America’s First Gold Rush was not in California

Ian Harvey
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The American Gold Rush was a period known for rugged expansion, harsh conditions, and “hitting it rich.” It was a time when the prospect of a fistful of gold was worth everything a person had, including their life. While many associate the Gold Rush with the rush in 1849 to California, that wasn’t the first.

In 1799, a 12-year-old boy named Conrad Reed was bowfishing in the river that ran near his home. The river, known as Little Meadow Creek, is a seemingly innocuous little body of water in Cabarrus County, North Carolina.

Conrad often fished here using his bow without any odd occurrences, but this time his attention was captured by something shining in the water at the bottom of the creek. The object turned out to be a shiny stone which the boy took home to his father, John Reed.

Reed Gold Mine, in Midland, North Carolina, United States. Photo by Bang-Ning Hsu CC BY-SA 2.0

John Reed didn’t recognize what he had and used the shining stone as a doorstop for almost three years. Then a jeweler noticed the stone and offered him $3.50 for it. Accounting for inflation, that would be $69.92 in 2019.

This would turn out to be a massive steal for the jeweler, as he had just bought what turned out to be a 17-pound gold nugget. Today that nugget would be worth around $350,200. By using the CPI Inflation Calculator, we can see that the price of the gold in 1802 ends up being around $17,530.

An 1847 map of North Carolina showing the “Gold Region.”

John Reed was not a stupid man, however, and, even though he wasn’t aware of the true value of his gold nugget, he knew it was worth something. He prospected on his property, and within the year, had begun mining gold on his land. But this would only be the start, as word of the discovery of gold spread throughout the country, causing the first true gold rush in American history.

According to the Smithsonian American History site, many farmers started using their spare time to do “placer” mining, shallow surface mining of streambeds, on their own land. Later, shaft mining became more prominent, and that was also used in California during that most famous gold rush.

California Gold Rush Stamp

The North Carolina gold finds, of course, brought in much more organized companies of miners, and, until the California Gold Rush in 1849, North Carolina would be the largest producer of gold in the United States.

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The Federal Mint even set up a branch in Charlotte. The California Gold Rush wouldn’t end the production of gold in the southeastern United States, however. To this day, mines in the Carolinas continue to operate, many of them operating since the early 1800s, such as the Haile Gold Mine, which was founded in 1828.

A woman with three men panning for gold during the California Gold Rush

The Carolinas were not the only states to benefit from a thriving gold trade, however; in 1829, another gold rush would spring up in neighboring Georgia. The records as to how this gold rush started are unclear as many people claimed the first discovery of gold, but what happened was an influx of gold seekers and immigrants. As this population grew, conflicts began to occur with the local Cherokee tribes that lived on many gold-rich lands.

This forced the American Government to get involved, directly leading to the removal of the tribes and the infamous Trail of Tears, the forced relocation of Native American tribes in the Southeastern part of the United States to unclaimed lands in the West.

Soon after the native population was removed, miners and prospectors swooped in and set up mining operations, and, as prosperity grew, more interest was drawn to the area.

Taken at Reed Gold Mine, 2005. Miner is Healy Jones Widenhouse.

The Federal Government decided to open a branch of the U.S. Mint in Dahlonega, Georgia to handle the massive amount of gold flooding out of Georgia, just as they had in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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Although the mint in Georgia was never reopened after the Civil War when it had been used to produce Confederate currency, according to Goldmaps, Georgia is still one of the best states for prospecting, metal detecting, and treasure hunting.