Black History Month: How a runaway slave found a copper mine in Ontonagon County

Black History Month

ONTONAGON COUNTY, Mich. (WJMN) – Mining and its history are deeply rooted in the making of the Upper Peninsula, but many might be unaware of the impacts the Underground Railroad had on the Copper Country.

Noel Johnson was enslaved in Missouri to a William Pemberton when he and fellow freedom seeker Thomas Smith liberated themselves during the 1840s.

“They had come down the Fabius River to the Mississippi and just landed below Quincy, Illinois, and made their way through Illinois very surreptitiously,” said Lynette Webber, a student researcher at Michigan Technological University. “There were guns drawn and there are some really intriguing stories but none of the stories about Johnson’s escape itself are primary sources. They were all written by newspaper reporters based on who had known him after his death.”

Snippet from newspaper article by Daily Free Democrat, November 1855

A slave narrative by John Brown called A Slave Life in Georgia indicates Brown met Johnson when Johnson arrived in Marshall, Michigan after his escape to freedom. In 1846, Brown followed a group of miners and a man named Captain Joseph Teague to Fort Wilkins near Copper Harbor. Johnson, his wife Mary Ann, and their infant son were also believed to have been taken to the Upper Peninsula during this time.

“Within a couple of months, Teague’s party and Brown and also Noel Johnson, are receiving mail at Fort Wilkins. So, I don’t know for sure if Johnson came up with Teague and his party as well as Brown, but we know the two men had an acquaintance, had an affinity and that they both had come to the Upper Peninsula around the same time,” said Webber.

Lake Superior News And Mining Journal, 1946

Sometime after, Johnson made his way to the Ontonagon area.

“Johnson was exploring for copper. He was a prospector like many people in the region like many were at the time. He had some luck, he encountered a vein of copper in a bluff area which is now known as the Mass City area and was one of the first initiators of the copper mines in that specific location.”

In 1851, Johnson filed for a federal land patent. Before the plot of land could be purchased, Johnson had to become legally emancipated. This meant he had to approach the estate of his former slave owner. Two quaker men, Cyrus Mendenhall and Levi Hannah assisted Johnson in purchasing his freedom.

“Johnson was able to purchase his emancipation and legally able to claim his federal land. But apparently, he borrowed money from his friends to do so because sadly only a few years later Johnson died in Cleveland of consumption. He’s buried at the Erie Street Cemetery there. His estate shows that it paid Cyrus Mendenhall for the cost of that freedom, which was about $250 plus tax.”

Probate manumission

After Johnson’s death in 1853, his estate was eventually sold to the Mass Mining Company. To this day, Noel Johnson is credited as the founder of the Mass Mine and the reason Mass City was founded in the early 1900s.

Lake Superior News and Mining Journal, 1855

“There are a lot of pieces of this puzzle yet to be put together, and I think has more materials come more broadly accessible and places from other regions are able to be included in the mix, like this book from London, the more we’ll be able to learn. I don’t think this story is over,” said Webber.

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