Galena Ore

Image of Galena Ore
Wealth and conflict

Galena is a historic and picturesque community in northwest Illinois that attracts tourists from miles around. It is part of the “Upper Mississippi Valley Lead-Zinc District,” which includes northwest Illinois, southwest Wisconsin, and northeast Iowa.

Well before Illinois became a state, Native American tribes (the Sac and Fox) living in the area mined galena ore (lead sulfide), the source of lead. Pioneer settlers also exploited the area’s lead resources, eventually displacing the Native Americans who first mined here. In the 1820s, galena ore became the focus of the first major “mineral rush” in the United States. By the end of the 1820s, the city of Galena rivaled Chicago in size. 

When the search for lead moved to other parts of the state, fluorite was discovered. Lead, zinc, and fluorite all formed in a similar fashion during the Permian Period, about 270 million years ago. Hot, mineral-rich water was forced upwards from deep within the earth into cracks or crevices, where the minerals formed crystals.

Lead is a soft metal with a low melting point that can be quite easily extracted from the ore by smelting. Lead sometimes contains silver and other metals that can be separated in the smelting process. This sample of galena ore in the Illinois State Museum Legacy Collection is from Jo Daviess County, where the town of Galena is located.

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