Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Runaway Slave Who Found a Copper Mine

Michigan copper

By Marilyn Turk

In 1848, Noel Johnson ran away from his master, William Pemberton in Missouri, taking his wife Mary Ann and infant son to Cleveland, Ohio, where he was told to go to the home of Quaker Cyrus Mendenhall, an abolitionist. Mendenhall was an early mining prospector who had opened the LaFayette copper mine in1845 in the Porcupine Mountains of Michigan. Mendenhall took the young fugitive family with him to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan when he returned there on business. He found work for Mary Ann, but told Noel to hide in the woods until the family could make their way to Canada.

While hiding out, Noel did some prospecting on his own and discovered a copper deposit on the edge of a bluff above the Flintsteel River.

As a fugitive slave, he could not legally own property. When Noel told Mendenhall about his discovery, Mendenhall contacted the heirs of Noel’s former owner who had passed away. Mendenhall explained to the Pemberton heirs that he had the fugitive slave, but instead of returning him, offered to purchase him. They agreed, and Mendenhall paid $250 for Noel, his wife and child. Next, Mendenhall saw to it that Noel was emancipated so he could file a claim as a freedman.
Lake of the clouds, Porcupine Mountains, MI

Noel Johnson settled in the area which became known as Mass City when he sold his mine to the Mass Mining Company. He then bought a home in Ontonagon, Michigan, where he and his wife had another child in 1852, a baby girl named Louisa. When he died in1853, his wife remarried soon after, practically deserting her two children. Mendenhall was appointed custodian of the children and sent them to Ohio to school.

Louisa survived her brother who died at age 18. She received all of her father’s estate, valued at $18,000, which was a tidy sum in 1870.

A multi-published author, Marilyn Turk writes historical fiction about the coastal South. Her fascination for lighthouses spawned her popular weekly lighthouse blog, and inspired her upcoming Coastal Lights Legacy series and her Lighthouse Devotions. Her novel, A Gilded Curse, will be released March 2016 from Heritage Beacon Fiction, an imprint of Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas.


  1. That's an interesting story. Too bad Noel didn't live long enough to enjoy his freedom and wealth.

  2. Very interesting,Marilyn. What a difference a good abolitionist made in the lives of some slaves! Thanks for sharing this.