The strange story why Ely, Minnesota isn’t in Canada

East of Ely by David Krikorian

The northeast region of the future State of Minnesota became part of the newly formed United States because of a horse trader’s opportunity to take advantage of an empire’s conceit. This happened during the negotiations concluding the Revolutionary War in Paris, France in 1783, when the horse trader, Benjamin Franklin became aware that the map used by the British had an error.
The mistake in question was a pair of islands on Lake Superior; one named “Philippeaux,” southeast of Isle Royale and the other named “Pontchartrain,” due south of Michipicoten Island. French geographer, Jacques-Nicolas Bellin first recorded the islands on a map based on observations of early Eighteenth Century Jesuit and explorer Pierre François Xavier de Charlevoix. Bellin’s map was later used as a reference by John Mitchell in 1750, a Royal cartographer and Virginian by birth. Mitchell’s Map was adopted by the British Empire, whose haughty insistence led to the map being used as the sole reference of North America at the commencement of Treaty of Paris, and with that bit of blind insistence, the Empire essentially gave the U.S. the Arrowhead Region and the greatest resource to fuel the Industrial Age, the Iron Range.
How did this come about? As mentioned, the head of the American delegation, Benjamin Franklin came to the table with idea of claiming all the territory south and west of the Kaministiquia River, a secondary fur-trading route running inland from present- day Thunder Bay, Ontario. The British opted for all the land west of Lake Superior to a line running from Duluth to the Mississippi.
“Just one minute!” Franklin may have retorted before lying through his teeth. According to Treaty of Paris record, Franklin went on to point out that the United States already had substantial timber and mineral interests of both Isle Royal and Philippeaux and therefore had a rightful claim.
The three American negotiators, Franklin, John Adams and John Jay had never set foot within hundreds of miles of Lake Superior, and it’s safe to guess they had no idea of what went on so far west in the wilderness. But neither did the British at the time, so with no crystal ball on the future they probably hemmed and hawed in George the Third fashion and decided it was foolhardy to argue over such a piteous stretch of land.
I can picture them taking a pinch of snuff and saying, “You drive a hard bargain, sirs. Where do we sign?” I suspect that none of the British ever thought to ask the French, who probably sat at the table suppressing laughter knowing that their enemy the Brits had given the American’s joint access to the primary waterway used by northern fur traders. So the line was drawn on a place called Long Lake on the Mitchell Map, due west of some lousy nine-mile portage inland. It would take another forty years for American surveyors to determine that Long Lake was actually the Pigeon River. Those same surveyors of the 1820s also learned that islands of Philippeaux and Pontchartrain did not exist. And today Ely, the Iron Range, the North Shore and the Boundary Waters are ours.
Or did the islands ever lay shrouded in fog beyond the Lake’s horizon? That would be another story, a ghost story, perhaps a mystery opening during a shipwreck on a cold and stormy night…