American Indians knew of the gold in the Appalachian Mountains long before the first Spanish Conquistadors set foot on the new lands. Miners traveled to the gold fields in the Blue Ridge Mountains until 1733, then for nearly 100 years they sat unmined. Farmer and prospector Frank Logan discovered gold on Dukes Creek, a tributary of the Chattahoochee River in 1828, setting off America's first gold rush.
Ponce de Leon heard rumors of gold to the north when he landed in La Florida in 1513 but it would be a relatively unknown explorer, Diego Miruelo, who would be presented with a small quantity of gold while trading with Florida Indians. Other explorers brought back stories of Indians wearing gold and rivers with gold nuggets, but it was Hernando deSoto who would launch the first major expedition to look for gold.
In 1540 deSoto came across a young Indian who accurately described gold mining operations in the mountains to the north. DeSoto found examples of gold, but neither the mines or the quantity he sought. Tristan de Luna sought, but did not find, gold in the Appalachians in 1559-1561. Rene Goulaine De Laudonniere reported Indians taking gold from the Altamaha River in 1564.
Before 1600 de Luna's route north was being quietly used by Spanish miners to get to the Nachoochee Valley in North Georgia, site of the discovery of gold in 1828. These mines may have been active until the formation of the colony of Georgia in 1733. James Moore and Maurice Matthews ventured west from Carolina in search of gold in 1690. They were turned back by hostile Cherokee.. After the Spanish miners left, the quest for gold in North Georgia hit a lull.
In North Carolina, however, Conrad Reed found gold in 1799, but his father John did not have the rock assayed until 1802. Today, John Reed's Mine is recognized as the first site where settlers found gold. News of a second gold discovery in North Carolina in 1825 set men searching for the vein throughout the Southern Appalachians.
Benjamin Parks claimed he found a nugget of gold on the ground at Licklog
There are many stories of the first discovery of gold in Georgia. The most common credits Hall County (now Lumpkin County) resident Benjamin Parks with the discovery on October_27, 1828. Other "first discoveries" came from Ward's Creek, Bear Creek, and even the Pigeon Roost Mine (all Dahlonega). To the east, near Dukes Creek, three separate claims of the first find are made. Georgia prospector Frank Logan, returning from a trip to the North Carolina gold fields, found gold in 1828 on Dukes Creek. A man named Witherod (many other spellings) found gold the same year, as did a man named Loud.
The story of Benjamin Parks had a number of holes in it. First, he got the year confused, originally claiming he found the gold in 1827 and leased the land to mine. Unfortunately, the man did not own the land until July, 1828, so Parks modified his story. Second, there is no documentary evidence to back up his claim (lease papers, etc.).
Two prospectors who heard about the find arrived in November, 1828, which would be almost impossible considering the length of time it took for news to travel back then. Finally, Mr. Parks claimed to have taken $24,000 in gold from the site. The next owner, John C. Calhoun, only got $600 dollars from the site the following year.
Georgia State Geologist Matthew Stephenson
Frank Logan's claim to the first discovery of gold had solid support, that of Dr. Matthew Fleming Stephenson, who would write in 1871 "Nachoochee, where gold was first discovered in 1828." (Geology and mineralogy of Georgia, pg 87). Stephenson was state geologist and assayer at various times in his career.
Towns were created including Headquarters (now Dahlonega) and Nuckollsville (Auraria). By 1830 population estimates for Nuckollville alone were 10,000.
Whispers of the gold in Georgia spread slowly, but the trickle turned to a flood when the Georgia Journal ran a story on "Gold...two mines in Habersham." According to author David Williams papers throughout Georgia reprinted the news and with descriptions of alluvial gold (gold taken by panning river bottoms rather than mined). Unfortunately, some men attracted to the easy money flowing down the Chattahoochee River and the Etowah River were ill-natured and crime flourished.
By 1830 most gold was being mined. Miners would look for gold-bearing quartz or for gold in its natural form, a somewhat unspectacular brown color with iron-like staining. This rock is crushed in a stamp and then the gold is removed by various means. The water-powered stamps were obnoxiously loud, but there were not a lot of people in the areas being mined. To transport gold to a mint it was normally smelted.
Golddigger's Road began at Frogtown Ferry on the Old Federal Road, crossed Leather's Ford on the Chestatee River, ran through Auraria and Dahlonega before leaving Lumpkin County at Cleveland (White County). This was the major route to through the county and brought both miners in and gold out.
On October_3, 1832 Georgians voted on a new governor. Incumbent George Gilmer ran against U. S. Senator Wilson Lumpkin. Although little differentiated the candidates on the topic of Indian removal, Gilmer wanted the state to manage the gold mines while Lumpkin wanted to leave the mines in citizens hands. Lumpkin won the election.
By 1832 gold prospecting had expanded throughout the mountains of North Georgia, but most of the gold found was in the drainage areas of two rivers, the Chattahoochee River and the Etowah River. Additional strikes were made to the south, near the city of Villa Rica.
