Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The First American Gold Rush

GOLD.—A gentleman of the first respectability in Habersham county, writes us thus under date of 22d July: "Two gold mines have just been discovered in this county, and preparations are making to bring these hidden treasures of the earth to use." So it appears that what we long anticipated has come to pass at last, namely, that the gold region of North and South Carolina, would be found to extend into Georgia.
—Notice in Milledgeville's Georgia Journal, dated 1 August 1829
Two parties of sixty-one families relocated from Burke County, North Carolina, to the Nacoochee River valley of Habersham County, Georgia, in the early part of 1822. Until about 1827 North Carolina had been the only site of gold production in the United States. Prospectors followed the veins southward into the mountains of North Georgia, and found that the further south they went, the purer the gold became. The first American gold rush followed.
It is the universal testimony of those who have worked in the placers of Georgia, that the gold is generally in larger lumps and particles, or is coarser than in the placers of the western parts of North Carolina, in Burke, McDowell and Rutherford counties. Mr. Blake also observes that the quality of the gold is excellent, rarely yielding less than 90 per cent., or 900 parts in 1,000, the difference being silver. The standard of gold of the United States consists of 900 parts of gold to 100 of alloy.
... At that time [1829] Habersham was an organized county, but the rest of the gold region was included in the Cherokee nation, over which the United States exercised a supervisory care. The richness of the newly-discovered mines soon brought together a large number of miners from Georgia and the adjoining States. These commenced mining chiefly on the lands of the Cherokees, and on that portion now included within the limits of Lumpkin county, the Chestatee River then being the eastern boundary of the Cherokee nation. This rush for the mines brought into the country thousands of men of great diversity of character, many of them dissipated and regardless of the future. 
—William Phipps Blake, Charles Thomas Jackson, The Gold Placers of the Vicinity of Dahlonega, Georgia, published 1859
By the late 1820s, on both federal and state levels, white settlement of Indian lands became generally sanctioned, if not outright encouraged. Habersham County, Georgia, had been created from two Cherokee cessions: one in 1817, the other in 1819. By 1830 the General Assembly of the state of Georgia had passed resolutions essentially disallowing Indian self-government, and extended the state's jurisdiction into the Cherokee territory of northern Georgia (as well as into that of the Creeks, further south). The mining of gold in Habersham's Nacoochee Valley also coincided with another new Georgia state law which prevented Indians from bringing lawsuits against white men.
 Sec. 6.  Provides that the laws of this State be extended over the territory, and white persons, residing, within the same, shall be subject to the operation of the said laws, as other citizens of said counties.
 Sec. 7.  From the 1st of June 1830, Indians in said territory, shall be subject to the operations of the said laws, and regulations as the Legislature may hereafter proscribe.
Sec. XV.  No Indian or descendant of an Indian, residing within the Creek or Cherokee Nation, shall be a competent witness, or a party to any suit, in any court created by the constitution or laws of this State, to which a white man may be a party.
Land within what was once Cherokee territory became a destination for thousands of gold speculators. According to Niles' Register, by spring of 1830 there were four thousand miners working along Yahoola Creek (near present-day Dahlonega, Georgia) alone. 
"The news got abroad, and such excitement you never saw. It seemed within a few days as if the whole world must have heard of it, for men came from every state I had ever heard of. They came afoot, on horseback and in wagons, acting more like crazy men than anything else. All the way from where Dahlonega now stands to Nuckollsville there were men panning out of the branches and making holes in the hillsides."
Benjamin Parks*
So much Georgia gold was being uncovered in Georgia that Congress, in 1837, chartered a branch of the United States Mint at Dahlonega. Soon after the mint began coinage production and the last of the Cherokee were removed, the reason for both maneuvers began to disappear: the gold was playing out. By the early 1840s it was becoming difficult for miners to make a living washing the placer deposits, and hard-rock gold veins were becoming harder to mine. 
In 1849 California became the highly publicized destination for gold prospectors. In 1861 the Dahlonegah mint closed its doors. Its building was destroyed by fire in 1878. The most visible remainder of the Georgia gold rush is the gold-leafed dome covering the rotunda of the State Capitol in Atlanta. 
Some of the early gold prospectors chose to remain in Georgia, and found other occupations. They built homes, married, and raised children in the hills of north Georgia.
* The Atlanta Constitution, 15 July 1894, interview with prospector Benjamin Parks (then in his nineties), excerpt