This week’s “Daily Journal” guest columnist is Troy Kickler, director of the North Carolina History Project (NorthCarolinaHistory.org).
RALEIGH — “The mining interest of the state is now only second to the farming interest.” So wrote a reporter from the Western Carolinian of Salisbury in 1825. There was enough demand by 1830 for a Charlotte-based Miners’ and Farmers’ Journal to begin publication.
Like many remarkable events with long-lasting and beneficial results, the discovery of gold was unplanned. In 1799, John Reed’s son Conrad found a 17-pound gold nugget in a creek bed. Yet for three years, the Reeds did not know the rock’s worth, and it served as a doorstop. After learning its value, John Reed panned nearby Little Meadow Creek. And many more nuggets he found. Little did the German immigrant know that, deep below his farm, quartz veins carried gold.
By the late 1820s, prospecting in creeks turned into deep-mining operations. The enterprise was now a full-time job, and mine companies replaced part-time miner-farmers. Most mining operations were small. Vincent de Rivafinoldi, however, started Mecklenburg Gold mining company, which employed approximately 600.
Yet the diminutive operations helped provide a blueprint for later pursuits in the furniture, textile, and tobacco industries.
Because of gold mining, Charlotte evolved from little more than a village during the antebellum era (1820-60) into a regional financial center. American and foreign investors learned of gold discoveries in Mecklenburg County. Many immigrated to the Carolina Piedmont to start or work in the mines. Although gold prospecting and mining occurred as far west as present-day Cherokee County and as far east as present-day Nash and Halifax counties, most gold was found in 10 Piedmont counties: Guilford, Randolph, Davidson, Rowan, Montgomery, Stanly, Cabarrus, Mecklenburg, Gaston, and Union.
Less than 30 years after Reed’s discovery, North Carolinians asked to what extent the government should participate in the mining and minting of gold. During the 1820s, there was minimal direct government involvement. The state granted the first charter to a gold mining company in 1827; charters ranged from $100,000 to $300,000. (At least $100,000 was needed to start a deep-mining operation.) For many years, North Carolina provided the only native gold for the United States Mint.
Once the gold was shipped to Philadelphia to be minted, however, little came back to circulate in the Tar Heel State. As a result, North Carolinians wanted a government mint, and the Charlotte Mint opened in 1837. The federal government became highly involved in gold and mining enterprises in North Carolina.
While Congress delayed in establishing the mint, private enterprise met the demand. With homemade equipment, Christopher Bechtler coined gold, including the first minted gold dollar. Historians report that Bechtler coined $109,000 between 1831 and 1835. Always trusted, the Bechtler mint lasted until 1857, a decade and a half after its founder’s death.
In the 1840s, gold mining revived, and miners, many of them immigrants, established new operations. Although the California Gold Rush lured many potential entrepreneurs westward, the vast majority of North Carolinians remained to participate in the state’s mining renewal.
Eventually, technology that was used in the California Gold Rush, such as hydraulic mining, was used in North Carolina. During the 1850s, mining activity waned because digging deeper and deeper for less and less gold yielded little profit. During the Civil War (not because of it), gold mining activity stopped.
In Gold Mining in North Carolina, Richard D. Knapp and Brent D. Glass say mining led to the state’s unique economic development: a “leading manufacturing state [while being] one of the most rural states in the nation.”
Even so, mining for gold consumed few North Carolina entrepreneurs. The overall effects of gold mining remain debatable. Again, Knapp and Glass are quotable: “The importance of government actions in support of mining,” they argue, “did not overshadow the leadership of private enterprise in exploiting North Carolina’s mineral resources.”