Quick – how many things do you think a retired British Naval navigator (Gavin) and a retired junior high science teacher (Fred) could have in common? Both travelled extensively in their retirement years. They wrote multiple books. Ancient history is the common thread that stitched together the books they authored and their world travels. Had they met, the commonality that would have made them fast friends is their ability to upset those who have preached the “North American History 101” sermon so long that they can no longer accept any deviation from that mantra. What is the “North American History 101” mantra, you ask? The concept that “Columbus discovered the new world and the history of North American history begins in 1492 with that discovery.” It is a good bet that most of you already know the tale of Christopher Columbus and his travels because “Columbus sailed the ocean blue in fourteen hundred ninety two” was the North American history that we were taught over and over and over again. The disclaimer here says “I have been a Fred disciple since the early 1980s and a Gavin disciple since 2010 so what I am going to relate here will have a definite slant to it.” With that said, allow me to help unravel the upsetting thought that Christopher Columbus wasn’t the first to explore the so called ‘New World’ by a long shot.
As long as I have known Fred Rydholm longer than Gavin Menzies, that is where we shall begin. When I was in junior high (1965 to 1967), Fred Rydholm was the ‘popular’ science teacher at Graveraet. This is not a belated slam at the other science teachers there at that time. With a school population of 1,000 seventh and eighth graders, there were multiple teachers for each subject. I had excellent teachers in my two years there (Mr. Stratton and Mr. Marciol), but those of us who did not have Mr. Rydholm were always looked on with some degree of pity: “You didn’t have him? Ah, too bad.” When I did my student teaching at Bothwell Middle School, Fred was still teaching, but I got reassigned from my original placement with another great science teacher (Bill Laurich) to social studies (with Wayne Greenwall). This whole story will have to be another chapter of my educational travel log because the point is simply this: I was in the same building with Fred Rydholm for two and a half years and never got to see him teach. In fact, until the middle of my student teaching assignment (the spring semester of 1974-75), I hadn’t even talked to him. It was at one of the seventh grade camp planning meetings that he turned to me and said, “I need some help with the track team. Would you be interested?”
With my extensive experience as a thinclad (I tried out for track as a shot putter my junior year in high school and missed getting a varsity letter by one inch . . . pushed out of third place by a freshman of all things . . .) and in need of some resume builders, I accepted his invitation. It was during track practice that I got to know Fred. When he found out I had spent three summers working at the Huron Mountain Club, I found out that Fred had spent more time there than some of the club members. Fred got his foot in the door at the club because his father owned a grocery store at Third and Hewitt St in Marquette and he would ride to the club with his father to deliver supplies. At the time I was his assistant track coach, he said he had been trying to write a book about the history of the Upper Peninsula and the Huron Mountain Club, but it was time consuming and he wasn’t happy with his progress. I will pull out the “another story for another day” bit and say the book (Superior Heartland: A Backwoods History) finally came out in 1989 as a massive two volume set – another interesting story . . . yes, for another day. (ed. Note: There is an examination copy of this work at the Ontonagon Township Library & they can still be purchased on line. Do not let the size scare you – one can read it in piecemeal fashion and it will still make sense).
The above all took place in the spring of 1975. After teaching in Ontonagon for four years, I was laid off, got married, returned to NMU to get my Master’s degree, and returned to teach in Ontonagon in the fall of 1980. During my one year layoff, OASD teacher Bruce Johanson had penned his own book to use in his junior high history class reasoning that the best way to teach history was through the filter of what was happening in This Land, the Ontonagon (which was also the title of his book) as other world and national events unfolded. Bruce and I began taking joint science and history field trips in the early 1980s. One fall, in a perfect storm of coincidences, I convinced Bruce that we should go to the conference for history teachers at NMU where Fred Rydholm would be giving the keynote address. I introduced Bruce to Fred, Bruce invited Fred to visit Ontonagon, and he eventually made so many trips to here to present talks at Ontonagon County Historical Society meetings that we made him an honorary life member. What drew Fred to Ontonagon? Copper, of course!
As a young boy scout, Fred had gone to Isle Royale on a camping trip. He saw what we now know are ancient copper mining pits at McCargoe Cove but couldn’t get anyone to give him a satisfactory answer as to how they got there. He related this frustration to one of the pillars of the Marquette Historical Society, Mrs. Helen Paul, and it turned out her husband had quite an interest in the very topic. His descriptions of the ancient miner’s pits he had visited on C-Shaft Hill in Rockland remained with Fred for many years until we finally were able to take him to that very site in the mid-1990s. By this time, Fred was traveling far and wide to different meetings and conferences to learn as much as he could about the pre-Columbian history of North America. Fred had come to believe that there had to have been people visiting North American long before Columbus set sail. He found some like minded people at these meetings and just as many (if not more) who staunchly refused to budge from their “1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue” stance.
