Digital Library of Georgia > "Thar's Gold in Them Thar Hills": Gold and Gold Mining in Georgia, 1830s-1940s

"Thar's Gold in Them Thar Hills"
Georgia Gold History

In 1829, thousands of "Twenty-Niners" began pouring into north Georgia, seeking their fortunes in the Georgia Gold Rush. Gold enriched the miners and their investors, but at great human cost as Cherokees were driven from their native lands by 1839. In 1838, the U.S. Mint opened a branch in Dahlonega to mint gold coins, but within a decade Georgia's Gold Rush dwindled as many miners became "Forty-Niners" in the California Gold Rush of 1849. The Georgia gold industry continued at a reduced level until the Civil War, then experienced several minor waves of gold excitement during the last quarter of the nineteenth century, a major revival from 1899-1906, and additional minor episodes of gold interest during the early to mid-twentieth century. Many remnants of this fascinating history linger today, supporting robust heritage tourism in the Dahlonega area.

The Madeleine K. Anthony (MKA) Collection, the Matthew Stephenson Collection, and the Graham C. Dugas Calhoun Mine Papers at the Lumpkin County Public Library of the Chestatee Regional Library System (CRLS) house a variety of historical materials related to Dahlonega gold mining. A digitized sampling of these materials is accessible online through GALILEO and the Digital Library of Georgia--this essay places those materials within the context of state and national history. The essay also provides links to other related digitized collections accessible through GALILEO including the New Georgia Encyclopedia, Georgia Legislative Documents, Georgia Historic Newspapers, Southeastern Native American Documents, and Vanishing Georgia.

The Georgia Gold Rush | "Great Intrusion" and Cherokee Removal | U.S. Branch Mint in Dahlonega | Interest in Georgia Gold Continues | A Second Georgia Gold Rush | Twentieth Century Gold Activity | Gold Tourism

The Georgia Gold Rush

Although gold occurs naturally in a band ranging from Virginia through Alabama, its rich prevalence in north Georgia set the stage for the major southern gold rush. Despite many gold discovery stories--best known is the Benjamin Parks (Vanishing Georgia [lum119]) claim of 1828 in Hall, later Lumpkin, County--the earliest clear documentation seems to be an August 1, 1829 announcement in the Georgia Journal that mentions two gold mines in Habersham County. Soon thousands of miners poured into northern Georgia, including the area around Dahlonega, which proved especially rich in gold with few impurities.

Most of the early miners pursued "deposit" mining, also known as placer mining. This straightforward method removed gold particles from deposits that, eroding naturally from hills and mountains, had collected in streams and rivers. Miners' techniques ranged from simple panning through more efficient approaches such as cradle rockers, sluice boxes, and other more complicated devices. (Vanishing Georgia photograph [lum170], although taken circa 1912, depicts a sluicing operation that would have been typical during the earlier gold mining periods.)

As the readily available gold deposits played out--and growing towns with bigger populations made greater capital investment practical--miners began to pursue the more sophisticated hard-rock mining approach, which sought to recover gold from veins still intact inside mountains. Usually this involved digging tunnels to access veins, then removing the ore from the mines, and crushing the ore in stamp mills to release the gold. A chemical process, such as amalgamation with mercury (chemical bonding of gold bits to liquid mercury spread over collecting plates), could be used to retrieve gold dust from the crushed ore--the gold was subsequently separated from the amalgam in a retort vessel (a chamber used to distill substances through heating).

More complex mining methods required a more organized investment and operational structure. The Georgia legislature incorporated many Georgia gold mining companies during the original boom era, as recorded in Georgia Legislative Documents:

The Georgia miners were a very diverse lot, coming from across the nation as well as from European countries. Not all miners came voluntarily, as some of the mines were worked by slaves (e.g., the mine owned by John C. Calhoun of South Carolina), however, there were also free African American miners (e.g., the "Free Jim" Boisclair mine). Some Native Americans were miners as well (but see also the following section about the Cherokee Removal). Although most miners were men, a few were women. Not all miners pursued gold mining full-time, as some were primarily farmers (or of other occupations) who sought gold to supplement their regular incomes.

A number of boomtowns emerged to support the needs of the miners, but initially they were fairly rough places plagued by lawlessness and supply problems. Some of these towns grew and prospered (e.g., Dahlonega) while others eventually faded (e.g., Auraria). Numerous observers commented on the lively nature of the boom towns; for example, W. P. Price recollected (on page 44 of his Sixty Years of the Life of a Country Village Baptist Church, published in 1897) that "Gambling houses, dancing houses, drinking saloons, houses of ill fame, billiard saloons, and tenpin alleys were open day and night."

