Isle Royale: The families of the island

Isle Royale was not always a National Park. It is believed that native populations arrived on the island as early as 2000 B.C. to mine copper. During much of the 1800’s it was used, without much success, for fishing and mining practices. During the 1890’s to 1920’s they attempted to use it for tourism and hunting. It wasn’t until 1931 that Congress authorized the National Park as President Herbert Hoover said that it was made ‘to conserve a prime example of North Woods Wilderness’ in 1940 Isle Royale National Park was established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

During the 1800’s and early 1900’s there were families that established cabins throughout the island. They generally lived in for part of the year, or used for family vacations throughout the summer. When the National Park was established the question was what do we do with these families homes/cabins?

In many cases the families were given a choice; they could either sell their land to the National Park Service now or they could name someone in their family and the land could stay in their possession until that person died. Many families opted to sell the land. It was the great depression and the money was far more valuable than a summer vacation home.

For the land and homes/cabins that were bought, the National Park Service implemented a very simple management scheme. They would wait for the first snowfall around October and send a ranger out with a box of matches to torch the place. Many cabins were burned this way and the only ones remaining are ones from families that decided to keep their land.

The park now, though, is facing a dilemma. As residents pass away what do they do with these cabins. One would think that they would implement their old snow and flame technique, but there is a little bit of a wrinkle.

In 1964 Congress passed the Wilderness Act. The premise is simple, areas that are wild should stay wild and areas that were once wild and could be returned to wilderness should be. In 1966, Congress also passed the Historic Preservation Act. This act made any building older than 50 years subject to Historic Preservation and making it very difficult to destroy, remove, move or remodel.

Now that 50 years have passed many of these homes both sit in wilderness and are buildings that are Congressionally protected as historic buildings.. While this may seem like something that is unique to Isle Royale, you will find that the removal of individuals from their land is something that is common in the history of the National Park Service. There are times when that relationship is managed well; there are times that it is not. Unfortunately, this history is rarely captured in the signs and history provided by the National Park Service. We were searching the Internet and came across an organization called the Isle Royale Families and Friends Association. After a couple of calls we were able to get a hold of someone whose family had owned land on Isle Royale.

One thing to remember about many of our National Parks is that the federal government was almost never their first. In many cases the land being used was once the home, or business of someone who settled the land. While the National Park Service tries to do a good job of covering the history of native peoples they often gloss over the history of the settlers and families that moved onto the land. Good or bad, these people and their stories should be remembered.