There's gold in them thar hills! A brief history of gold rushes and strikes in the United States.
Gold half eagle minted in Dahlonega, Georgia.
Chinese and White gold miners, California.
Hydraulic jet, California.
Forty-niner panning, California, c. 1850.
The Crime of '73
Gold rush legacy
U.S. Gold Fact
The U.S. Bullion Depository, maintained by the U.S. Treasury Department, located in Fort Knox, Kentucky, was opened in 1937 as a place to store U.S. gold bullion. It contains approximately 3% of the world's refined gold. In 1933 FDR signed an Executive Order (#6102) which outlawed the private ownership of gold. Private owners were forced to sell their gold to the Federal Reserve. The Fort Knox Depository was built in the wake of this decision.
U.S. Gold - social, economic, and political background
Overview: The earliest colonists at Jamestown came to the New World with tremendous hopes of finding gold and getting rich quick. The first boatloads carried assayers, goldsmiths, vintners, and silk weavers instead of farmers, hunters, and survivalists. Instead they found nothing of the sort resembling gold. Most of Jamestown’s earliest settlers perished before they realized the promise of gold and precious metals and those who remained, or survived, quickly realized that living was an ordeal - tenuous at best. It didn’t take long for word to get back to England that gold was not to be found and support for the joint venture company which funded Jamestown plummeted. Things got so bad in Jamestown that less than twenty years after the initial settlement was founded in 1607 King James I stepped in and took control. The Virginia colony ceased to be a privately funded operation and became a crown colony in 1624. It wasn’t for almost two hundred years that the first significant amounts of gold were discovered by Anglo-American settlers in central North Carolina. Gold fever would have its day. When gold and silver were found in large amounts in the U.S. West midway through the 19th century they acted as a catalyst for the economy and gave the U.S. Government the much needed cash to finance infrastructure projects. The private banking industry in the United States benefitted as well with an increased money supply. Capitalism, however, was in its infancy and finance was largely an unregulated industry which led to frequent boom and bust cycles as well as rampant speculation and frequent bubbles. On a more plebian level, and in striking similarity to the early Jamestown colonists, most people who hoped to strike it rich in the West’s gold fields ended up penniless, drifting from one mining camp to the next, or dying broke. To make things worse, financial panics and depressions occurred frequently, about once a decade. The impact that gold had on the United States arguably reached its political acme with the Coinage Act of 1873 which put the United States on the gold standard where it remained until 1971.
The Crime of ’73. The Crime of ’73 refers to the legislation enacted by the U.S. Congress known as the Coinage Act of 1873 which demonetized silver and made gold a de facto monetary standard. After the Act the supply of silver increased as it was not being minted into coins. At the same time more silver was discovered worldwide. The supporters of the gold standard were the banking establishment of the Northeast, railroad companies, and big business or corporations as less money favored their interests as creditors benefiting from a rapidly expanding economy and low money supply. The argument ebbed and flowed between 1873 and the end of the nineteenth century culminated in the growth the farm-based Populist parties which supported free silver, or the unlimited coinage of it. Americans farmers were especially hard-hit by the gold standard. Other supporters of the silver movement, were of course, silver miners. The wheat and cotton farmers argued that if silver and gold were both standards, known as bimetallism, the money supply would increase and that would result in higher prices for their crops. Across the South farmers often became debtors to credit extenders, such as merchants and general store owners, as farmers were forced to use under-priced crops in exchange for goods and services. This often created a vicious cycle of returning to the local general store to “purchase” their supplies, feed, and even the food they put on their tables. When times got hard, as they did frequently, the merchants extended them credit easily turning hardscrabble farmers into debtors. This was particularly acute in the South where share-cropping replaced slavery as a tenant-owner relationship known as the crop-lien system - the odds heavily stacked in favor of the landowner. The Bland-Allison Act of 1878 attempted to rectify the political and economic outcry and it required the U.S. Congress to override the President Hayes’ veto to pass the Act. The Act required that the U.S. Government buy and circulate a set amount of silver as currency. It was repealed by President Cleveland in 1893 putting the country back on a gold standard. William Jennings Bryant’s famous “Cross of Gold” speech at the Democratic National Convention of 1896 where he said “you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold” was the final rallying cry of the Silverites and also marked a symbolic end to their crusade for currency reform.
