Striking it rich: American gold rushes of the early 19th century

By Kelsey Wiggins
Gold coin marked 1838 decorated with stars and the profile of Liberty's head. Liberty wears a head-band that reads "Liberty."

This year marks the 170th anniversary of the California Gold rush! On January 24, 1848, James W. Marshall discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California. Though he tried to keep it quiet, word spread and soon there was a surge in immigration to California from people hoping to strike it rich. It was the most famous gold rush in American history—but, in fact, not the first. Two other gold rushes occurred earlier in the 19th century in the United States.

With the heightened interest in Bitcoin and dramatic fluctuation in value this year, it is an opportune time to look back at the 19th-century quest to gain riches with American gold rushes. Instead of just digging into the history of the forty-niners (no, not the NFL football team), I went mining through some of the National Numismatic Collection’s gold objects that illustrate all three of America’s gold rushes from the first half of the 19th century.

Carolina Gold Rush

Gold coin marked 1838 decorated with stars and the profile of Liberty's head. Liberty wears a head-band that reads "Liberty."
5 Dollar Coin, Charlotte Mint, United States, 1838

In 1799 gold was discovered in Cabarrus County, North Carolina, at (the later named) Reed’s Gold Mine by twelve-year-old Conrad Reed, the son of Johannes Reed. Not knowing what his son had found, Reed used the 17-pound nugget as a doorstop for the next few years, until a jeweler recognized it as gold and offered to buy it. When word got out about the sale of that nugget in 1802, the Carolina gold rush was on.

Many amateur miners were farmers who also did part-time placer mining, or shallow surface mining, on their property when not busy with farm business. North Carolina gold mining swiftly evolved from the placer mining of streambeds to the much more involved shaft mining that would become prominent in the California gold rush.

By 1835 so much gold was being discovered in North Carolina that President Andrew Jackson decided to establish a U.S. mint in Charlotte to process it all. However, during the Civil War, the mint was shut down and the building was repurposed. In the mid-20th century, the building was saved from demolition and moved. Today it houses the Mint Museum, which displays art and design from around the world.

Georgia Gold Rush

Gold coin with text "Georgia Gold 1830"
10 Dollar Coin, Templeton Reid, Assayer, United States, 1830

The second gold rush to strike the Southeast was in Georgia. Although it started in 1829 close to Dahlonega, reports of where specifically this rush began are varied. There are at least five different accounts of various people being the “first.” Claims go back to as early as 1540, when Hernando de Soto led an expedition through this area and said that a young American Indian showed his men how they melted, mined, and refined the gold they found in the region. By the 1830s the influx of miners and immigrants to the area spurred on by the gold rush raised tensions with the local Cherokee tribes. These tensions, along with the social and institutional discrimination against American Indians of the time, eventually led to the forced removal of the tribes from the area in what we now call the "Trail of Tears."

Initially, professional assayers—those who evaluate the weight and purity of metals—such as Templeton Reid weighed and valued gold for miners. Eventually, as in Charlotte, President Jackson established an official U.S. mint in Dahlonega to handle the influx of gold. The mint operated from 1838, until the first few months of the Civil War where it was utilized by the Confederate States to create Confederate currency. After that time,the mint was shut down and never opened again.

California Gold Rush

Gold ingot stamped with text "Moffat & Co., 21 7/16 Carat"
21 7/16 Carat Gold Ingot, Moffat & Co., United States, 1849

Before the famed gold rush, California was not even a territory of the United States. It was, however, swiftly rushed into statehood as a result. Many of the skilled miners from North Carolina and Georgia, along with quite a few amateurs, headed out west. Those initial immigrants were referred to as “forty-niners,” as they were some of the first to rush into California to strike it rich in 1849. However, those aspirations didn’t always pan out for everyone.

The influx of all this new gold out west encouraged private companies to step in and help process it. Prior to the establishment of an official mint in San Francisco, businesses such as Moffat and Company (as seen on the ingot above) provided much needed regulation and valuation to miners and mining companies of their gold. John Little Moffat was a respected assayer from New York who participated in both the Carolina and Georgia gold rushes, and was among the first entrepreneurs in San Francisco in 1849 to establish his minting business.

From North Carolina all the way to California, many enterprising people, including Johannes Reed and John Little Moffat, profited from the discovery of gold in America. With modern focus on the newest “gold rush” of the day in the establishment of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum, it is intriguing to look back 170 years and see that many Americans had similar aspirations to strike it rich quick.

Kelsey Wiggins is a museum specialist for the National Numismatic Collection.