The Legend of Chief Namekagon's Lost Silver Mine

After the old Indian was found dead near Marengo Station people believed the secret of the mine's location died with him...but did it?

by Herbert Wagner

Copyright 1990 Herbert Wagner, all rights reserved.

Originally published in: WISCONSIN OUTDOOR JOURNAL

A few years after the War of 1812, Governor Lewis Cass of Michigan Territory led an expedition through Lake Superior. The purpose of the voyage was to assert American sovereignty over the region and to investigate its potential mineral wealth. Arriving at La Pointe in the Apostle Islands, Cass heard a legend that has haunted northern Wisconsin to the present day.

La Pointe in the 19th century
While addressing a counsel of Native Americans Cass inquired if there were any metallic ores or minerals in the surrounding country. One Indian boldly stepped forth and told of a vein of silver in the mainland interior to the south. Other Indians present angrily condemned the story as false. While members of the expedition urged Cass to investigate further the governor resisted this temptation because time was short and the information was vague at best.

Historians today will lament this failure to pursue this early claim of a native silver deposit, a hunt may have proven fruitless anyway. In spite of 180 years of sporadic attempts to find this silver mine in northwest Wisconsin, it has remained hidden to the present day. Over the years people have claimed they were close to finding it, but like a will-o-the-wisp the exact location always fades back into the rugged hills and deep forest to beckon and tantalize the imagination.

After the Cass visit in 1820 the Indians and their silver were left in peace for another 20 years. Then in 1841 Douglass Houghton reported on the existence of valuable minerals on Lake Superior. A treaty was signed with the Chippewa in 1842 that opened the south shore to American settlement. As a result, prospectors, geologists, land speculators, and adventurers burst upon the scene overnight.
1850s prospector camp

This quest for copper, iron, and other minerals sparked the first large-scale mining rush in U.S. history. In this frantic scramble to discover mineral wealth, the indigenous Ojibwe people were routinely bribed or spied upon in the belief they knew the location of rich metallic veins. This was a disturbing change because in the Native American world view the treasures of the mineral kingdom were considered "Manitou" and part of "the great mystery of existence." The Ojibwe had no desire to see American miners blast the rocks and dig out the sacred metals. As a result they became secretive about their intimate knowledge of the region and its minerals.

One early American trader who claimed to know something about the Indian's silver vein was Benjamin Armstrong, a trader who lived at La Pointe in the 1840s. Because he was son-in-law to Chief Buffalo, Armstrong claimed to know many Indian secrets. In the 1890s Armstrong would recall how in the early days of his life at La Pointe the local tribe had obtained silver from a single rich source for decorating ceremonial pipes and for other purposes. Whenever silver was needed, Armstrong said, one Indian elder was sent to procure it. He would travel in great secrecy somewhere away to the south on the mainland and after an absence of several days would return with metallic silver in pure elemental form.

Routinely bribed or followed, Native Americans became secretive about mineral locations

After 1842 and the rush of prospectors into the Lake Superior region, the Indian elder spoke at one of the great tribal councils held at La Pointe. He told that the Great Manitou was angry at these incursions into the region and the blasting apart of rocks. The result was that the elder's mind had been clouded concerning the silver vein's location. He could still picture the general setting of the mine, he said, but no longer knew how to find it. He said that the silver vein was located inside a narrow crevice in the rock and surrounded by loose boulders and heavy timber. Barely wide enough for him to enter, it opened up into a small cave once he was inside. By torchlight he could pick up or cut off pieces of silver as needed. But he had always been careful, he said, not to search for any hidden metal but only taking that lying in plain sight. To do otherwise was to disturb the Great Spirit. It was this rude disturbace by Euro-American prospectors that angered the spirits and made it impossible for him to locate the silver vein any longer.

The silver vein was located in a crevice or small cave in the bedrock

Was old man Armstrong yarning or telling the facts? From the vantage of today it is difficult to know what to think about such pioneer tales. Several other versions of this story circulated around Ashland that were said to date back to the old American Fur Company days of the 1840s and earlier. From these accounts it is evident that by the 1890s a long tradition already existed of a rich silver deposit somewhere in northwest Wisconsin. But where? The exact location -- never widely known -- had been lost!

These old stories had taken on new urgency after the completion of the Wisconsin Central Railroad to Ashland in 1877. Then the city on Chequamegon Bay boomed. Perhaps inspired by the old legends a new generation began exploring the "mineral range" south of the city. In 1878 Daniel Morgan brought in samples of rock that he claimed contained gold and silver values. Soon waves of hopeful prospectors were combing the crags and river valleys for indications of valuable minerals. Mining camps sprang up along the Bad, Brunsweiler, Marengo, and Namekagon Rivers. Locations with high-sounding names such as the Chicago and Lake Superior Mine, the Bayfield Mine, the Northern Belle Mine, and the Enterprise Mine opened offices and sold shares to investors. For several years talk of the "gold and silver region" was big news around Ashland. Assays reported silver and gold values from many of these prospects, but nothing big came of the excitement. Many people were convinced, however, that these mineral indications proved the old legends correct. That somewhere in the wild interior of Bayfield or Ashland counties a rich vein of silver indeed existed.

