Saturday, April 27, 2013

America's First Gold Rush - The Carolina Gold Rush

Besides the wonderful people down there, another thing that I absolutely love about the South is Southern Pride.

When especially compared to Northerners, Southerners make sure their children are weaned on their rich history.

During my travels in the South, one of my favorite places to visit was always Charlotte, North Carolina.

Scott, who is one of my readers, wrote to remind me that the California Gold Rush of 1849 wasn't America's First Gold Rush.

America's First Gold Rush, known as the "Carolina Gold Rush," took place in North Carolina.
 
Gold was first discovered in North Carolina in 1799 and that Congress authorized the construction of the Charlotte Mint to cope with the sheer volume of gold dug up in North Carolina.  

Known as "The Carolina Gold Rush," it was the first gold rush in the United States.  

Though it was the discovery of gold in North Carolina in 1799, it was not until a few years later that word of the gold spread and men started coming to North Carolina from other states.

In 1799, twelve-year-old Conrad Reed was fishing when he found a 17-pound shiny rock in Little Meadow Creek on his family’s farm in Cabarrus County, North Carolina.

And yes, believe it or not, he and his family kept it as a doorstop until 1802.

His father John Reed took the rock to a jeweler who recognized it as gold and bought it from the unaware Reed for $3.50. Now I know that $3.50 sounds like the jeweler swindled him, which he did, but we must understand that $3.50 in 1802 was a week's wages for farm labor.

Why do I say swindled?  Well, that nugget's true value was around $3,600.

If that were at today's price of gold per ounce at $1,375 that would be a nugget about 2.6 ounces in size. But it was 1802, the price of gold at the time was $19.39 an ounce.

Before long, more gold was found in and along the creek, making Conrad’s father, John Reed, a very wealthy man.

News of gold in Cabarrus County spread quickly. Soon gold was being found in neighboring counties of Montgomery, Stanly, Mecklenburg, Rowan, and Union.

With the news of a gold discovery, people flocked to North Carolina anxious to find gold of their own.

In the 1700s, the pioneers who settled there were described as "industrious people" with most families having six to ten children.

They raised livestock and crops such as corn, wheat, barley, rye, and indigo, and traded primarily with bigger Charleston, South Carolina, some two hundred miles to the south.

Charlotte, the state’s largest city today, was little more than a village at the time.

Around 1805, only a few years after Conrad’s discovery, newspapers began reporting on gold-mining activities and people coming into the area to search for gold.

William Thornton, of Baltimore, Maryland, designer of the United States Capitol, was one of these seekers. After learning of the gold, he purchased thirty-five thousand acres of land in Montgomery - now Stanly - County and formed the North Carolina Gold Mine Company.

By 1806, investors in his company included a former governor of Maryland and the treasurer of the United States.

Of course, initially local landowners did most of the mining.

The first newcomers to arrive were from neighboring towns and counties and states. But then, as luck would have it, another event occurred that would greatly increase the numbers of people migrating to the state’s gold fields.

In 1825, Matthias Barringer discovered that gold could be found in veins of white quartz. By following these veins of quartz into the ground, one could recover more gold.

Prior to this discovery, all of the mining conducted in North Carolina had been above ground, called "placer" mining. With Barringer's discovery of "lode," or underground mining, the rush to North Carolina was on in a big way.

Yes, just as later during other booms, people came from far and wide to make their fortunes.

Many of the most important lode mines were located in or around Charlotte.

In 1828 J. Humphrey Bissell, of Charleston, bought part of the McComb Mine and brought with him not only new technology but also "men experienced in South American mining."

At one Charlotte mine that employed almost a thousand workers, thirteen different languages were spoken.

Count Vincent de Rivafinoli, an Italian aristocrat and experienced mining engineer, was one of the most cultured and flamboyant foreigners in  Charlotte.

As head of the Mecklenburg Gold Mining Company, he brought in as many as eighty expert miners from England, Germany, Wales, Scotland, Ireland, Switzerland, Italy, and France.

Among the European workers, miners from Cornwall, England, had a huge influence on North Carolina mining culture.

