The indigenous women miners of the Driftless Area

An Indigenous History of North America

Lead mining and the lead rush of the 1820s is a huge part of the cultural narrative of white settlement in southeastern Wisconsin and the nearby parts of Minnesota, Illinois, and Iowa known as the Driftless Area. It’s the quintessential frontier story: white American men discover a mineral resource and flood the area, doing the manly work of mining while they slowly civilize the area for further settlement.

But the idea that there was this untapped mineral waiting to be found by Americans is almost entirely wrong. For nearly a century before that, the lead mines had been worked with increasing intensity–and not just by Indians, but by Indian women specifically.

A colorplate of a Meskwaki family made by Jonathan Carver in 1781 A colorplate of a Meskwaki family made by Jonathan Carver in 1781

Indigenous people had been mining for lead in small quantities for thousands of years, but it was the arrival of the fur trade and especially the firearms it brought that sparked…

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