Copper Record of the Ojibway

Mark Treter

For students of the Book of Mormon, an interesting event is referenced in the pages of History of the Ojibway People, by William W. Warren1. The event is also of interest to Wisconsin archeologists because of its reference to metal objects fashioned by native Americans in Wisconsin.

According to Warren, as a teenager in 1842, he was in the company of his father and mother visiting the Ojibway town that had been a capital or principal gathering place, founded at the mouth of Chequameogon Bay on what is now called Madeline Island in Lake Superior, one of the Apostle Islands. In 1693, French explorers had established a fort and trading post near there which they called La Pointe. The Ojibway town and the trading post are located at the southern end of the island, approximately 2.6 miles across the water from the Wisconsin shoreline along Lake Superior. This location was one of the first outposts for the Ojibway migrating westward under pressure from other tribes, and was selected by the Ojibway for their first settlement in that area of Wisconsin because of the additional security provided by being on an island. Warren’s family was visiting his mother’s uncle, who was a chief of the Crane clan.

It should be noted that there were smaller Ojibway towns established all along the shore of Lake Superior from Fond du Lac, Minnesota (on the Wisconsin-Minnesota border at the extreme western end of Lake Superior’s waterways) to Keweenaw Bay on the east. Warren reports that the Ojibway found a successful life in these lands. Fur was plentiful, fishing was good among the nearby islands, large fields of corn and squash were cultivated, and wild rice was harvested in the lakes and streams. Also, after the French abandoned the trading post at La Pointe in 1698, the other tribes of the area, such as the Fox and Lakota (or Dakota), had no choice but to obtain European goods through their neighbors the Ojibway. In the winter months, hunting bands traveled deep into Wisconsin woods to the south. But in the summer, Ojibway people from the whole area, as well as from the north shore of Lake Superior, came to Chequamegon on the island for the Medewiwin (or "Grand Medicine") ceremonies. These religious gatherings of the Ojibway nation were held in a great lodge which stood in the principal village on Madeline Island.

At this time, Warren and his parents were shown a "sacred relic"2 of the Ojibway people, exhibited to him by the old chief, Tug-waug-aun-ay of the Crane Clan. Warren would have been about 16 or 17 years old, as he was born on May 27, 1825. The event was later reported in Warren’s book, in connection with a historical review of chieftainship among the various Ojibway clans.3

In his book, Warren describes the "sacred relic" as a record or "register" made on a "circular plate of virgin copper."4 Warren reports that the existence of the sacred record was not generally known and that it was seldom displayed even to those were closely related to the one tasked with maintaining the record. "On this occasion he only brought it to view at the entreaty of my mother, whose maternal uncle he was." Warren also reports, "I am the only one still living who witnessed, on that occasion, this sacred relic of former days."

For students of the Book of Mormon, it is of interest that this sacred relic was kept hidden in an underground location. Warren reports, "[T]he old chief kept it carefully buried in the ground . . ." Warren reports that the chief "was about sixty years of age at the time he showed this plate of copper, which he said had descended to him direct through a long line of ancestors."

Warren reports that, on this metal plate are "rudely marked indentations and hieroglyphics." It appears that this plate may be one among several, and that it was prepared new at the time the tribe took up residence in this new area. The tribe had selected this location as their new center, and the town or city was reported to be crowded with lodges and hogans, taking up an area three miles long and two miles wide. The purpose of the metal plate appears to have been to keep a new record from that time forward.
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