A curious 12-year-old, a sharp-eyed builder and three lucky Swedes touched off three of America’s greatest gold rushes, changing the United States and its coinage forever.
From Georgia to California and north to Alaska, gold strikes generated enormous wealth and led to the establishment of four of the United States’ seven mints, arguably the nation’s first commemorative coin and hundreds of privately minted gold pieces.
America’s first gold rush started, albeit snail slowly, in the spring of 1799 when Conrad Reed, 12, skipped church one Sunday to go bowfishing with his sisters in Little Meadow Creek on his family’s farm in Mecklenburg County, near Charlotte, N.C., in the Appalachian Mountains.
“Conrad saw a yellow substance shining in the water. He went in and picked it up, and found it to be some kind of metal, and carried it home,” George Barnhardt, a Reed relative, recalled in 1848.
What the metal was remained a mystery for three years. Conrad’s father, John, took the 17-pound nugget to a nearby silversmith who could not identify it. The Reeds used the triangular stone as a doorstop until 1802, when John took it to a Fayetteville, N.C., jeweler, who told him it was gold.
When word of the boy’s find spread, neighboring farmers started searching the area’s streams for other placer gold deposits. (Placer gold is gold flakes or nuggets that have weathered out of veins in host rock. It is typically found just lying on the surface or in sand and gravel deposits in streams or beaches.)
For the next two decades, gold mining was a part-time occupation in the area, often done after planting was finished and the streams had dried up for the summer.
In an online report, Gold Fever and the Bechtler Mint, University of North Carolina TV reports: “Southern prospectors who were lucky enough to find gold had no reliable market for it. The only U.S. Mint was in Philadelphia — a long, dangerous journey away. There were few roads and fewer bridges. Travel was uncomfortable and unreliable. Much of the gold found by well-organized companies could be shipped through Charleston to Europe more reliably than it could be sent to Philadelphia.”
Starting about 1825, surface mining of placer deposits gave way to underground mining of gold veins. Gold flowed, men came and more and more mines opened. By 1832, the University of North Carolina reports, more than 50 mines were operating in the state, employing more than 25,000 people.
Farther south in the mountains, gold was discovered in the late 1820s on and near the Cherokee lands of Georgia. According to one story, Benny Parks found the first nugget on his birthday in 1828 while following a deer path near Dahlonega, Ga. In another story, a slave made the fateful find.