. The grooved axe is of rare occurrence, and where found appears to repeat the stone forms of the particular district. Squier and Davis illustrate a two-edged specimen with a hole through the middle of the blade from face to face, supposed to have been intended to aid in fixing the haft. Related in general shape to the axe is another type of implement sometimes called a spud. Its distribution is limited to the district lying immediately S. of the Great lakes. The socket is usually formed by hammering out lateral wings at the upper end of the implement and bending them inward. The purpose of this implement is not fully determined. With a long and straight handle it would serve as a spade or digging tool; with the handle sharply bent near the point of insertion it would become a hatchet or an adze, according to the relative position of the blade and handle. The natives had already come to appreciate the value of copper for knives, and blades of various forms were in use; usually these are drawn out into a long point at the haft end for insertion into a wood or bone handle. Arrowheads of various ordinary shapes are common, as are also lance and spearheads, the latter being sometimes shaped for insertion into the end of the wooden shaft, but more frequently having a socket, made as in the spud, for the insertion of the handle. Drills, needles, pins, fishhooks, etc., occur in considerable numbers, especially in the Northern states.


Personal ornaments are of great variety, including beads, pendants, pins, ear-discs, earrings, bracelets, gorgets, etc. The most interesting objects of copper do not come within either of the ordinary classes of ornaments, although they doubtless served in some way as adornments for the person, probably in connection with the ceremonial head-dress. These are made of sheet copper, and certain of their features are suggestive of exotic, though not of European, influence. The best examples are from one of the Etowah mounds in Georgia. Other remarkable objects found in mounds at Hopewell farm, Rose co., Ohio, appear to have been intended for some special symbolic use rather than for personal adornment, as usual means of attachment are not provided. The early voyagers, especially along the Atlantic coast, mention the use of tobacco pipes of copper. There is much evidence that implements as well as ornaments and other objects of copper were regarded as having exceptional virtues and magical powers, and certain early writers aver that some of the tribes of the Great lakes held all copper as sacred, making no practical use of it whatever.


Copper was not extensively used within the area of the Pacific states, but was employed for various purposes by the tribes of the N.W., who are skilful metal workers, employing to some extent methods introduced by the whites. Formerly the natives obtained copper from the valley of Copper r. and elsewhere, but the market is now well supplied with the imported metal. It is used very largely for ornaments, for utensils, especially knives, and whistles, ratty, and masks are sometimes made of it. Perhaps the most noteworthy product is the unique, shield-like "coppers" made of sheet metal and highly esteemed as symbols of wealth or distinction. The origin of these "coppers" and of their peculiar form and use is not known. The largest are about 8 ft. in length. The upper, wider portion, and in cases the lower part, or stem, are ornamented with designs representing mythical creatures (Niblack, Boas)


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada , Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada, Ottawa, 1913, 632p., pp. 110-113.

© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College