The Copper Boom of the 1840s was the first great mineral rush in the United States. As soon as the Ojibwa ceded the last of the Great Lakes lands to the United States in 1842, exploration began. It was fueled by a favorable report from State Geologist Douglass Houghton concerning copper deposits in the western Upper Peninsula. The rush kindled the imagination of many adventurers including a young man named Peter White. At fifteen years old, he ran away from his home in Green Bay in hopes of obtaining passage to the copper lands. He made his way to Mackinac Island and eventually boarded a steamer for the Sault in June of 1847.
In the second week of that month, the story goes that White had his chance to travel to the Copper Country. The schooner Merchant was going up to Portage Entry. Possibly as an omen of what was ahead or a stroke of good fortune, the captain of the schooner, Robert Moore, suffered a broken leg while disembarking from the vessel. He tried to induce another skipper to take his place. Moore wound up sailing the vessel out of the Sault anyway with 14 passenger and crew aboard on June 11, 1847. The Merchant was never heard from again. Months later, some wreckage from the ship was recovered on the north shore of the lake. Five years later, some explorers off Grand Island spotted the top masts of a schooner about 30 feet below the surface. It is here where she likely met her fateâ??the first disappearance with all hands on Lake Superior.
White Peter headed back south and worked a variety of jobs over the next couple of years. He worked as a deckhand on the schooner Bella Hubbard, then as a clerk in a store in Detroit. Eventually he made his way back north to Mackinac Island where he made a living as a laborer with the lighthouse service in the summer and as a store clerk in the winter. He never made it to the copper lands, but in the spring of 1849, a Scotsman named Robert Gravereat came to the island looking for men to work a mining claim in the newly discovered iron hills of the central Upper Peninsula. Peter White followed Gravereat and the rest is history.