Occurrence of gold. Gold, a noble metal and an element (Au), has unique qualities that are instrinsic to no other metals but itself. There’s still debate among scientists regarding how gold formed or collected on our planet: one focuses on interstellar/supernova occurrence and the other focuses on neutron stars – both of which produced and scattered gold particles across the universe. As mountain ranges were uplifted over millions of years gold was eventually brought to the surface, or close to it, during these tectonic upheavals. Gold is usually found, or at least commercially and recreational mined and extracted, from lode or placer deposits. Lode deposits are embedded in rock and often have to be mined through a shaft or by blasting a hole into the rock. Placer deposits are easier to access and have been eroded from rock by water action resulting in alluvial deposits of gold. The gold fields of the California rush were often placer, or alluvial deposits, whereas the gold strike at Bodie, California, in the high basin and range, is a classic lode deposit. Often gold found in placer deposits indicates a buried lode deposit.
Gold mining techniques. Gold is usually thought of as an extractive industry. That is half true. There are gold mines which burrow deep underground, but often times and, especially in the nineteenth century, gold was found in and along stream beds in placer deposits leading to the technique of gold panning. The easiest and oldest way to find gold is by panning along riverbeds and this is what often happened when gold was initially discovered in an area. Because panning is a simple process it was often the news of placer deposits which attracted hordes of people, most inexperienced, to flood areas with the hopes of striking it rich. Anyone could do it. Since gold is denser than other rock and mineral sediments it subsides in the bottom of the pan while other lighter sediments run out. A less labor intensive way to pan is by using a sluice, or sluice box, which is just a more sophisticated way of panning. Water bearing gravel runs down a metal or wooden sluice with rifles to collect the gold deposits. Sluices can and were used on larger more industrial sized scales in many of the mining towns. Hydraulic mining, or hydraulicking, was also used, especially in the California fields. A high-pressure water jet erodes the hillside, usually composed of gravel, or immature sedimentary rock, and the dislodged materials run down into the sluices which collect the gold debris and deposits. The most complicated type of gold mining is known as hard-rock mining which can be either open-pit or by using underground shafts and tunnels to extract the gold bearing ore. This was the type of pit and tunnel system seen at Reeds Gold Mine in central North Carolina. Usually, hard-rock mining extracts the most quantity of gold. The rocker box (cradle) technique was also used when less water supply was available and is akin to dry panning.
Claims and claim jumping. Depending upon where a prospector searched, staking a claim was usually first come first serve on public property under the jurisdiction of the United States. Once the claim was registered the prospector worked it until it was deemed unprofitable at which time the prospector moved on. If someone else moved in to work the abandoned claimed, it was known as claim jumping. Disputes were common and violence often resulted if the proper legal infrastructure was not established. This was common in the early days of the California rush before the United States had time to organize the territory shortly after the signing of the Guadalupe-Hidalgo Treaty. Until it was organized miners usually followed Mexican mining law and the first-come-first-serve principle on public lands. The only authority was the U.S. Army which was stretched thin. Ethnic tensions also heightened in this atmosphere with Native Americans being exterminated and removed forcibly, or forcibly enslaved, in addition to violence against Mexican-Americans, known as Californios. In other instances vigilante gangs were formed when local law authority was not available or inadequate – a good example being the Montana Vigilantes in Virginia City, Montana. In general gold prospecting was a dangerous enterprise and crime was high. One out of every twelve Forty-niners died in California, for instance.
God & Gold. The United States experienced two major waves of evangelical awakenings, better known as the First and Second Great Awakenings. These awakenings lasted a decade or so and saw mass conversion of people to evangelical faiths and the spreading evangelical influence to older more established conservative Protestant Churches, or Old Sides churches, as they were known amongst followers. During the building frenzy of the Erie Canal in the 1820s the area of western New York was known as the Burned-over district because it was so heavily evangelized. Preacher and evangelists found these areas ripe and ready for the conversion of souls. Not surprisingly gold rushes brought lawlessness, fortune seekers and a distorted sense of greed to the prospectors who hoped to strike it rich. Prostitutes, gamblers, outlaws, and opportunists rode in on their coat tails. God and gold were opposing poles and hence a perfect opportunity: the conditions which prevailed in these overnight boomtowns such as San Francisco or Bodie, California also acted as opportunities for evangelist missionaries to covert people to the faith. Not surprisingly Methodists churches sprung up in reaction to the rows of bars, brothels, and banks which typified the mining camps and boomtowns. It’s rare to visit the abandoned ghost towns in the U.S. West without seeing a dilapidated church which acted as a beacon of faith amongst the temptations of a gold mining town. William Taylor, a Methodist Episcopal missionary, preached on street corners of San Francisco as early as 1849. Arguably, the conversion of souls was more difficult in the gold towns because of the ephemeral and highly mobile population. Important religious historical monuments still stand in the old gold towns notably St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Idaho City, established in 1864.
