The History of Isle Royale

Thousands of devoted hikers and campers have discovered the rare beauty of Isle Royale – but did you know that this hasn’t always been an adventurous summer spot? From ancient copper miners to 19th century fishing camps, the island was a center of commerce and trade goods before it became a place for backpackers, hikers, and outdoor enthusiasts to check off of their bucket list.

The Deep Roots of Isle Royale

Today no one permanently lives on Isle Royale, but this hasn’t always been the case. The Chippewa Indians, also known as the Ojibwe, were the first inhabitants of many parts of the Upper Peninsula and can be traced all the way back to A.D. 100. This Native American tribe used the island as a source for valuable copper. Some mining pits well over 4,000 years old have been discovered on the island.

The Ojibwe name for Isle Royale is “Minong” which translates to “a good place to get copper,” or simply, “the good place”. In addition to advanced fishing techniques and the use of ceramics, the Ojibwe traded copper to places as far away as modern day New York.

Photos courtesy of Michigan Tech Archives, 2017

In the 1783 Treaty of Paris, the renamed Isle Royale was granted to the United States, even though it is much closer to Ontario than it is to the United States. It was rumored that the United States wanted to snatch up the island specifically because of the abundance of copper. Isle Royale was later ceded to the state of Michigan after the resolution of the Toledo War in 1837.

Photo courtesy of Michigan Tech Archives, 2017

By this time new settlers attempted to restart the lucrative copper mining trade, but they found that the majority of the ore had already been removed by the Ojibwe miners centuries before. Undaunted, they turned their hand to fishing and established several whitefish and lake trout fishing camps, accompanied by a few resorts to attract tourists.

While Congress was encouraged by President Herbert Hoover in the 1930’s to begin their search of adding the ideal northern wooded wilderness to the national park system, it wasn’t until April 3, 1940 that President Franklin D. Roosevelt officially established Isle Royale has a U.S. National Park. Excluding Alaska, Isle Royale is the least-visited National Park in the country, however, there are still about a dozen families who trace their roots back to Isle Royale and maintain half-time leases on their island cabins. Additionally, several commercial fishers still work in the same waters where their ancestors once caught whitefish and trout, keeping the island’s history alive.

Photos courtesy of Michigan Tech Archives, 2017

The Three Cs of Isle Royale

Since Isle Royale is a major obstacle in the shipping channel, over 25 wrecks have occurred nearby, dating back to 1839. The Rock of Ages Reef caused three notable wrecks known as The Three Cs and are often visited by divers to this day.

  • The Cumberland: This passenger steamer ran aground near Nipigon, Ontario, on July 21, 1877. A salvage crew tried to rescue the ship but had to give up when the weather turned nasty that August. Sections of her anchor, sidewheel, and hull can still be found scattered about the Rock of Ages Reef.
  • The Henry Chisholm: In October of 1898, this ship ran into the same reef that damaged the Cumberland. The damage was so extensive that the crew had to abandon ship, and it can still be found mixed in with the remains of the previous wreck.
  • The George M. Cox: The Rock of Ages Reef took another victim on May 28, 1933. In a dense fog, the George M. Cox hit the reef so hard that the boilers were torn loose. Witnesses took many pictures of the ship standing on the reef at a 90-degree angle. Again, it was so badly damaged that the crew abandoned ship.

Experience the History for Yourself With Isle Royale Seaplanes

Whether you’re a history buff or you simply want to escape civilization and get back to nature, Isle Royale is a treasure trove. You can learn much more about the history of this beautiful island at the visitors’ center in Houghton or through the Isle Royale Institute at Michigan Tech. Before your adventure with ancient copper mines and shipwrecks begins, start with a seaplane flight to the island! Call Isle Royale Seaplanes at (906) 483-4991 or send a message through our website.

« Previous Post
Next Post »


Hancock Portage Canal
Seaplane Base
21205 Royce Road
Hancock, MI 49930

Cook County Airport
123 Airport Road
Grand Marais, MN 55604

(906) 483-4991

Isle Royale Seaplanes


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.