The Cornish miners had developed techniques for "lode mining" over several centuries, extracting tin and copper from their native England.

Upon their arrival, they shared their knowledge and expertise in North Carolina. They taught proper and safe techniques for "lode mining."

And yes, they were also experts in the process of milling gold ore and the use of steam technology. Because of their knowledge of steam technology, the use of steam engines soon spread from gold mining to other North Carolina industries such as textile mills.

Many of the immigrants who came to North Carolina during the gold rush were single men, both young and middle-aged, all ambitious and hardworking.

They came unaccompanied by women and children wanting to get rich to make better lives for themselves and their families they had waiting in some cases overseas. As single men unencumbered by family responsibilities, they were able to move freely from one mining area to another.

When gold was found later in other southern states such as Georgia, and then in California in 1848, many moved out of the area.

The Cornish miners, however, had often moved with their families. They were known to be “skilled, superstitious, clannish,” and strongly Methodist.

Unlike the single prospectors who followed the gold to California, the Yukon, and beyond, many of these
Cornish miners and their families stayed in North Carolina, in the lode mining centers of Charlotte and especially Gold Hill in Rowan County.

The Cornish culture is a unique culture within Great Britain, much like the Welsh or Scottish, with its own dialect and customs.

But because the Cornish also spoke English, they and their descendants quickly melded into American life, and their cultural influence is not easy to pinpoint.

As with the others who arrived, their influence had a big impact on North Carolina’s emerging industries.

It is interesting to note that a year after John Reed started mining his land, a slave named Peter, found a 28-pound nugget of gold on the property.

John Reed started placer mining, then later underground mining, on his property, and truly became a wealthy man in spite of once being swindled by that jeweler.

The very First Gold Mine in the United States was in fact established in North Carolina at the Reed Gold Mine.

The Reed Gold Mine is located in Midland, Cabarrus County, North Carolina, and is the site of the first documented commercial gold find in the United States.

In 1966, it was designated a National Historic Landmark because of its importance to the history of our great nation. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Need For The Charlotte Mint

Can you imagine there being so much gold coming out of a single discovery that you find yourself having to built a new Mint locally to handle it?

Well, that was the case of the Charlotte Mint!

In 1835, because of the huge volume of gold coming out of North Carolina, President Andrew Jackson signed into law a bill to open three branch mints. One of those was in Charlotte, North Carolina, for new bullion and the minting of gold coinage.

The Charlotte Mint was a branch of the United States Mint that came into existence on March 3, 1835 during the Carolina Gold Rush.

The United States Congress approved an Act to establish several branch mints; the act stated, "...one branch at the town of Charlotte, in Mecklenburg County, in the state of North Carolina, for the coinage of gold only...".

In November, 1835, Levi Woodbury, Secretary of the Treasury, was notified by Samuel MeComb that he had purchased from William Carson and F. L. Smith a full square containing 4 acres of land for $1,500, which is now the 400 block of West Trade Street.

Proposals for construction of the building were advertised and the contract was awarded to Perry & Ligon, of Raleigh, North Carolina, on October 15th, 1835 at a price of $29,800.

In 1836, construction on the Charlotte Mint began. It opened for business on July 27, 1837.

Only raw gold was processed and refined until March 28, 1838, when the first $5 gold half eagle was struck in Charlotte.

The Half Eagle is a United States coin that was produced for circulation from 1795 to 1929 and in commemorative and bullion coins since the 1980s.

Composed almost entirely of gold, it has a face value of five dollars. Its production was authorized by The Act of April 2, 1792, and it was the first gold coin minted by the United States.

Later in 1838, $2½ Quarter Eagles were minted, and 1849 production started on a small gold dollar.

In 1838, the Charlotte Mint produced half eagles of the Coronet type in their first years of operation, and would continue to mint Half Eagles until 1861, their last year of operation.

All gold coinage coming from this mint has a "C" mint mark to distinguish it from other sister mints then in operation. The Charlotte Mint issued over $5 million in gold coins.

