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America’s First Gold Rush was Not in California

Most people have heard of the 49ers and the California Gold Rush. Not nearly as many people are aware that there was an American Gold Rush before the 49ers. This rush took place in the Southeastern US primarily in the states of North and South Carolina and Georgia but with additional production and activity in Virginia and Alabama. It all started on a Sunday in 1799 where 12 year old Conrad Reed and some of his siblings were shooting fish with a bow and arrow in Little Meadow Creek, Cabarrus County, North Carolina. Conrad saw something gleaming in the creek and found a shiny rock which he took home to his father – who used it for a doorstop for the next three years. In 1802 John Reed sold his doorstop to a jeweler for $3.50. It turned out to be a 17 pound gold nugget that was worth roughly $4,000.00 at the then price of $20.67 for an ounce of gold and about $240,000 at today’s gold prices. About a year later, John Reed started mining on the property and continued to do so for several decades. The largest documented nugget from the Reed Mine was 28 pounds. The news of Reed’s gold spread slowly but generated a substantial gold rush in the southeastern US. It is unlikely that the Reed gold discovery was the first Southern gold discovery; mint records and other sources indicate gold was sold from the region before 1802. But the Reed discovery generated the first documented regional activity and North Carolina was the largest gold producing state in the US until the 49 rush. This mine is now a state park.

A number of writers and historians have erroneously credited this as the first documented gold found in the US. The earliest gold reported was in fact by Thomas Jefferson in 1782. He recorded a gold-bearing rock weighing 4 pounds and containing about 17 penny weight (0.85 oz.) of gold from the north side of the Rappahannock River about 4 miles below the falls. This is near the present day town of Stafford, Virginia Gold has been intermittently mined from the Southeastern US ever since the 1799 Conrad Reed discovery. Most recently gold was mined from the state of South Carolina from a number of mines at Barite Hill, Brewer, Haile and Ridgeway. The Haile Mine which was discovered in 1828 has had numerous episodes of production which were interrupted by events such as Sherman’s March to the Sea during the Civil War, a boiler explosion which killed Earnest Thies the mine manager in 1908, and the WWII War Production Board Order L-402 closing all US gold mines. This particular history is typical of the mines and gold mining activity in the Southeast.

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John Reed’s Doorstop: America’s First Gold Rush was Not in California


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