Many remarkable individuals contributed to the distinctive character of gold rush life as experienced in the mines and boomtowns. For example, James Bosclair, better known in Dahlonega as "Free Jim," was a free African American from Augusta who achieved much success as a miner and a merchant. The "Free Jim" gold mine produced sufficient profit to enable Bosclair to establish the largest general store in Dahlonega, where he also operated an icehouse and a very popular saloon. Bosclair moved west after gold was discovered in California, but unfortunately he was killed there during a dispute over a mining claim.

By the 1840s, the most easily retrieved gold had played out, and thus the original Georgia Gold Rush came to a close two decades after it had begun. Many Georgia miners moved on to the California Gold Rush of 1849.

For additional information, refer to the New Georgia Encyclopedia article entitled "Gold Rush in North Georgia" by David Williams, and to the reading resources listed at the end of his article.

"Great Intrusion" and Cherokee Removal

Since the eighteenth century, inward migration of European American settlers had placed an increasing pressure on Native Americans and gradually was forcing Georgia's native peoples from their lands. By the 1820s the Creeks had been largely driven from southern and western areas of the state, and by the time of the Gold Rush attention had turned to removing the Cherokees from the northern area of the state. The arrival of thousands of miners, beginning in 1829 and known as the "Great Intrusion" by the Cherokees, exacerbated an already tragic situation. By 1839--only ten years later--the Cherokees had been driven westward to Oklahoma on the infamous Trail of Tears.

The Cherokee Phoenix, established in 1828 at New Echota (capital of the Cherokee Nation), was the first Native American newspaper in the United States and was printed in parallel columns of English and Cherokee text. Available online through Georgia Historic Newspapers, the Phoenix recorded Cherokee observations on the increasingly difficult situation until it ceased publication in 1834. In the February 4, 1829 Phoenix, page 2, column 3, the editor said of the intruders: "We understand upon good authority that our frontier neighbors in Georgia are moving in fast and settling on the lands belonging to the Cherokees. Right or wrong they are determined to take the country." Newly elected president Andrew Jackson pushed the Indian Removal Act of 1830 through Congress, and Georgia subsequently set up a lottery to distribute the Cherokee lands. The Supreme Court ruled that Georgia's encroachment on Cherokee sovereignty was illegal. The Phoenix of November 24, 1832, page 2, column 2, expressed the Cherokee determination not to submit to Georgia's taking of their lands: "To this confiscation of our property, we will not submit, we would choose to be placed in the silent regions of death, and be gathered to our fathers, than to remain depressed by Georgia oppression." But unfortunately for the Cherokees, Jackson simply ignored the Supreme Court ruling and Georgia proceeded to enforce its claim.

The military orders of May 24, 1838 from Major General Windfield Scott at New Echota directing the removal of the Cherokees from Georgia are available in Southeastern Native American Documents, 1730-1842, document [IVP012]. During the tragic Trail of Tears that followed, at least 4,000 Cherokees (about one fifth of the Cherokee population) died en route to Oklahoma during the bitter winter of 1838-1839.

U.S. Branch Mint in Dahlonega

In 1835 the U.S. Congress chartered three branch mints, to be located at Dahlonega (Georgia), Charlotte (North Carolina), and New Orleans (Louisiana). These mints were intended to ease an ongoing national shortage of coins, although they also reflected President Andrew Jackson's distrust of bank notes and his fervent desire to weaken the highly centralized Second Bank of the U.S. In some respects the development and operation of these branch mints also reflected the spoils system that flowed from Jacksonian democracy and that bestowed jobs and other favors upon the supporters of those in political power.

After overcoming severe logistical problems in construction due to its remote location, the Dahlonega mint opened in 1838. Mint operations proved difficult as well, with a lack of qualified personnel (although there were plenty of applicants) and ongoing political meddling. Despite these difficulties, the mint produced over $6,000,000 in gold coins during more than two decades of operation. Little of the mint's output circulated locally, with most of the coins exported overseas (unfortunately this output did not substantially ease the coin shortage). The onset of the Civil War struck a fatal blow to the Dahlonega branch mint: in 1861 the Confederate government closed the mint, and it never reopened.

During its years of operation, the Dahlonega branch mint coined gold dollars, $2.50 quarter eagles, $3.00 gold pieces, and $5.00 half eagles. Surviving examples of these coins are highly prized by numismatic (coin and medal) collectors today. A rare complete set of Dahlonega gold coins can be seen on exhibit at the Dahlonega Gold Museum.

