In 1848, James Marshall dug in a riverbed near San Francisco and found a glittering rock about the size of a thumbnail. He told his boss, John Sutter and the two of them ran tests and realized they had real gold. Without telling anyone about the find, they spent weekends searching for more gold and found it. No matter how careful they were, the word was soon out and almost all the population of San Francisco (about 800 at the time) rushed to the area to search for the real thing. By 1849 the population of the area reached about 80,000 people searching for their fortune, creating the largest gold rush in history.
It may have been the biggest, but it wasn’t the first. It wasn’t even the second.
In 1799 Conrad Reed found a 17-pound large yellow rock in his father’s field in Cabarrus County, near Midland, North Carolina. Neither did he or his father, John Reed, realize what the rock was. It’s reported that the family used it as a doorstop for three years.
In 1802, a visiting jeweler recognized the rock as gold. He purchased the rock for the asking price of $3.50.
The next year, John Reed, with three partners, began Reed Mining Operation. They worked mostly on weekends and the story goes that a slave named Peter unearthed a 28-pound nugget. By 1824 the part-time miners had recovered a yield of one hundred thousand dollars.
The first gold rush was now on. Farmers all over North Carolina began searching their creeks and rivers for the precious stones.
In 1845 John Reed died a wealthy man and the Reed Mine was sold at public auction. The mine changed hands several times by 1912 when the last underground work took place there. Portions of the underground tunnels have been restored for guided tours.
Eventually, Congress built the Charlotte Mint to cope with the volume of gold dug up in North Carolina. When NC seceded from the Union in 1861, the Confederacy took control of the Charlotte Mint. It continued coining operations until October when it became clear it was a futile effort. (The coins minted here are among the rarest and are highly desired by collectors because of their great value.) The mint was then converted into a hospital and military office space for the remainder of the war. In 1873, the North Carolina General Assembly petitioned Congress to reopen the mint at Charlotte. This request was denied. The mint is now a museum.
In 1829, the Georgia Gold Rush became the second major gold rush in the US. It soon overshadowed the Gold Rush in North Carolina as it spread through the North Georgia Mountains. Much of the land where gold was discovered here belonged to the Cherokee Nation, but it didn’t take long for the Government of Georgia to rectify this problem. They seized the land without a treaty and divided it among Georgia veterans and residents by using a lottery system. By 1840s it became hard to find gold in Georgia and many of the miners moved west where gold had been discovered in California.
The 1849 Gold Rush in California was actually the third major incident of gold being discovered in the United States. But it was the largest and the most well-known.
Sutter’s Mill in California