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“…North Carolina gold fever has begun to rage. I have heard scarce anything since my arrival except gold.”
-- Future NC Governor William A. Graham in 1829
The discovery of a 17-pound gold nugget in Cabarrus County, NC in 1799 marks the beginning the North Carolina Gold Rush. Twelve-year-old Conrad Reed found the treasure in the waters of Little Meadow Creek and took it home where it was used as a doorstop for three years. In 1802, the boy’s father, farmer John Reed, took the rock to a jeweler in Fayetteville who confirmed that it was gold and bought it for $3.50, later profiting a thousandfold.
Reed, soon realizing that he had been swindled, aligned himself with partners in a crude mining operation at the site of his son’s find. The men scoured the banks and sandbars of nearby rivers and streams using picks, shovels, pans and possibly a rudimentary rocker device to separate the heavy gold particles from the lighter sand and debris.
For 20 years following the discovery of gold on Reed’s farm, miners, many of whom were smalltime farmers, sifted through sand and gravel along NC’s streams and rivers. Because surface mining takes only simple equipment, a shovel and pan, or a crude rocker, prospectors came from all across the state as well as from surrounding areas to try their luck and seek their fortune.
By the early 1820s, the pursuit of gold in NC had become a major enterprise. In 1823, the state appointed Denison Olmsted, a faculty member at the University of North Carolina, as the first state geologist and commissioned him to conduct a geological survey to locate gold deposits and other valuable minerals. First Olmsted, and later German mining engineer Charles E. Rothe and then professor Elisha Mitchell, another faculty member from UNC, identified the main areas where gold occurred in the state. Additionally, Rothe and Mitchell produced reports for the state legislature and the American Journal of Science, fueling further interest in NC’s potential for gold mining.
In 1825, Mattias Barringer, another German whose farm was about 20 miles from the Reed farm, followed a vein of surface gold down to the gold-bearing rock. The Barringer Gold Mining Company was the first of many in the Charlotte area to try deep vein mining. Subsurface mining required far more equipment and technical skill than placer mining. Within a few years, dozens of companies had been formed to work the deeper gold deposits.
The discoveries and excitement continued to mount. Production increased as experienced miners and engineers arrived from European and South American mines. By 1832, more than fifty mines were operating in NC, employing more than 25,000 people. Next to farming, more people were employed in gold mining than in any other enterprise.
In 1837, English geologist George Featherstonhaugh visited several NC gold-mining operations between Rutherford and Mecklenburg Counties. He was distressed by the destruction of the land wherever placer mining was taking place, and observed that heedless removal of topsoil in the quest for gold ruined the land for future agricultural uses.
Although raw gold was abundant in NC, gold coins were not. Bartering was a common practice during America’s colonial and antebellum periods. The banking system was in chaos. State banks issued and recalled paper currency that was often inadequately backed with real assets. English and Spanish coins continued to circulate in the early 19th century with values that varied from place to place. Gold coins from the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia were rarely found in the South. Even silver and copper coins were rare.
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.
U.S. Representative Samuel Price Carson, familiar with the problems facing southern gold miners, on several occasions introduced a resolution to secure a U.S. mint in the mining region of the Carolinas. One of his chief arguments was the hazard and inconvenience of transporting gold from NC to the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia. Carson’s bill, however, was buried in committee. It was not until 1835 that Congress approved construction of branch mints in Charlotte, NC, Dahlonegah, GA, and New Orleans, LA. The Charlotte Mint opened in 1837 and began minting coins in 1838.
In 1799, 12-year-old Conrad Reed pulled a 17-pound yellow rock out of Little Meadow Creek in Cabarrus County, not far from Charlotte, North Carolina. For the next three years, it made a useful doorstop at the Reed home.
Conrad Reed’s father eventually took the big rock to a jeweler in Fayetteville and learned that it was in fact a gold nugget. He sold it for $3.50, a week’s wage at the time. He later learned that the nugget was worth one thousand times more. Reed began to look for more gold in his creek and his neighbors expanded the search to their own creeks.
As word of the gold discoveries in North Carolina spread, many people joined in the rush to find gold. Other large nuggets were found, including a 22-pound nugget, again from the Reed property. John Reed founded the Reed Gold Mining Company to raise more capital for organized mining efforts. Prospecting for gold spread westward to the foothills of Burke and Rutherford Counties.
In 1823 the state appointed University of North Carolina Professor Denison Olmsted to begin a survey of mineral resources – particularly gold. Over the next three years, Olmsted, German mining engineer Charles Rothe, and Professor Elisha Mitchell located six regions of gold-bearing rock.
After years of looking for gold in streams and river gravels, Matthias Barringer, another German living near the Reed property, followed a vein of gold to its source in the rock and began to excavate below the surface. The Barringer Mining Company was the first of many corporations organized to conduct larger scale sub-surface mining. Many experienced miners were recruited from Europe and South America to assist. Employment in mining grew to 25,000 people.
Although gold was found in abundance in North Carolina, the U.S. Mint which bought gold was in Philadelphia, a long and dangerous journey away. Much gold was sold to brokers who carried it back to Europe. Over several years, congressional representatives from North and South Carolina and Georgia tried to persuade Congress to establish a southern mint. Their efforts failed.
A German immigrant with previous experience in gold mining moved to Rutherfordton, North Carolina, and opened a jewelry and clock-making business in the summer of 1830. He also bought land and began to search for gold.
At the urging of local gold miners, Christopher Bechtler announced in the summer of 1831 that he would accept raw gold and assay it for quality and turn it into coins or ingots. The gold content of his first coins made them equal to $2.50 and $5.00 coins issued by the U.S. Mint.
In 1832, Bechtler made the first gold $1 coin in the United States. Over the next several years, his business grew, reaching its greatest volume from August 1836 to May 1838, when he minted $770,000 in gold coins of various denominations.
Congress finally acted to construct mints and assay offices in the South. Mints were built in Charlotte, North Carolina; Dahlonega, Georgia; and New Orleans. Bechtler’s business fell off rapidly as North Carolina miners took their gold to Charlotte. The year after the Charlotte Mint opened, he coined $194,000.
Christopher Bechtler died in late 1942. His son Augustus continued to mint gold coins for a short time before his own death in 1844. It is possible that Bechtler’s nephew, called Christopher Bechtler, Jr., continued to make a few coins until he moved to South Carolina in the early 1850s.
Even before the discovery of gold in California in 1849, gold mining in North Carolina had fallen off. The easy discoveries of surface gold has been made. The expense of deep mining was not justified by the returns and attention was turned to California and the western states.
U.S. Mints began to produce $1.00 gold coins in 1849 – seventeen years after the visionary German of Rutherford County had done so.