You Won’t Believe the Incredible Story of America’s Untold Gold Rush

You Won’t Believe the Incredible Story of America’s Untold Gold Rush

Donna Patricia Ward - November 22, 2017

On a spring Sunday in 1799, a 12-year-old boy skipped church. Deciding that fishing was more important for his spiritual needs than listening to a sermon, Conrad Reed successfully convinced his folks to let him spend a spring Sunday morning outside. While fishing, Conrad stumbled upon a funny looking rock. Curious about the 17-pound wonder, Conrad carried it home to show his father. After examining the rock, John Reed remained mystified, having no idea what it was other than interesting. Instead of throwing the rock back outside, the elder Reed placed it in front of a door. Thus began the first gold discovery in the United States; the gold nugget acted as a doorstop for two years!

You Won’t Believe the Incredible Story of America’s Untold Gold Rush
North Carolina Gold Region. Public Domain.

The frontier of North Carolina was sparsely populated in 1799. John Conrad settled in what he called “upper” Mecklenburg County, roughly 20 miles north of a small trading town named Charlotte. Today, Reed’s farm is in Cabarrus County, which is home to the Charlotte Motor Speedway. Before 1800, the county’s population was less than 5,000 people within its 364 square miles (943 square km). Most settlers were hardworking farmers that grew corn, wheat, barley, rye, indigo, and tended to their livestock. Collectively, the farmers sent their goods to market in Charleston, South Carolina, a one-way trip of roughly 200 miles. Paper money and coins were scarce in the North Carolina Piedmont. People traded, or bartered, for the goods that they could not make for themselves.

Family farms dotted the landscape. The few families that had slaves owned only one or two or rented them from others when their labor was needed. This was in stark contrast to the large plantations in the eastern part of the state. For the most part, husbands, wives, children, and hired help kept the farms running by feeding and caring for livestock, planting and harvesting crops, and taking goods to market. The Reed farm was not much different from those that surrounded it. Many had streams or creeks and families attended church or religious meetings.

John Reed was a German immigrant. A former Hessian solider, Reed abandoned his post in Savannah, Georgia as a solider fighting for Great Britain during the American Revolution and headed toward the southern frontier of North Carolina. Upon his arrival, he established a farm, claimed the land as his own, and married. The Reeds had several children, whose labor was used for farm work. John Reed, like most farmers in the region, was illiterate and had no formal education. Yet, he was considered by his peers to be a man of intelligence. The frontier provided hands-on learning experiences. Women, who could read, often taught their children by using the family Bible or some other treasured book. Most of the farmers in the region were immigrants that arrived in America as soldiers, indentured servants, or were the children of such immigrants.

The lack of luxury goods and money in the North Carolina frontier meant that most farmers had little knowledge of the value of gold or what it looked like. Curious about his doorstop, and perhaps encouraged by Conrad, John Reed took his chunk of rock to a local silversmith in 1802. The silversmith did not view the rock as important to his trade so John Reed returned the doorstop to its rightful place. While preparing for a marketing trip to Fayetteville, John Reed took his doorstop to see if anyone in the city could identify it. A jeweler quickly identified the rock’s value and paid Reed $3.50, a week’s worth of wages for a farm laborer at the time.

You Won’t Believe the Incredible Story of America’s Untold Gold Rush
Reed Gold Mine Historic Marker. Public Domain.

In reality, John Reed’s rock was worth $3,600! After discussing the possibility of finding more gold nuggets on his farm, Reed entered into a partnership with three other men. Frederick Kiser, Reverend Love, and Martin Phifer, Jr., and John Reed began making plans to search the Little Meadow Creek for more gold. Any discoveries they would split equally. The men successfully obtained $1,000 from the Fayetteville jeweler that shorted Reed earlier. With the money, the men obtained equipment to search the creek. During the summer when the creek ran dry and the harvest season was weeks away, the men and their children, a few slaves, and some hired men searched the creek bed for more nuggets.

Reverend Love owned a slave Peter that was assigned to search the creek for gold on a part-time basis. One afternoon, Peter found a 28-pound nugget! Love offered Peter a small part of the nugget if he was able to break it off. But Peter would have to use his fork to break off part of the rock. For a slave, possessions that they owned were treasures, as their owners had no legal or moral responsibility to replace an object once lost or broken. Peter decided to keep his fork intact and passed on the opportunity to break off a piece of the rock. Slaves knew that a man who profited from their forced servitude might not follow through on their promise of a payment initially promised from the nugget. Reverend Love and his partners received an equal portion from the $6,600 received for the nugget; Peter received nothing.

Farms surrounding the Reed homestead became informal gold mining operations. Using everyday tools, men used a technique called placer mining that exposed gold that was just a few inches from the surface. Local newspapers began reporting on the new discoveries of gold and soon, men were arriving at the family-owned farms and unearthing the Carolina Gold Belt. Then in 1825, a local farmer from nearby Montgomery County, Matthias Barringer, discovered that veins in white quartz could contain gold. This discovery changed everything! Theoretically, all a person had to do was follow the veins and find a “lode” of gold.

Wealthy men, including cabinet members from Baltimore and Washington, DC, began investing in gold mining operations. New technologies combined with old technologies and underground gold mining began to professionalize. At first, laborers dug pits in a haphazard way to find the gold. Over time, these pits were dug into shafts that formed tunnels, which became a much more directed way of mining. Working by lantern light, miners used picks, shovels, chisels, crowbars, and gunpowder to pry the ore from the rock. Then miners excavated the shafts and tunnels by loading wheelbarrows and hauling out the rock. Some mines used buckets on rope and pulleys to excavate the ore and rock. Men lined the shafts with timber to hold open the earth as the miners dug deeper underground to mine out ore.

You Won’t Believe the Incredible Story of America’s Untold Gold Rush
Reed Gold Mine. Public Domain.

Now the newspapers reported on the potential wealth men could find in North Carolina. Immigrants from England, Germany, Scotland, Ireland, and South America brought with them their mining experience and soon, North Carolina was mining a million dollars of gold a year! 36 years after Conrad Reed found an unusual doorstop President Andrew Jackson signed legislation in 1835 that opened three new branches of the Untied States Mint, including one in Charlotte, North Carolina that minted raw gold into shiny gold coins

When gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in California in 1848, North Carolina’s gold rush was essentially over. Mining technologies developed in the Old North State were transferred to the massive gold-mining operations in California. Several of the Carolina Gold Belt mines continued to operate, but labor shortages hindered the mining. The American Civil War forced men to fight, immigrants were not able to entered into southern port cities due to Union blockades, and slavery ended when the Union Army arrived.

Despite the challenges, the mines operated with limited labor. As with many family and financial ventures, squabbles with partners halted the already slow-going mining operations while awaiting court rulings. The Reed Gold Mine, and others, continued on and off again operations until the 20th century. John Reed died a very wealthy man in 1845 and reportedly had owned 13 slaves. The last large gold nugget using placer mining was found in 1896. By 1912, the gold mine had closed for good.

Today, the site of Conrad Reed’s discovery is a North Carolina State Historic Site as well as a national historic site that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Carolina Gold Rush sparked a new wave of settlement into the once sparsely populated backcountry and funded massive infrastructure projects and westward expansion. The US Mint in Charlotte closed in 1931 and was to be demolished for an urban renewal project. Concerned citizens purchased the building in 1933 and had it moved to a new location a few blocks south. Today it is the Mint Museum of Art and Charlotte is the second largest financial center in the country after New York City.