What the Sam Hill? Print Email
Written by Charles Eshbach   
sam_hill_web My Grandpa Harvey was not one to swear but when the occasion arose he would declare, “What the Sam Hill”. As a boy growing up in Texas, I often wondered, who in the Sam Hill was Sam Hill? Well fifty years later I discovered the root of Grandpa’s off-handed swear right here in the Keweenaw.

Back in the 1850s the Keweenaw’s copper mining boom was underway. There were about a dozen men who pretty much ran the Keweenaw. They were mining company agents, the “go between” for the investors from Boston and the actual mining production people. Their names were attached to every report sent back to eastern investors. Among these company agents was a man named Samuel W. Hill. Sam was a geologist, surveyor, and mining engineer and had considerable power in the Keweenaw.

When the Federal Government awarded contracts to build the military road from Copper Harbor to the Portage Lake. Sam had little trouble getting a fat share of this plum. Payment was made in land, with four sections paid for every mile of road built. Sam and his partners picked the mineral rich land first, then routed the road to it since government rules said the pay-off land had to be within three miles of the road. Therefore the road roamed all over the Keweenaw.

Sam’s power and influence were well known, but another character trait, or flaw as it were, made him a legend. His speech was so blasphemous and obscenely colorful that his name became the origin of the time-honored synonym for profanity. When people would retell the stories of Sam Hill’s escapades, instead of using the foul language Sam used, they would substitute his name. As the copper flowed from the Keweenaw and throughout the world, so did the infamous name of Sam Hill.

In contrast to Hill’s apparent character flaws, he is credited with helping to prevent mass starvation one winter in the late 50s. With winter approaching the last supply ship from Soo Ste. Marie burned, leaving the Keweenaw short of winter provisions. Sam rode the length of the mineral range inventorying supplies and devised a plan whereby all single men in the Keweenaw would have to snowshoe to Green Bay for food. Just before freeze up, a boat arrived. Rationing was still required and some mine reports from that year speak of low production because the men spent too much time hunting to feed their families. Regardless, thanks to Sam’s forethought, the Copper Country was saved from starvation.

My Grandfather Harvey was a farmer, rancher, and cowboy in the Oklahoma Indian Territory at the turn of the century. He may not have known the complexity of Sam Hill’s character, but as a mild mannered Christian man who hardly ever raised his voice, taking the name of a foul mouthed copper miner in vain was an acceptable expletive. The legend of Sam Hill is woven into our American heritage, and undoubtedly that thread is made of copper.

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