Antebellum Gold Mining (1820 – 1860)

Written By Dr. Troy L. Kickler

“The mining interest of the State is now only second to the farming interest.”  So wrote a reporter of the Western Carolinian of Salisbury in 1825. But according to historians Richard D. Knapp and Brent D. Glass in Gold Mining in North Carolina (1999) the average Tar Heel did not fall victim to gold fever.  Nevertheless, there was enough demand by 1830 for a Charlotte-based Miners’ and Farmers’ Journal to begin publication.  

Like many remarkable events with long lasting and beneficial results, the discovery of gold was unplanned.  In 1799, John Reed’s son, Conrad, found a 17-pound gold nugget in a creek bed.  Yet for three years, the Reeds knew not the rock’s worth, and it served as a doorstop.  After learning its value, John Reed panned nearby Little Meadow Creek for more nuggets.  And many more he found.  Little did the German immigrant know that, deeply below his farm, quartz veins carried gold.    

Until the mid-1830s, farmers panned for gold during the off-season.  Prospectors swirled the gold in pans and rockers full of water; a rocker was a wooden box or set of connected boxes that, when rocked, separated gold from gravel. Because gold is heavier, it rested at the bottom of the shaken pan or rocker.

By the late 1820s, in many places, prospecting in creeks turned into deep-mining operations.  The enterprise was now a full-time job, and mine companies replaced part-time miner-farmers. Typically, the mining operations were small.  Vincent de Rivafinoldi, however, started Mecklenburg Gold mining company, which employed approximately 600.  Yet, it was the diminutive operations that played a big part in providing a blueprint for later pursuits in the furniture, textile, and tobacco industries.

Because of gold mining, Charlotte evolved from little more than a village during the antebellum era (1820-1860) into a regional financial center.  American and foreign investors heard and read of gold discoveries in Mecklenburg County.  Many immigrated to the Carolina Piedmont to start or work in the mines.  Although gold prospecting and mining occurred as far west as present-day Cherokee County and as far east as present-day Nash and Halifax counties, most gold was found in ten Piedmont counties: Guilford, Randolph, Davidson, Rowan, Montgomery, Stanly, Cabarrus, Mecklenburg, Gaston, and Union

Less than thirty years after Reed’s discovery, and sparked by the rapid growth of mining, North Carolinians asked to what extent the government should participate in the mining and minting of gold.  During the 1820s, there was minimal, direct government involvement.  The state granted the first charter to a gold mining company in 1827; charters ranged from $100,000 to $300,000 (At least $100,000 was needed to start a deep-mining operation).  For many years, North Carolina provided the only native gold for the United States mint. Once the gold was shipped to Philadelphia to be minted, however, little came back to circulate in the Tar Heel state.  As a result, North Carolinians wanted a government mint.  Interestingly the U.S. opened the Charlotte mint in 1837, when gold miners turned in fewer deposits.  In any case, the federal government was now highly involved in gold and mining enterprises in North Carolina.

While Congress delayed in deciding to establish the mint, private enterprise met the demand.  With home-made equipment, Christopher Bechtler coined gold, including the first minted-gold dollar.  Historians report that Bechtler coined $109,000 in his first four years of business (1831–1835).  Always trusted, the Bechtler mint lasted until 1857, a decade and half after its founders’ death.  

In the 1840s, gold mining revived, and miners, many of them immigrants, established new operations.  Although the California Gold Rush lured many potential entrepreneurs westward, the vast majority of North Carolinians remained and participated in the state’s mining renewal.

Eventually, technology that was used in the California Gold Rush, such as hydraulic mining, was used in North Carolina.  During the 1850s, mining activity waned because digging deeper and deeper for less and less gold yielded little profit.  During the Civil War (not because of it) gold mining activity stopped.

For more than financial reasons, gold mining affected the Old North State.  According to Knapp and Glass, it led to the state’s unique economic development: a “leading manufacturing state and one of the most rural states in the nation.”  But Tar Heels’ character may have affected the industry more than it influenced them; for mining for gold consumed few North Carolina entrepreneurs.

The overall effects of gold mining remain debatable.  Again, Knapp and Glass are quotable: “The importance of government actions in support of mining,” they argue, “did not overshadow the leadership of private enterprise in exploiting North Carolina’s mineral resources.”