California Gold Rush
Reed Gold Mine, North Carolina.
San Francisco Bay, c. 1850-51.
Placer County Courthouse, Auburn, California
Deadwood, South Dakota, c. 1876
Cripple Creek, Colorado.
Diamond City, Montana.
Nome, Alaska, c. 1900.
Randsburg, California. "The Living Ghost Town"
Gold in the Black Hills
There are still areas where you may prospect, and if a discovery of a valuable, locatable mineral is made, you may stake a claim. These areas are mainly in Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.— Harold Kirkemo, USGS
U.S. Gold rushes and strikes
Reed Goldmine, Cabarrus County, North Carolina, 1799. In 1799 gold was found on the Reed family farm in the North Carolina Piedmont a mere 20 miles east of Charlotte. Preserved today as a state historic site the Reed Gold Mine was the first documented gold find in the United States. Although the mine didn’t result in a “rush”, gold fever certainly ensued. As the story goes John Reed’s son found a seventeen pound “yellow” rock in a creek which served as a convenient door stop for three years until the family realized what it was. When they took it to a jeweler John Reed asked for a mere 3.50 dollars, equivalent to a week’s wages, when in fact the nugget was worth thousands of dollars. By 1803 John Reed, a German-Hessian immigrant, understood the value of his find and started combing his property for more finds. A slave soon found a 28 pound nugget. John Reed’s gold discoveries were placer deposits until he sunk a shaft into the ground in 1831. Other families in the area caught the fever and by the early nineteenth century the region was yielding a million dollars worth of gold annually. North Carolina was the leading gold producing state until 1848 and a mint was established in Charlotte.
Dahlonega, Georgia, 1828. Today Dahlonega is a small tourist town in northern Georgia thanks to the gold rush which started in 1828. Dahlonega gets its name from the Cherokee word for gold, Talonega. The problem with the land was not so much its inaccessibility but that in was in the Cherokee Nation. This same conflict of interest would replicate itself later, throughout the West, as prospectors came into conflict with Native Americans, most famously in the Black Hills (see below). Eventually the Treaty of Washington in1819 was overridden with a new one, the Treaty of New Echota in 1835, to justify the removal of the Cherokee. The Dahlonega gold fields were lucrative. So much so that a U.S. Mint was built onsite in 1838 coining more than 6 million dollars of worth of gold before its closure in 1861. The Dahlonega Gold Museum State Historic Site sits in the former Lumpkin County Courthouse said to be the oldest courthouse in the state. Allegedly, or mistakenly, from the steps of this courthouse in 1849, Dr. M.F. Stevenson, an assayer, tried to persuade miners to stay in Dahlonega instead of joining the rush to California and is credited with the famous catch-phrase “There’s gold in them thar hills” although it’s a misquote of what he said. Still, the phrase originated from Dahlonega. The museum has interpretive displays and relics such as its famous 5 once nugget in addition to coins which were minted in the U.S. Mint.
California, 1848 - 1855. In January 1848 James Marshall found gold at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada setting off the largest rush of its kind to date. In the short span of six years more than 300,000 people, known as forty-niners, streamed into the territory, roughly following the path of the American River and the northern California gold fields between Shasta and Yreka, changing California from a sleepy farming region, mainly populated by Mexicans, to a boom state of unvalued proportions. They came by boat and cross country and often from foreign countries. The California Gold Rush was an international event and attracted prospectors from as far away as Australia. San Francisco’s population went from 200 people in 1846 to 36,000 by 1852. The territory quickly gained statehood following the Compromise of 1850 which allowed it into the union as free-state (this was largely done for economic reasons as miners did not want to compete with mining corporations using slave labor). The need to organize California into a territory was quickly understood because of the mass disorganization, chaos, and lawlessness which accompanied the fever. In fact gold was discovered a mere two weeks after the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo was inked ending the Mexican-American War in February 1848 and hence the region hadn’t even been organized along territorial lines. Most of prospectors used panning to find gold but later sophisticated water jets, known as hydraulic mining, were used to erode gravel beds, a technique exploited by mining corporations. The Siskiyou and California Trails, overland stage and wagon routes, soon proved inadequate, and plans for a trans-continental railway took route. Because of this tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants came to work on the railroads which became necessary to support the state’s growing infrastructure. The Chinese also worked in the gold towns and were often famously segregated into Chinese ghettos. The Chinese who stayed often supported themselves as small businessmen. Women, in the earliest years of the rush, were scarce and those who came unwed were quickly courted by many suitors. Other women, such as prostitutes, often made small fortunes, as they were able to charge high amounts of money to the desperate miners. Wives often did better than their prospector husbands, baking and selling food such as pies, and opening small businesses which supported the mining camps. The San Francisco Mint was built in 1854 to supply currency to the region as payments for goods and services. Prior to this people often were paid by banknotes. When gold fever subsided in the state most prospectors ended up as they came – poor. The biggest profiteers during the California Gold Rush proved to be large mining corporations, or merchants who provided goods and services. Levi Strauss, a German-Jewish immigrant, sold overalls to miners, and today remains one of the most iconic names associated with the gold rush. Eureka remains the Golden State’s motto in reference to the euphoria of a gold strike.
