Local View: Why doesn't Isle Royale belong to Canada?

From the column: "If you draw the logical international border, ... most of Isle Royale is north of the line."

Isle Royale National Park is delaying its opening date from April 15 to June 15 at the earliest due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (File / News Tribune)

People often wonder why Isle Royale belongs to the United States instead of Canada. If you draw the logical international border from Whitefish Bay on Lake Superior’s eastern end to the Pigeon River on the lake’s western end, you see that most of Isle Royale is north of the line.

At the American Revolution’s end, the 1783 Treaty of Paris established the initial boundaries between the U.S. and British Canada. Negotiating for the Americans were John Jay, John Adams, Henry Laurens, Benjamin Franklin, and William Temple Franklin (Benjamin Franklin’s 23-year-old grandson).

When drafting the treaty, the negotiators used a 1755 map created by John Mitchell (1711-1768) as their primary map source. The Mitchell map was the most comprehensive map of eastern North America during the colonial era. The original is almost six and a half feet wide and four and a half feet high.

Mitchell was neither a professional geographer nor mapmaker. The son of a wealthy Virginia family, he completed the first two years of Edinburgh University’s medical program. Returning to coastal Virginia, he practiced medicine until ill health forced him to return to London where he met George Montagu-Dunk, the Second Earl of Halifax and president of the British Board of Trade and Plantations.

Halifax expected further wars over colonial holdings and latched onto Mitchell as an expert in all things colonial. Mitchell made an initial 1750 map from the resources he found in London, which proved inadequate. To improve the map’s quality, Halifax ordered British colonial governors to send new maps, which most did, and Mitchell completed a revised map in 1755.


Mitchell’s 1755 map shows two big islands in western Lake Superior. He labeled the northern island Isle Royale and the southern island Isle Philippeaux, noting Isle Minong as an alternate name.

Looking at the Mitchell map, putting the new border between the map’s two big islands would have been a “split the difference” solution for negotiators. However, Article 2 of the Treaty of Paris identifies both islands by name and puts the border north of both islands. Had the treaty negotiators possessed a modern map, this boundary would make no sense since most of Isle Royale is north of the Pigeon River, which became the U.S.-Canada border at the western end of Lake Superior. However, using the distorted Mitchell map, giving both Isle Royale and the phantom Isle Philippeaux to the United States was completely logical.

The administration of President Thomas Jefferson would use the same 1755 Mitchell map to draft the Northwest Ordinance that defined the Great Lakes area territories. The map’s inaccurate placement of the bottom of Lake Michigan with respect to the western end of Lake Erie would also cause Congress to define the Michigan and Ohio territorial borders in an unintended place, leading to the Ohio War and negotiations that eventually led to giving Michigan all of the Upper Peninsula.

People also ask why Isle Royale is part of Michigan instead of Minnesota. It is 56 miles from Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula but only 15 miles from both Minnesota and Canada. Reading the original congressional act creating the state of Michigan, it is clear Congress intended Michigan to get all of the Upper Peninsula as well as all of Lake Superior up to the Canadian border at the lake’s western end. From there, the act draws a line south to the present Michigan-Wisconsin border at the Montreal River. This description gives Michigan most of the U.S. portion of Lake Superior.

Since the place described at the Canadian border is in a bay, the line appears to have been subsequently adjusted to give Minnesota a three-mile spit of land called Pigeon Point from which the Michigan water border is less than 1,000 feet offshore.

At the time of statehood, Michigan citizens considered the Upper Peninsula to be worthless wilderness. But by the 1840s, its copper, iron, and nickel proved it a valuable addition to the state. These minerals would produce more wealth than the California Gold Rush.

John L. Daly of Chelsea, Michigan, is a professional speaker and the author of the novel, “Tool & Die.” This column was inspired by stories he has written about his seven trips to Isle Royale.


John Daly.jpg
John L. Daly

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