Marengo River


Sometime in the late 1880s stories began to circulate once again about the lost silver mine, and again intimating that one person and one person alone knew its exact location. Curiously, it was again a Native American man believed to possess the secret. This time it was an Indian known as Old Ice Feathers and later referred to as Chief Namekagon. The abode of this hermit was an island in the northern part of Lake Namekagon in Bayfield County.

About 1884 the writer George Francis Thomas visited Old Ice Feathers and wrote down his sad tale. It was printed in a slender volume of northern Wisconsinia entitled "Legends of the Land of Lakes." According to this romanticized account Ice Feathers had fled Sault Ste. Marie in his youth when accused of murdering his lover's father. A dream had led him to the island in Lake Namekagon. For a time he had lived there with three wives, but then "spirits" told him to drive his wives away. Afterward he lived alone on the island with his great hope being a future reunion with his early love in the spirit world.

Curiously this 1884 account makes no mention of silver. So it must have been after that date that Old Ice Feathers picked up the title Chief Namekagon and his knowledge of a silver mine of unparalleled richness. Because soon stories began to circulate that Chief Namekagon was quietly bringing in nuggets of pure silver when he visited Ashland for supplies. A timber cruiser named Sam Campbell, who lived a few miles north of Lake Namekagon at Grand View, claimed that he first heard the story around 1890. Campbell said that Chief Namekagon was bringing the silver to three local Ashland men: Thomas Bardon, Dr. Ellis, and Henry Weed.

Thomas Bardon

According to Campbell's story, these Ashland men convinced the old Indian to take them to his mine. An expedition was launched, but when a black bear crossed their path Namekagon took it as a bad omen and refused to go any further.

Not long afterward a settler named Thomas Mattson found the old Indian dead near Marengo Station, some said under suspicious circumstances. Those around Ashland who believed in the silver mine at all thought the secret of its location had died with him. But did it? Others claimed that the silver mine's locale had gotten out. Rumors ran wild. The trouble was that none of the stories of the mine's location matched!

When a black bear crossed their path they turned back

In 1890, Henry Weed and associates opened a prospect on a mineral vein near the Eau Claire Lakes some 17 miles west of Lake Namekagon. They called it the Montrose Mine. Did Weed think that the old Indian had been obtaining his silver there? Some of the best finds of native copper occur nearby with old mining shafts and pits dotting the area.

At least one other person believed the lost mine lay west of Lake Namekagon. We know this from Tony Wise, the Hayward native who developed the Telemark ski hill near Cable, Wisconsin. Wise first heard of the lost silver mine legend when trying to buy the future Telemark property in the late 1940s. The hill's owner at that time, Walter Klish, knew vague stories of supposed silver diggings along the nearby Namekagon River and was convinced his hill contained the mother lode. Wise had to convince Klish that it was a ski hill he was after and not a silver mine before the suspicious old man would sell.

Yet most observers believed that the lost silver mine lay north and east of Lake Namekagon. Two old-timers who this writer met and interviewed back in the 1980s believed they had key details to this enduring mystery.

One was "Hoot" Olson of Mellen, Wisconsin, then in his late eighties. Olson had detailed information about two people who knew the mine's exact location and had visited it after Chief Namekagon's death. He heard the story from his stepfather's dad, Ted Klicks, who in turn obtained it from a logger named Hoeppner. Somehow Hoeppner had gotten a line on another man who was seen bringing silver out of the woods not far from today's Copper Falls State Park.

Hoot Olson of Mellen knew details of the mine's location

"Hoeppner was a hard case," Olson told me. "He had been an Indian fighter out West and had two dark eyes with a stare that bored holes right through
you. He started to follow this other man when he passed through the logging camp. In time he discovered where the man was leaving the Wisconsin Central railroad tracks and was entering the woods. He waited for good tracking snow, and then made his move."

At that point in this detailed account, Hoeppner, who confessed it during a heavy drinking bout with Ted Klicks, became uneasy and vague in the telling. This raises questions: Who was the man that Hoeppner had followed to the mine? What became of him? Was, perhaps, murder involved? Because when Klicks wanted more details about the mine, Hoeppner grew sullen and secretive. He acted confused. All he would say was that he could not find the place anymore, but could remember its setting. "Hoeppner described the place as tight as a 'dog hole' that had been covered up with logs and brush," Olson revealed, "but opened up once you were inside. There was a vein of silver thick enough to cut off pieces with a hatchet. He could prove it too. Hoeppner showed Klicks a piece of silver as big as a man's hand."

One additional detail that Hoeppner remembered was that when he was near the mine he could hear the whistle of the Wisconsin Central locomotive as it came around the big bend near Mellen and Penokee Gap.

