It’s gold! Western North Carolina gold mining photos, legendary finds and old stories

America’s first gold rush started in Western North Carolina by a lucky accident. Find out at the Colburn Earth Science Museum in downtown Asheville, that features an impressive collection of gems, minerals, precious metals, fossils and photographs documenting the rich mining history of North Carolina.

It’s gold mine for history buffs, hobbyists and tourists. The museum is open Tuesday – Saturday 10AM – 5PM, Sunday 1 – 5PM. Admission is $6 adults, $5 seniors, students, and children over 4.

The beginnings… (historical data and photos are from the museum exhibit)

Gold rush starts in Western North Carolina in the late 1700s

The find of the century! A 12 years old boy discovers a huge gold nugget and the rest is history...

John Reed, a Hessian soldier in the British Army, settled in Western North Carolina at the end of the Revolutionary War with other German immigrants.

In 1799, Conrad, his 12 years old son, spotted a shimmering yellow rock while fishing on the family farm and brought it home. His parents, not familiar with gold, used the rock as a doorstop.

In 1802, John Reed sold it to a jeweler in Fayeteville, NC for $3.50. He later found out the rock was a large gold nugget, returned to the jeweler and collected an additional $3,000.

And so the country’ first gold fever began!

The Reed farm quickly became the Reed Gold Mine. The creek where the rock was found was rich in gold for nearly a mile, and the area will later yield over 150 pounds of gold nuggets.

By 1803, there were over 600 mines and prospects in Western North Carolina. Most gold was found by panning in streams and using simple rockers. At this time North Carolina was a slave state; historical records suggest that at the height of the gold rush fever as many as 3,000 slaves could be seen working the gravel deposits along a single stream…

First gold rush in America begins

Thousands of slaves mined for gold in the early 1800s in North Carolina

By 1825, most of the gold nuggets and flakes found in streams had been mined.

Riding the kibble underground gold mining in mid 19th century

Cornish-designed bucket used to hoist miners and gold to the surface

A Stanley County farmer, Mathias Barringer, found an outcrop of quartz with a gold vein while following a trail of nuggets upstream.

He realized the small nuggets found in rivers were eroded from the exposed gold vein.

Baringer decided to extract gold from the rock rather than the stream, and so the first subsurface gold mine in North Carolina was born.

Prospectors began looking for “color”, the whie quartz vein that indicated the loction of gold. Most were not skilled in subsurface mining; serius accidents and deaths were fairly common.

European immigrants bring in mining know-how
Immigrants from Cornwall, England and Germany brought mining expertise and technology.

Old photo of gold miners working under a vein in Gold Hill NC

Subsurface gold mining involved tough working conditions

Examples include stamp mills, blasting and drilling techniques, mine shafts, drifts, beam reinforced ceilings and walls, and the Cornish-designed buckets (kibbles) that hoisted miners and gold to the surface.

Underground work at the Reed Mine began in 1831.

In 1842, miners found a 20 foot wide gold vein at Gold Hill in Rowan county. Mining veterans flocked to the area sensing good fortunes. By 1848, the town boasted 15 active mines, 5 stores, 4 doctors, and 27 saloons.

The majority of gold mining towns in North Carolina (unlike th western mining towns popularized in movies), were fairly peaceful due to the strong religious background of the Cornish miners.

Minting Gold
In the early 1800s, North Carolina was the nation’s sole native source of gold. The only U.S. Mint at the time was in Philadelphia. Because of long distance and poor transportation conditions miners looked for an easier and safe way to convert their raw gold into money.

Gold artifacts on display at the Colburn Museum

Gold nuggets and white quartz sample

In 1831, Christopher Bechtler, a German immigrant entrepreneur, proposed to coin the miners gold for a 2.5% fee. The miners agreed and a min opened near Rutherfordton, NC.

From 1831 to 1840 he minted $2.2 million in gold coins and melted 85,000 ounces into bars ($3 billion in today’s value!)

The Bechtler coins were so well accepted for commerce that during the Civil War the monetary obligations of the Confederacy were specified as payable in “Bechtler gold” rather than Union, Confederate or state currency.

In 1835, the U.S. Congress authorized creation of the Charlotte Mint. Soon, Charlotte became a regional banking center, a position it still holds today.


6 Responses

  1. […] Dig gold stories, old mining photos, and incredible discoveries at the Colburn Earth and Science Museum ($6 adults, free for children […]

  2. […] for the original gold rush, North Carolina also has one of the largest varieties of mineral species in the United States. […]

  3. Very cool post! I visited Gold Hill, NC yesterday and was very impressed with the village. I had no idea the NC had a gold rush! Do you know anything about the Cornish Miners? Why were they so much more experienced?

  4. Just ran across this post while researching further information on North Carolina gold history. Nice article. The first gold discovery here in the Gold Hill NC region was 1824 on the farm of Andrew Troutman, whom we’ve discovered was my husband’s GGG Grandfather. We’re proud of our NC gold history and here at Gold Hill we try to promote that history. To answer Jennifer’s question of July 2012, the Cornish miners who migrated here from Cornwall, England, were already experienced in hard rock underground mining having garnered experience in the underground copper and tin mines of their home country. Their services were invaluable to the successes of the gold mines here in the east where a lion’s share of the gold was ‘lode’ gold buried deep in the quartz veins.

  5. Since much of this posting was gleaned through exhibits in the Colburn Earth Science Museum in Asheville, NC, it would be worth visiting. New exhibit opening in late June/early July on NC gold jewelry,

  6. A few years ago, a small stream ran through the property where I was living … Many times we saw gold flecks in the sand and around rocks…Gold Dust … 🙂

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