Colorado Gold Rush, also known as the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush, 1858 – 1861. Roughly ten years after the California Rush gold was again discovered in large quantities in Colorado which was then part of the Kansas Territory. Within three years the region was reorganized into the Colorado Territory because of the massive influx of people. Best known as the Fifty-niners, after the high water mark of prospectors entered the region in 1859, the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush actually took place well north of the famous mountain while the term “Pikes Peak or Bust” became the slogan. It was this prominent mountain, seen for miles across the plains, which guided prospectors to the area acting as a significant landmark. The Colorado Gold Rush occurred across multiple locations in the Territory and the state but the first deposits found in 1858 were placer deposits along the rivers of what later became Denver and its suburbs such as the South Platte and Cherry Creek. Rumors persisted for many years about gold in the mountains but it took numerous false starts before dedicated parties started streaming in and honing the location. Left-Hand Canyon, in the mountains west of Boulder, became the first significant discovery along with the placer deposits at the confluence of the Chicago and Clear Creeks, later known as Idaho Springs and Central City. Across the Colorado Territory gold was found in various places creating boom towns some becoming famous ski resorts in the twentieth century: Breckenridge in 1859; South Park (1859), Leadville (1860), Summitville (1870), Telluride district (1875), and Cripple Creek in 1890 (see below).
Idaho & Montana Territories: Boise Basin, Idaho, 1862. Virginia City, Montana, 1863. Confederate Gulch and Diamond City, Montana, 1865. A number of significant gold strikes were found in Idaho and Montana prompting mini-rushes and boom towns to surface in this region starting in the 1860s. Boise Basin, Idaho was the largest gold rush following the California rush of 1848. Founded in December of 1862, Idaho City, previously Bannock, boomed with the news of gold. Its frenzy was so mercurial that a U.S. Mint was eventually established in Boise. By 1864 it was the largest town in the Northwest and held at least 200 businesses and three dozen salons. Half of the settlement’s population was Chinese and as many as 4,000 settled in the Idaho Territory between 1869 and 1875. Today the best known, if not the only extant landmark of the Chinese in Idaho, is the Pon Yam House dating to 1867. Although the population of Idaho City dropped to 900 by 1870 the town is still around today and serves mostly as a recreational tourist base. Founded in June of 1863 as the settlement of Verina, named after Jefferson Davis’ wife, the gold fields around what later became known as Virginia City, Idaho Territory, were populated by thousands within weeks of the news of a gold strike along Alder Creek. Lawlessness and the remote location resulted in vigilantes keeping the peace. The area was split and became part of the new Montana Territory in 1864 and Virginia City served as the territorial capital of Montana from 1865 until 1875. By the 1940s Virginia City was ghost town but restoration was started in the 1950s and it remains today a small tourist hub. The gold fields of southwest Montana amounted to 2.5 billion dollars by the early 1920s. Again in 1864 Confederate soldiers found a gold vein in the Big Belt Mountains of Montana Territory which they named Confederate Gulch. More gold was found along this steep valley only a year later which set off a rush. The Montana Bar, as it was called, quickly became one of the rickets strikes and the valley became the most populated area of the territory with the main settlement known as Diamond City. The preferred extraction method in this area became hydraulic mining which left considerable damage such as spoil banks and forcing the settlers to move the location of Diamond City. The boom was short lived and by 1871 there were only about 60 people remained.
