- Historic Sites
A Michigan Boyhood
A FAMOUS HISTORIAN RECALLS THE COUNTRY WHERE HE GREW UP
February 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 2
It was fairly simple. They were primitive forest people who had stumbled into an area where there were lumps of pure copper waiting to be picked up and used—not copper ore but virgin copper, in shining big nuggets. To them a lump of copper was no doubt just another stone with pleasing characteristics. It could be hammered and ground into shape with less effort, and to far better effect, than the bits of taconite, flint, quartzite, and slate they had been using, and the tools and weapons made of it were far more effective than the stone implements they already had. As they went on using it, they began to learn things about copper. They found that most of it was embedded in hard quartz, and sooner or later they learned how to extract these lumps of pure metal so that they could take them home and make things out of them. (Dig away the earth and expose the ledge that contains these copper nuggets; build a hot fire on it, then pour cold water on the heated rock so that it cracks. Once it cracks, the copper can be gouged out with wooden spuds and stone hammers.) They also learned how to treat the copper so that it would not become brittle under all the hammering and grinding—heat it, plunge it in water, work on it some more, repeat the heat-and-water treatment; these Indians had evolved what metallurgists would later call annealing.
While they did all of this, the earth beneath their feet was still taking shape. The level of what would be known as the Great Lakes (still fresh from the glaciers in those days) rose and fell in centuries-long rhythm. Some of the copper-culture sites went two hundred feet under water, then emerged long after with their charred fire pits and abandoned stone hammers to draw the attention of prospectors, land lookers, and scientists. The land itself rose, ten feet or more in the course of a century, for generation after generation; there is a theory that the resilient earth was slowly springing back into shape once the overwhelming weight of the ice sheet was removed. As the earth rose, it cut off the old outlet of the Great Lakes at North Bay in Ontario. Now the current of the lakes moved down through Lake Eric and broke away across the Niagara escarpment. And while all of these changes were taking place, the Indians who made things out of copper continued to ply their trade. They had copper mines and coppersmiths and some sort of export trade in the finished product at a time when all the rest of the New World and most of the Old lived deep in the age of chipped flint and polished stone. Clearly, these people were right on the edge of entering the age of metals.
It was no great distance away from them. To the extraction of pure metal from conglomerate ores was only one more step; from smelting to casting was only one step beyond that; these steps taken, the Indians would have been well on their way, and what they could do with one metal could presently have been done with another. (Bear in mind that these people were living squarely on top of one of the richest deposits of iron ore on earth.) They had the mental capacity to figure out and to take these steps. No one who has examined the mathematics, the astronomy, and the intricate, labyrinthine structures of abstract thought that came later in Central America and Mexico can doubt that the American red man was qualified for any sort of advance he might care to make.
The trouble with that kind of advance is that there is no end to it. Development becomes compulsive. Once you take the first step you have committed yourself to take the last, someday, even if the last step goes straight off the edge of a precipice. The age of applied technology has one terrible aspect—each new technique has to be exploited to its absolute limit, until man becomes the victim of his own skills. The conquest of nature cannot end in a negotiated peace. Invent a simple device like the automobile to get you from here to there more quickly than you could go without it; before long you are in bondage to it, so that you build your cities and shape your countryside and reorder your entire life in the light of what will be good for the machine instead of what will be good for you. Detroit has shown us how that works.