During the programs Rydholm presented, he would always tell the tale of Joe Keela. Joe found an odd shaped stone in the Escanaba River near Gwinn and he brought it to Fred to see what he thought of the scratches on one side. They showed this stone to anyone they could think of who might be able to help them solve the mystery of the scratches. Most said they were caused by the stone tumbling in the river or by salt from the nearby highway bridge. Eventually, Fred sent a picture to an expert in epigraphy (the study of alphabets and languages) named Barry Fell asking if he thought it might be an inscription. To his surprise, Fell not only answered the letter, but he deciphered the message. Fell told Fred and Joe that the scratches were from an ancient alphabet called Ogham that used a series of up and down scratches to represent letters (with no vowels). He said that it was a prayer to the god Baal to keep the traveler safe on the waters. Baal was worshipped in pre-Christian times by the Celts and societies of the eastern Mediterranean. “How does a Celtic prayer stone end up in the Escanaba River?” became the bur under Fred’s saddle for the next forty years.
The more he looked, the more evidence Fred found that deepened his conviction that ancient people had traveled routinely to North America for centuries before Columbus. On top of Huron Mountain, there is a curious object called a dolman. It consists of a large stone raised up on three smaller stones. These are not common in North America (with only 3 in the Great Lakes region) but they are common throughout Europe, apparently raised as a sort of signpost saying ‘we were here’. There is evidence of Viking visits to Minnesota via the water routes from Greenland west into Hudson Bay and then south along the Red River. There are carved petroglyphs on the top of Silver Mountain, near Baraga. There are cylindrical stone pillars on the north end of Pequaming (near L’Anse) and let us not forget those pesky miner’s pits. Thousands of these pits surround the high points of Isle Royale and the Copper Country that would have been bare rock islands sticking out of early Lake Superior. Fred would summarize his view of the ancient copper miners by saying: “In Europe, they have tin mines but little copper. You need tin and copper to make bronze. They have tons of bronze artifacts from the Bronze Age but they can’t figure out where the copper came from. In the copper country, we are missing tons of copper that the ancient miner’s removed and we can trace some of it south, some as far west as China, but we can’t find enough of it in North America to account for the massive amount that was mined. Where do you think it went?”
Those who want to attribute the ancient mining to the ancestors of the native population of the Copper Country seem to forget several things. First of all, the native people did use copper and revered it as a powerful, magical material, but they only used it when they found it. They did not mine it. Secondly, the native people’s historical narratives were passed down orally from one generation to another. They recall migrations, battles, struggles, celebrations, and many details about their lives, but they never mention mining copper. When the first Europeans asked them who made the miner’s pits, the native people told them the truth: “We don’t know – they were here when our people got here.”
The other often repeated criticism of the theories about the ancient copper miners is the lack of physical evidence of habitation. It is said that they would not have overwintered in this harsh environment, but where would they have gone? Rydholm dug out his topographic maps and realized that at the end of the last ice age, the crust of the Earth had been depressed by the great weight of the ice sheet. With a lower land surface and higher water levels in the early Great Lakes, it was possible that there was a direct water route from the Copper Country to the south. The Sturgeon River currently flows into Torch Lake near Chassell, MI. The headwaters of the Sturgeon are less than a quarter of a mile from the headwaters of the Escanaba River at Clarksburg (near Republic). When the land surface was depressed, these river valleys were draining early Lake Superior to the south, entering Lake Michigan near Escanaba. Across the lake from Escanaba, they have discovered ancient garden walls and a stone calendar site on Beaver Island and Garden Island. These islands sound like a nicer wintering place than the Copper Country and a great staging area for the shipment of copper to other places around the world, don’t they?
Like any great detective story, the isolated pieces of this past puzzle have begun to interconnect. The more the pieces match, the less easily they can be dismissed. In Part 2 of Gavin and Fred, we will examine Fred’s role in one of the more controversial pieces of evidence regarding the ancient copper miners: Burrow’s Cave.
Top Piece video: Okay, I have used this before but Billy Joel hit the history nail on the head, so here it is again!