Most of the producing mines were on land owned by the Cherokee Nation and not the state of Georgia. In 1832 the state rectified that problem by seizing the Cherokee land without a treaty and dividing it up among Georgia veterans and residents. Unfortunately, all the gold mines in Cherokee country would also switch hands.
Lot drawing began on October_22, 1832 in Milledgeville, Georgia and continued until May_1, 1833. Cost was $10.00 and depending on your situation you could get an extra draw at no cost. The lottery gave 40 acre "gold lots" to winners, but the state did not promise gold would be on the land. Miners who began working on Cherokee land after June_1, 1830 were excluded from the lottery.
As the land lottery winners made their way to Auraria to find the lots the city swelled to an estimated 25,000 people. Personal stories from the lottery abound. Mary Franklin from Clarke County won a lot on the Etowah that she turned into the Franklin Gold Mine, one of the most successful companies in north Georgia in the 1800's. A farm worker won the Pigeon Roost Mine lot. He quickly sold it at auction for $10,000.
1830 to 1837 turned out to be the years of highest gold production in Georgia, with almost two million dollars worth of the mineral making its way to the mint in Philadelphia. The mint would assay the gold, purify the shipment if needed, stamp the coins then settler with the miners.
Philadelphia Mint as an apartment building in 1931
Moving gold to be assayed and processed was time-consuming and expensive. Although you could load up a cart and move the gold to Philadelphia, most gold that made it to the Philadelphia mint was transported to a branch office of the mint in Savannah or Charleston, where it was assayed. The owner would be given a certificate stating the assayed value and he could exchange the certificate for 80% of the value in currency.
The gold was then shipped to the Philadelphia mint, where it was assayed and processed. When completed, the owner could get the coins made from his gold or an equal value of gold coins. If he had exchanged the certificate from the local assayer for money, he could then get the 20% withheld in case of error. In all, the process took a minimum of 3 months.
Mysterious silversmith Templeton 'Temple' Reid set up operations in Gainesville, Georgia in 1830 in order to mint gold coins. It was the first private gold mint since the formation of the United States. Located two blocks north of Washington Street in Gainesville, Reid's mint was simply a press, probably in a wood frame business.
He issued 3 coins from the mints, $2.50, $5.00, and $10.00 and they are highly prized by collectors. Until 1900 it was thought that the U. S. Mint in Philadelphia held the only known examples of the $10.00 gold piece, but since that time additional coins have been discovered. According to an article on page 3 of the Southern Recorder (Milledgeville) dated July 24, 1830, "About $1500 worth of Georgia Gold has been stamped by our ingenious townsman, Mr. Templeton Reid, with handsome dies..."
24 days after the first coin rolled off his press an unknown antagonist began claiming that the coins did not contain the correct amount of gold. This debate seriously affected Reid's business and eventually forced him to close. Later testing proved Reid's coins to contain about 95% gold, rather than the 99% gold required.
In spite of his problems, the Philadelphia Mint would later estimate that Reid produced about $200,000 in gold coins,
A significant amount of Georgia gold made it to the Bechtler mint in Rutherfordton, North Carolina, which opened its doors in 1831. It would continue producing gold coins until 1850. Bechtler's purity levels were never publicly questioned and, unlike Temple Reid, he was successful at minting coins. No dollar estimate of the amount of Georgia gold processed by Christopher Bechtler and his sons has ever been made.
On June_28, 1834 the Coinage Act of 1834 was signed into law by Andrew Jackson. It defined the coin weights and allow the Treasury Department to pay 5 days after deposit at the mint the full amount of the gold. This sped up the process of getting minted coin for gold.
The Mint Act of 1835 simply established branches for the mint at New Orleans, Charlotte, N. C. and Dahlonega, Georgia.
Proposed at an 1833 meeting in Auroria, Georgia, the Dahlonega Mint (also known as the Branch Mint at Dahlonega, Georgia) would not accept gold until February_12, 1838 and produced its first coins (80 five-dollar gold pieces) two months later. From 1838 until it closed as a U. S. Mint in 1860, the Dahlonega Mint almost exclusively minted coins of Georgia gold. It opened briefly as a Confederate States Mint in 1861.
During the years of operation the Dahlonega Mint would produce $6,000,000 dollars of gold coins. The building site was donated by Congress to North Georgia College in 1873 and would burn to the ground in December, 1878. Price Hall now stands on the site of the Dahlonega Mint.
By the time the Dahlonega Mint opened the rush was over. Population in Lumpkin and surrounding counties had stabilized, a government had been formed and the lawless days of the '29ers were a thing of the past. Gold production did continue and many miners continued to work in Georgia until 1849, when word of the California gold rush reached the mountains.
Georgia's Dr. Matthew Fleming Stephenson implored the miners, "There is more gold in these hills..." to no avail. When the miners told young Mark Twain about Stephenson's remark he altered it slightly to "Thar's gold in them thar hills."
Mining for gold in the Georgia gold belt continued into the 20th century and panning for gold continues to this day. In 1881 Frank Hall discovered a gold vein, probably part of the highly productive Pigeon Roost vein running under an inn (now The Smith House) he was building just off the town square in Dahlonega.