The primary reason for locating a branch mint in Dahlonega was to make coins from gold mined in Georgia. However, the Dahlonega mint also received California gold after 1849, when miners sometimes brought their gold back home to be coined at their local mint. The MKA Collection houses numerous "memoranda of gold bullion" (receipts for deposited gold), including these digitized examples:

It is an irony of history that much of the easily retrieved gold in Georgia was already beginning to play out even as the Dahlonega mint ramped up operations. So with the discovery of gold in California in 1849, many local miners were tempted to move west. In an attempt to discourage them from leaving the Georgia gold field, Dr. Matthew Stephenson, an assayer who analyzed components of ore at the Dahlonega branch mint, addressed a crowd of miners from the courthouse steps. Pointing to Findley Ridge, he pleaded: "Why go to California? In that ridge lies more gold than man ever dreamt of. There's millions in it." Although many miners failed to follow Stephenson's admonition, they did take his remarks with them to the west--where "There's millions in it!" became the favorite saying of Mark Twain's literary character Mulberry Sellers, and may have inspired another famous quote, "Thar's gold in them thar hills!"

The Lumpkin County Public Library houses a collection of family records related to Dr. Matthew Stephenson: digitized examples include a mounted photographic portrait [mfs002] and a letter written by Stephenson in 1862 [mfs001]. The letter discusses the need to reorganize the Dahlonega Gold Company, due to sequestration of stock held in the North as a consequence of the Civil War.

During the Civil War, the Dahlonega Mint was maintained by a private assayer, but no further coinage was produced. After the war, the U.S. government gave the building to North Georgia Agricultural College (now North Georgia College and State University). The original mint building burned in 1878, and another college building was constructed over the surviving foundation. That new building still stands, its cupola covered in Georgia gold leaf.

For additional information about the U.S. Branch Mint in Dahlonega, please refer to the New Georgia Encyclopedia online article "Branch Mint at Dahlonega" by Elizabeth Etheridge and to the reading resources listed at the end of her article.

Interest in Georgia Gold Continues

Although the first great wave of gold fever faded by the 1840s, episodic interest in north Georgia gold occurred, at a more modest level, during the second half of the nineteenth century. A large factor in this renewed gold production was the introduction to Georgia of the hydraulic mining method from California during the 1850s, an ironic technology feedback from the new western gold field to the older eastern area. Hydraulic mining used water under pressure flowing through large hoses to wash vast quantities of gold--bearing material from the mountains. This approach involved substantial infrastructure development in the form of lengthy canals or pipelines which brought water down from mountain streams, thus using gravity to provide lots of water under pressure to feed the mining hoses. Another new technology--blast mining--enabled miners to dig tunnels more easily, which could then be exploited by hydraulic methods. However, an unfortunate byproduct of this approach was excessive erosion with its severely adverse environmental impact.

Despite the newer technologies, the disruption brought by the Civil War--along with the related closing of the Dahlonega branch of the U.S. Mint--brought the Georgia gold industry nearly to a standstill. After the war, as the region began a slow recovery, there were several sporadic new mining efforts, but these limped along until the large scale revival attempt at the end of the nineteenth century.

Georgia Legislative Documents records the incorporation of gold mining companies in Lumpkin County during this period:

The MKA Collection houses many historical materials related to gold mining companies during the second half of the 19th century, including the following digitized sampling:

A Second Georgia Gold Rush

A significant revival of interest in the gold around Dahlonega occurred as the nineteenth gave way to the twentieth century, an event referred to as the "Great Gold Revival" and "Georgia's Second Gold Rush" by historian David Williams. This substantial gold effort reflected new mining technology and was characterized by large-scale gold mining and processing plants, as well as a revival of river dredge mining. The Georgia gold revival may also reflect the national economic situation and an increasing demand for gold during that period: there was considerable controversy about the proper role of gold and silver in the national monetary system during the 1890s, affecting national political campaigns, and ultimately culminating in the official establishment of the national gold standard by the Currency Act of 1900.

Although several companies set up new facilities in the Dahlonega area, the largest plant was established by the Dahlonega Consolidated Gold Mining Company on Yahoola Creek--indeed it is said to be the largest gold mining plant ever built east of the Mississippi River. The Consolidated facility included a massive mill building, four stories high with horizontal dimensions of 100 x 300 feet, which housed 120 stamps.

The Vanishing Georgia collection includes several photographs of the massive Consolidated facility as it appeared at the turn of the century:

The MKA Collection includes a copy of the Announcement of the Dahlonega Consolidated Gold Mining Company, Dahlonega, Ga. [mka038]. Completed in 1898 and published in 1899, the substantial (sixty-four page) promotional booklet provides detailed information about the Company's holdings on the eve of its vast expansion of the Yahoola Creek facility. As the name implies, by 1898 this was truly a "consolidated" company, whose holdings included the Hand Mine (with twenty-stamp mill), Yahoola Mine (with twenty-stamp mill), Findley Mine (with forty-stamp mill), Lawrence Mine (with ten-stamp mill), Upper Cane Creek Mine, Lower Cane Creek Mine, Barlow Mine (originally a forty-stamp mill, at this time reduced to ten stamps), Ralston Mine (with ten-stamp mill), Gordon Mine, Ward Creek Mine, Etowah Canal, and Hand Canal, as well as additional gold mining and processing equipment, and non-gold-related properties. Some highlights of the Announcement:

