Mining acted as a catalyst for the growth and expansion of the United States, as it drove thousands of pioneers westward for the prospect of riches. Where ever there was gold, there would be people, boom towns, industry, and even incorporated territories and their eventual statehood. Mining was so prolific in the 19th century, it gave opportunity for a small time miner to become a massive mogul
Even though it’s believed that Native Americans were mining gold prior to European settlement, the first gold rush in the United States was set in motion in North Carolina. In 1799, a 17 pound gold nugget was found by a 12 year boy, while he was fishing in a creek. Conrad Reed thought it was just a yellow rock, and for the first few years, his father used it as a door stop. It wasn’t until he took it to a jeweler that he discovered it was gold. This news brought a rush of gold prospectors to enter the area, and people started taking gold mining seriously.
As placer and underground mining began to flourish, miners began prospecting in neighboring states, like South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama. Georgia was the home to the next gold rush, which started in 1829 in Lumpkin County, and news spread like wildfire when the Georgia Journal announced the discovery of gold. Thousands of miners swarmed the area. Despite land being owned by the Cherokees, the government was handing out plots of land through a lottery. This created tension and a series of events that eventually lead to the Trail of Tears.
This gold rush not only popularized lode mining, it paved way for innovations surrounding coin minting. There were private minters that created their own mint because nobody wanted to haul their gold all the way to Philadelphia. This compelled the US government to also established an official mint in Dahlonega, Georgia. However, with the news of gold being discovered in California, prospectors began to migrate westward, leaving the Georgia gold rush to fizzle out. This inspired the famous line, “There’s gold in them thar hills!” which is loosely quoted from a geologist that tried to convince the miners to stay in Georgia.
The road to California was a difficult trek. This gold rush overshadowed the previous, because this was a world event. Prospectors from all over the world desired to travel to California. These were known as the 49ers, and the Californian natives were called 48ers because they knew about and pursued the gold before the news got out. Even though it was recorded that gold was being found in California since the 18th century by Spanish prospectors, the major rush sparked in 1849 after gold was found by James Marshall in Coloma. After a few years, the population exploded, and in 1852 there was the record production of 121 tonnes of gold. This rush introduced the popularity of hydraulic mining, but production never met that 1852 peak production again.
Prospector John Lowery Brown while on route to California from Georgia, found a little gold while panning a stream near Clear Creek, Colorado. Years later, a prospecting party returned and found a substantial amount of gold by Pike’s Peak, triggering another gold rush. This blew up the population, creating several camps, boom towns, and districts, including the prolific Leadville district. This trajectory lead to Colorado’s eventual statehood.
The west was pretty much open for mining, if you had the tools, you could dig for gold. After the Civil War, congress wanted to use western mines to help pay war debts. Some proposed to send armies to western territories and force miners off their claims and commandeer them for federal use. Although, western representatives argued that miners were actually valuable to developing territories because they boosted the local economies. This lead to a series of laws that protected the rights for miners which became a precursor to The Mining Law of 1872, which gave miners the right to stake their claims as well as the minerals extracted from them.
After all the rushes in the continental United States began to simmer down, the final American Gold Rush began. The next and final frontier before the 20th century, the Alaskan Klondike. Early prospectors mapped routes through the Yukon beginning in the 1870s and Ed Schieffelin was the first to identify gold in the Yukon River in 1883. By the end of that decade, small mining camps and developments were created along the Yukon River valley. It wasn’t until 1896 that gold was found in substantial quantities in what is now Bonanza Creek.
After the discovery was announced, this sparked Klondike Gold Rush. The rush of prospectors was so intense, that Canadian officials had to created special regulations, like the requirement for travelers to bring at least a year supply of provisions. Miners were traveling through land trails and routes, while others traveled by sea from Seattle and San Francisco ports. The population and economies of towns like Seattle, Portland, and Vancouver were exploding, because they were stops for a lot of the traveling miners. Much of the western expansion can give thanks to prospectors discovering gold along the uncharted territories.
Mining had a huge impact on the 19th century in the United States. From its initial discovery on tail end of the 18th century, to the end of the final gold rush in Alaska, it lead way to new frontiers, communities, and industries. It was the perfect time for mining, because the west was an open sandbox, giving prospectors the opportunity to thrive. This new wave of prosperity helped boost major cities, and contributed to the development of many western territories.
The first discovery of gold in America.
Early hard rock mining
Coin created from the Dahlonega Mint
Pike’s Peak or Bust
California Gold Rush Transportation Ad
“My Claim, Sir!”
Prospectors on route to the Klondike Gold Rush
- “Origin of our mining laws,” Mining & Scientific Press, 23 Sept. 1905, p.203.
- R.S. Morrison and Emilio D. De Soto (1917) Mining Rights on the Public Domain, San Francisco: Bender-Moss, p.6.