Though we see the National Parks in the present day as stunning natural lands where we can appreciate the vast biodiversity of the United States, the parks also offer rich history lessons. A trip to a National Park affords one the opportunity to learn about America's geological, anthropological, cultural, and biological history.
To honor the National Parks and what they were before they were National Parks, we launched a mini-series on the history behind some of this country's most cherished public lands.
This week we dive into Part #4 in the series, where we explore the history behind Isle Royale National Park, one of America's least-visited and most remote National Parks!
Indigenous History on Isle Royale's Archipelago of 450 Islands
Located in the northwest quadrant of Lake Superior within the state of Michigan is an archipelago of islands called Isle Royale National Park. The main island is about 45 miles long and 9 miles wide and is surrounded by about 450 smaller islands.
The human history of the Isle Royale Archipelago goes back thousands of years, with anthropologists dating the Indigenous extraction of copper from the island as early as 4,500 years ago. Most anthropologists agree that Indigenous peoples first explored the island close to 5,000 years ago, likely while searching for game or fishing.
Isle Royale plays a significant role in the North Shore Ojibwa's traditional and cultural history. The island, called "Minong" in Ojibwa, was also a part of the Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa's ancestral lands. It's uncertain what the original definition of Minong was, but some believe it meant "Good Place" or "Place of Blueberries."
For thousands of years, long before European settlers arrived, Indigenous tribes in what is now Ontario, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan would travel to Isle Royale for hunting, trapping, maple sugaring, fishing, plant gathering, spiritual practices, and copper mining.
The geological structure of Isle Royale is such that there were ample copper deposits on the island for thousands of years. The deposits became cherished commodities for Indigenous tribes, with tribal historians recording the Indigenous trade of Isle Royale copper jewelry and tools as far as New York.
In 1859, An Indigenous leader named Keatanang, the headman of the Ontonagon Band, said this about Isle Royale copper he had inherited from his father and grandfather:
"The lump of copper in the forest is a great treasure for me. It was so to my father and grandfather. It is our hope and our protection. Through it I have caught many beavers, killed many bears. Through its magic assistance (I) have been victorious in all my battles, and with it I have killed our foes. Through it, too, I have always remained healthy, and reached that great age in which thou now findest me."
Isle Royale also had spiritual significance to the Indigenous tribes that visited it. The Ojibwa believed that the waters off Minong were the home of the Mishepeshu, the underwater lynx. The Mishepeshu is an important and potentially dangerous spiritual being (also called a manitou) in traditional Ojibwe culture.
From Euro-American Exploration to National Park Status
By the 1600s and 1700s, French, British, and American settlers made their own discoveries of Isle Royale and began trapping beaver and other animals on the island. First, French trappers and Ojibwa Indians operated trade routes to, through, and from Isle Royale. Then the British took control of the island following the end of the Seven Years War. With the defeat of the British in the Revolutionary War, the British abandoned their staked claim on the island.
It wasn't until 1843 that the United States officially acquired Isle Royale from the Ojibwa Indian tribe of the region. Throughout the second half of the 19th century, Isle Royale experienced much of the same copper boom that moved through the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. By the early-20th century, most of the copper (about 95 tons worth) that could be easily removed from the island was mined and shipped off on huge freighters. At that point, elected officials in Washington and residents of northern Michigan alike began wondering what to do with the island.
A solution soon presented itself. In 1931, President Herbert Hoover authorized Congress to find a prime expanse of northern wooded wilderness for conservation. Isle Royale was one of the first federally-owned lands brought to the table for discussion. In 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt officially designated the Isle Royale Archipelago a National Park, a designation and protection that the island has held to this day.
The Isle Royale Biosphere Reserve - An Ecological Gem in the Wilds of the North
One of the unique features of Isle Royale National Park is that this island is so much more than a National Park; it's also an official UNESCO Biosphere Reserve! A Biosphere Reserve is an internationally recognized area where a management team seeks to protect, conserve, and sustain the biological diversity of a particularly unique ecosystem.
Isle Royale National Park was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1980. Why? Because of the one-of-a-kind interaction of the wolf and moose population on the island.
No one knows exactly when it occurred, but many, many centuries ago, moose herds and wolf packs from Canada crossed the 15-mile expanse of frozen Lake Superior during winter and came to Isle Royale. These populations have been there ever since, with the wolves relying almost entirely on the moose for sustenance and the moose relying on the wolves to keep the moose population in check (to prevent overgrazing and resulting biodiversity loss on the island).
Since 1980, ecologists, zoologists, and biologists have studied the moose and wolf populations on Isle Royale, offering invaluable research and new ecological information on the habits and interactions of these animals as a result.
Cherishing Isle Royale National Park Through Vintage National Park Poster Art
Isle Royale may be one of the least-visited National Parks on the roster (only about 15,000 people travel to the island each year), but the island is beautiful, mesmerizing even. From the forested ridges and valleys to the inland lakes, small islands, bays, inlets, streams, rocky headlands, and abundant wildlife, the lack of people and the untouched, unbothered natural wonder of Isle Royale is part of what makes this park so special.
To celebrate the American National Parks and to commemorate them in our own special way, Anderson Design Group's award-winning poster artists hand-rendered vintage travel art and National Park art for Isle Royale National Park. These designs make perfect home decor pieces and gifts, excellent tokens and souvenirs of amazing adventures to Isle Royale, or perfect bucket list reminders of an elusive, island-bound National Park that one has yet to travel to.
Despite its rich history and even though Isle Royale had received much attention throughout the centuries from Indigenous Nations, fur traders, miners, and conservationists, there is still a mysterious, unexplored nature to the island. Is that because the island receives so few visitors per year? Or is there just something particularly elusive and magical about an undeveloped island-haven of plants and animals far within the wilds of the American North?
I guess you'll just have to see it for yourself to find out.
But until then, thanks for following along with our journey into the history of the National Parks!
Anderson Design Group Writing Staff