Black Hills, South Dakota, 1875 -78. The Black Hills Gold Rush set off a frenzy of settlers into the Black Hills and soon became a flashpoint between the prospectors and Lakota who considered the region a sacred land and favorite hunting ground. Before gold was discovered the Treaty of Laramie signed in 1868 gave the land to the Lakota but rumors of gold in the region had persisted from earlier explorers such as Father De Smet. In 1874 George Custer led the 7th US Cavalry into the region after a few Anglo-Americans had been scalped by Lakota such as Crazy Horse. Custer’s expedition found gold at French Creek thus confirming the potential which set off a stampede as well as the last major war with the Native Americans, the Lakota, known as the Black Hills War. The United States took control of the area in 1876. Towns in the Black Hills such as Deadwood, Lead, and Hill City mushroomed from simple mining camps to booming hubs which were soon connected by railroads lines by the early 1880s. The rush yielded about 4 million dollars annually in gold and almost as much in silver. The legacy of the Black Hills gold rush persists: the United States Supreme Court tried to settle the land claim by awarding the Lakota 106 million dollars in 1980 saying that the region was taken from them illegally. The Lakota Sioux rejected the cash settlement and are still litigating for the Black Hills to be returned to them restitutio in integrum.
Bodie, California, 1876- 1879. It took a few false starts for Bodie to realize its potential but when it did this high elevation settlement in the hills between Nevada and California boomed into a mini-metropolis in the middle-of-nowhere during the 1880s. Although the town started in 1859 by a group of prospectors, among them W.S. Bodey, it didn’t take off until enough gold was discovered to make operations profitable. By 1869 there were two stamp mills but still little investment in the settlement. Growth didn’t occur until 1876 when the Standard Company struck a deposit of gold ore and then things took off. By 1879 the town had as many as 7,000 people and 2,000 buildings and the town’s mines took out gold valued at 34 million dollars during its heyday. Today the town is a ghost town and state historic site with the last of its residents having left or died in the 1940s. It is one of two official ghost towns of the State of California and receives heavy tourist traffic in the summer despite access by dirt roads only. It sits at an elevation of 8,300 feet above sea level.
Cripple Creek, Colorado, 1890. Cripple Creek, in the Pikes Peak region of Colorado, was the state’s last gold rush. Gold ore was first discovered in 1890 by Robert Miller Womack and later the Independence lode, discovered by Winfield Scott Stratton, proved to be one of the largest gold lodes in history. Typical of boom towns the population of Cripple Creek ballooned from 500 people to ten thousand between 1890 and 1893. A total of $500 million of gold was extracted from the Cripple Creek region. Cripple Creek was significant because of the union-based mining activities which took place here. Gold miners supported by the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) struck in 1894. The current governor sent in the National Guard to protect the unionized miners. Fortunes would turn in the strike of 1903 when the governor, James Peabody, sent in the Colorado National Guard to support the mining companies against the unionized strike. The Colorado Labor Wars ensued and were marked by frequent and bloody violence. Much of the trouble started after the Panic of 1893. Since the U.S. Government was on the gold standard, the price of gold remained fixed while the Panic of 1893 caused the price of silver to crash causing silver miners to flood into Cripple Creek to find work. The mining company owned by J.J. Hagerman, David Moffat, and Eben Smith, lowered wages and lengthened the work day as a result. The town also suffered significant fires in 1896 which destroyed the town. It was later rebuilt and today it remains a historic district and local center of tourism.
Nome and Fairbanks, Alaska, 1899-1902. Beginning in 1896 prospectors poured into the Klondike in Yukon, Canada by way of the Chilkoot Pass in Alaska. Three years later in 1899 gold was discovered in Nome, Alaska and the stampede turned westward toward that destination. Known as the Nome Gold Rush, which occurred between 1899 and 1909, it was to be the largest gold rush north of 60 degrees latitude on the continent. Nome quickly became the largest settlement in Alaska despite not having a harbor. The labor of extracting gold was also minimal because gold was found on the beach and in the beach gravel. The prospectors occupied tent cities for a thirty mile stretch between Cape Nome and Cape Rodney. Claim-jumping became enough of a problem that order had to be established by the building of Fort Davis in 1900 near Nome City. The same prospectors from the Klondike Rush in Canada and Nome went to Fairbanks as gold was discovered there shortly after Nome in 1902. It was this later gold rush which transformed Fairbanks from a lonely trading post established by Captain E.T. Barnette in 1901, with the help of Felix Pedro, to a booming outback city full of dreams and money built on the surrounding natural resources in the area.
U.S. Gold quiz
Gold Strikes and rushes in the United States
More by this Author
This hub beautifully summarizes the major points of land on the earth's surface which fall below sea level.
Imagine for a second, with a single stroke of the pen, the Pope dividing the world between two rival empires. That’s what happened in 1494 when Pope Alexander VI authored the Treaty of Tordesillas between John II...
A short list of eleven historic cities in the United States arranged by founding date and some honorable mentions as well.