One should note that these days a 1838-C $5 Gold Half Eagle is worth about $2,250!

In May 1861, North Carolina seceded from the Union. The Confederacy took control of the Charlotte Mint. The Confederate government continued coining operations until October when it became clear it was a futile effort.

The mint was then converted into a hospital and military office space for the remainder of the Civil War.

After the Civil War, Federal troops used the offices for the first few years of Reconstruction. In 1867, the U.S. government designated it an Assay Office.

In 1873, the General Assembly of North Carolina petitioned Congress to reopen the mint at Charlotte. This request was denied.

As an Assay Office, it operated until 1913 when the gold supply was quickly dwindling. Then from 1917 to 1919, the Charlotte Woman's Club met in the building - and it also served as a Red Cross station during World War I.

In 1931, the old Charlotte Mint building was to be demolished to make room for the post office expansion next door. But that was not to be, fact is a coalition of private citizens acquired the structure from the U.S. Treasury Department in 1933.

Believe it or not, though this was the midst of the Great Depression, these great folks relocated the structure a few miles south of downtown Charlotte.

In 1936, it was dedicated as the Mint Museum of Art, the first art museum in North Carolina.

Why Is The Charlotte Mint So Significant?

For the world of coins, most historic coins are pretty well known. But it is also true that every so often there is a very historic coin that seems to fall through the cracks in terms of interest.

That description might well fit the 1838-C quarter eagle as this is a very historic issue that seems to be known by very few.

The 1838-C was something no one had ever seen before as it was a quarter eagle of the United States that was not even made in Philadelphia.

The fact is had many persons seen the small "C" on an 1838 quarter eagle at the time, the odds are pretty good that they would not have known why it was there or what it meant.

The situation in 1838 had to be exciting for the Mint. For the first time in the history of the United States there were going to be coins produced outside Philadelphia.

The decision to built other mints other than the one in Philadelphia was made because it was seen as better to deal with the gold on the spot rather than to try and send it all the way to Philadelphia.

Because of that, the Charlotte Mint only produced gold coins.

Of course there was something of a delay in production. The reason was that outfitting a mint in a place like Charlotte back in the 1830s was not the easiest task. It took time to get what was needed to the area. Then everything had to be set up.

By the time the facility was ready to produce its first gold coins, it was 1838. So yes, the 1838-C $5 Gold Half Eagle and $2½ Quarter Eagles were the first coins minted there.

At Charlotte there would be a $5 Gold Half Eagle mintage of 17,179 pieces, but also Charlotte would mint $2½ Gold Quarter Eagles to the tune of 7,880 pieces.

The smaller mintage, and the fact that only Charlotte tried $2½ Quarter Eagles in 1838 should not be too surprising. The $2½ Quarter Eagles were still really getting established in circulation.

The $2½ Quarter Eagle denomination had been authorized in 1792, but it had never been widely used. Besides the sparse use, they were first minted in 1834 with a $2½ Quarter Eagles mintages of more than 10,000. That means the bulk of those $2½ Quarter Eagles coins were only minted in one place, the Charlotte Mint.

It would be safe to suggest there was very little saving of the 1838-C Quarter Eagle at the time.

1848 Cal Quarter EagleSo as a result, what we have today is basically $2½ Quarter Eagle circulated coins with a price of between $1,700 and $27,000 today.  Low mintage and an important place in history really does pay off.

In any grade, the 1838-C $2½ Quarter Eagle is a special coin. And yes, at today's prices, they are a great find.

At the Charlotte Mint today, one can find thousands of various artwork items, along with a complete collection of all gold coins minted at the Charlotte Mint.

The Charlotte Mint has a collection of gold coins that range from scarce to extremely rare. They are some of the most desired items in numismatics today, making the museum's collection highly valuable.

The gold industry influenced other developments in industry, commerce, and infrastructure that helped North Carolina prosper.

Today’s leaders in North Carolina's industry, research, banking, farming, and community have indirectly benefited from the miners and investors, those who followed their dreams of our nation’s first gold rush - the Carolina Gold Rush.


Story by Tom Correa

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