The MKA Collection also includes the Prospectus of the Dahlonega Gold Mining & Milling Co. of 1901 [mka039] and a stock certificate for 100 shares issued in 1904 [mka040]. Some highlights of the 1901 Prospectus:

Several historic photographs or postcards from the Graham C. Dugas Calhoun Gold Mine Papers depict mining scenes as well as snapshots from daily life, presumably during this period:

The Vanishing Georgia collection includes these additional photographs of mining operations at the turn of the century:

Despite high hopes and large expenditures in massive new facilities, and substantial production of gold, none of these gold mining enterprises was able to turn a reasonable profit, because the total cost of extracting and processing the gold exceeded its market price--about $21 per ounce at the time. Most of these large facilities had closed their doors by 1906, at very substantial loss to their investors.

Twentieth Century Gold Activity

After the collapse of the big mining firms just after the turn of the century, Georgia gold activity continued but at a reduced level, with a few peaks of interest in the 1910s, 1930s, and 1970s.

Evidence of some ongoing activity can be found in the MKA Collection and the Dugas Collection: for example, a 1911 gold receipt stamped "Dahlonega Gold Mining & Milling Co." [gcd11] and a check in settlement for gold bullion issued in 1913 by the U.S. Assay Office to the State Banking Company in Gainesville [gcd01]

The Vanishing Georgia collection also provides photographic evidence of ongoing gold operations during the teens:

In the 1930s another gold fever struck, in response to the Great Depression and Roosevelt's decision to fix the price of gold at $35 per ounce. Several mines reopened briefly, but none managed to turn a reasonable profit. Among the more interesting episodes during this period was Graham Dugas' reopening of the old Calhoun Mine, from which he is said to have made money primarily through convincing investors rather than actually mining gold.

The MKA Collection houses a number of historic photographs of gold mining activities during this period including the following sampling:

Although the Dahlonega gold belt provided the richest opportunities, gold mining also occurred in an isolated gold belt in McDuffie County during the first half of the twentieth century, as can be seen in the following Vanishing Georgia images

As illustrated by Vanishing Georgia images, there was limited gold interest during the middle decades of the twentieth century--some of which foreshadowed the upcoming heritage tourism interest in the gold field:

After the U.S. dollar was removed from the gold standard in 1973, gold prices were allowed to freely float in response to market forces. Throughout the rest of the 1970s, the price of gold soared--reaching an all-time high of $870 per ounce for a short time on 21 January 1980, although it has since declined to less than $300. There was a very brief revival of interest in gold mining during this period, although the elevated price did not last long enough to offset the very high cost of production and thus encourage sustained gold operations on an industrial scale. Nevertheless, there's still a lot of "gold in them thar hills"--so it's always possible that a future rise in gold prices might create yet another gold rush!

Gold Tourism

In recent decades, even though gold mining itself remains tentative, Dahlonega has certainly found that the area's gold history has valuable heritage tourism potential. Many visitors from Georgia and elsewhere travel to Dahlonega to relive the gold rush era and enjoy the considerable amenities of the town.

The old Lumpkin County Courthouse, originally built in 1836, has been adaptively restored to house the Dahlonega Gold Museum. Both the Crisson Mine (opened in 1970) and the Dahlonega Consolidated Mine (reopened in 1991) offer popular tours that teach visitors not only gold history and lore, but also the opportunity to pan gold themselves.

Descriptions of heritage tourism opportunities related to Dahlonega's gold history, along with current information about available accommodations, restaurants, shopping and other amenities, can be found on the Dahlonega-Lumpkin County Chamber of Commerce web site at http://www.dahlonega.org/.

Suggested Reading

Birdsall, Clair M. The United States Branch Mint at Dahlonega, Georgia: Its History and Coinage. Easley, S. C.: Southern Historical Press, 1984.

Etheridge, Elizabeth. "Branch Mint at Dahlonega" in the New Georgia Encyclopedia [database online], 2002. Available from http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/Article.jsp?path=/HistoryArchaeology/AntebellumEra/Topics-11&id=h-612 [cited August 16, 2004].

Head, Sylvia and Etheridge, Elizabeth W. The Neighborhood Mint: Dahlonega in the Age of Jackson. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1986.

Williams, David. The Georgia Gold Rush: Twenty-Niners, Cherokees, and Gold Fever. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.

_____. "Gold Rush in North Georgia." in the New Georgia Encyclopedia [database online], 2003. Available from http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/Article.jsp?id=h-785&pid=s-60 [cited August 16, 2004].

Edward A. Johnson


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