According to Olson, Klicks and Hoeppner had searched for the mine for many years without success. Hoeppner always thought he would find it again, but he never did. Hoot Olson, who has tramped the woods once or twice himself in search of the mine in his younger years, has this advice for the potential treasure hunter. "Some people think the silver mine is up along the Brunsweiler River," he said, "but I don't think so. Hoeppner was going east along the railroad tracks when he was trailing that man. Therefore the vein should be near or somewhat north of the Bad River Gap near Copper Falls."

Copper Falls

Maybe. This could be the necessary clue to rediscover the lost mine and set this long-standing mystery to rest once and for all. And there is still plenty of quiet interest in finding the old silver vein. People still attempt to trace Chief Namekagon's route to Ashland. From Bill Johnson, an old farmer who lived near Morgan Falls where Dan Morgan had his gold mine, I heard another version of the lost mine legend when I visited him back in the 1980s.

Johnson's father, who had homesteaded the farm a hundred years earlier, once told Bill a story he held fast to until his dying breath. It seems that on his way to Ashland, Chief Namekagon followed an old trail that crossed the Johnson farm. One day as a storm approached the farmer encountered the old Indian in the woods. "It was late in the afternoon and it started to rain," Johnson told me. "Chief Namekagon came along about then and they took him in and fed him. It was late so dad asked him to stay the night. That was the time people first claimed he had silver. Apparently he didn't have it when he stopped at our place, but the next day when he got down to Mattson's farm near Birch Lake he did have silver. Somewhere along the way he must have picked the silver up."

Mattson! Wasn't that the name of the fellow who found the chief dead near Marengo Station? Just odd coincidence or something more sinister? Bill Johnson, who claimed to know "every hill and hollow" in the area long searched for the place where Namkagon was getting out the silver. He believed the location was in the hills south of his farm. "The silver couldn't have been far off Namekagon's line of travel," Johnson speculated. "I myself have found places in these hills where digging has been done. Some of it was done secretly too."

Then I asked Johnson how he knew the location where he thought Chief Namekagon was digging the silver. He hesitated a moment before telling me and then revealed that he had dreamed it!

Bill Johnson with a mineral speciman found near his farm

"I had this dream the night before," Johnson admitted. "In the dream I was looking up at a certain rock hill. The next day I was out trying to find some cows when I went by some rocks. I stopped. It was the place I had dreamed about! Because of that I scouted around some and that's when I found where someone had been breaking off the rock. I can't prove that's where Chief Namekagon got the silver. Maybe he had more than one place."

Bill Johnson was certain the area near his farm is rich with mineral wealth. In his lifetime in that area locals refer to as Morgan Heights he has seen both amateur prospectors and big mining companies go through. A look at the geological map of the area shows that numerous Precambrian rock bodies straddle the region between Mellen and Lake Namekagon. The area is broken up by a complex system of ancient faults and rifting that may form conduits and passageways for rich mineral-bearing solutions that deposited valuable metallic wealth in the rock.

"The mineral is here," Johnson confided to me. "When old man Skrupky came up from Rice Lake he had an instrument to locate metals with. It was an odd L-shaped deal with a handle on one end and a point that spun around on a bearing on the other end. Skrupky put a small piece of silver into the contraption. I guess that was supposed to attract the pointer to silver in the ground. Anyway, we went up that hill over there and the instrument started to swing back and forth, back and forth, as if it couldn’t make up its mind which way to go. We went up a little farther and the thing started spinning in circles. We went up higher yet and I tried it. 'You have to hold it flat to make it work," Skrupky said, but I told him,'That's what you think. Just watch.' It started swinging back and forth, back and forth. When it got up enough momentum it started swinging around in circles. It spun like crazy. It spun so fast that the little bearing in the handle burned out. There's just got to be something in the rocks here. I know it!"

If upon reading this account you feel an urge to go hunt for this long lost silver mine be prepared for an adventure. A good place to start might be the village park in Grand View just off of State Highway 63. There a historical marker tells one version of the old legend. From there you can strike east in the direction of Morgan Falls or beyond toward the Brunsweiler and Bad rivers. If you prefer another route you can head southwest toward Cable and the Eau Claire Lakes -- other possible locations of the lost mine. Or you might go directly south to Lake Namekagon and visit the island off Missionary Point that was home to Old Ice Feathers. Maybe after a visit there you will dream the silver mine's location. Others have.

Memory of the old Indian chief lingers

Although your chance of finding the lost mine is probably slim one truth stands forth like a nugget of shining silver. As you travel through this region of dark forests and murmuring cascades, of jewel-like lakes and mysterious hills, it might weave its magic around you as it has for so many others. Even if you fail in your search and never find a speck of mineral wealth you might find another treasure greater than anything that can be dug up and possessed. A perfect wealth of unlimited proportions. The treasure that the Indians have known about all along: The quality of enchantment.

Herbert Wagner is a historian and author from Northern Wisconsin.

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