When the subject of gold rushes comes up, the first words to mind are often “49ers” or “Klondike”. Yet the first gold discovery resulting in a gold rush, took place some 50 years before the 1849 migration to California.
It wasn’t even a gold rush. It was a 12 year-old boy picking up a heavy hunk of yellow metal along Little Meadow Creek, in North Carolina. Conrad John Reed, the son of a British soldier who had deserted the cause of Britain, unwittingly started a chain of events that would have long reaching consequences for his family, his state and his country.
The yellow hunk served as a doorstop in the Reed home until 1802, when Reed’s father learned it was gold. He sold it to a Fayetteville jeweller for $3.50. It was worth thousands.
Reed began “prospecting” along and in the stream, with three other partners who put up capital in the form of money and labour. The “mine” operated only when there wasn’t farm work for the miners, who for the most part, were slaves belonging to the partners. In 1803, one of the slaves would stumble across a nugget weighing 28 lbs. Their speed of production picked up, with a still erected in 1806, to employ mercury in the recovery of the gold. Soon, neighbours and people in surrounding counties were mining their properties too, some with notable success.
Sinking shafts to tap the gold rich quartz, began in the 1820s, but didn’t arrive at the Reed holdings until 1831. Reed himself still held the property and the upper hand in 1834 when a new agreement was struck whereby his sons and sons-in-law would provide the labour, yielding one third of the profits to Reed, and two thirds to his partners. But a dispute over a 13 lb nugget discovered in 1835 would drag on for ten years, and the mine would not be fully exploited.
Reed died in 1845, the property passing to a grandson and son-in-law, who sold it shortly thereafter. The fortunes of the mine would rise and fall on several occasions over the next hundred years, before it closed forever as a commercial venture, in the 1930s.
A second gold rush on the East Coast, also pre-dates the California find. In 1828, near Dahlonega, Georgia, Benjamin Parks stumbled over a yellow rock while deer hunting. The rock turned out to be full of gold. In no time at all, 15,000 people rushed to the area to share in the bonanza.
Gold was literally lying around on the ground, having worked up from underground seams on the mountain, and been washed down over hundreds of years. The first prospectors picked it off the surface, and out of the streams, stripping the easily reachable deposits. Next came digging deeper in the streams, but their only equipment at the time was the gold pan. Soon they began carrying baskets of material down off the mountain, to be cleaned in sluice boxes. The sluices were simply long troughs with a ladder like formation in the middle, operating on the force of gravity, as water poured into the boxes, and washed the contents down over the ladder, where heavy deposits such as gold would drop into the bottom of the box, and the light particles would wash on out of the sluice. The deposits would then be panned for gold.
Work was slow until 1845, when Nathan Hand came up with a system that utilized 26 miles of sluice boxes and pipe for the hydraulic blasting of water at the upper part of the mountain, which washed the dirt down into the waiting sluice boxes. After hard rock was reached in 1880, it was determined that the foundation of the gold find was not a vein of gold in the mountain, but veins of quartz containing gold. The average quartz/gold vein runs two to three inches thick, with the odd lucky strike being eight inches wide. A man named Knight, mining on the Dahlonega side of the mountain, discovered several small veins running into one, that measured an incredible 22 feet in depth, one of the largest veins of gold bearing quartz ever found in the world. Reportedly one of the first every systematic attempts at deep vein mining, the site was abandoned finally in 1906.