By Victor Bozarth for PCGS ……
Despite being here for nearly 300 years, no quantifiable gold was ever located by early European explorers in the land that became the continental United States.
Virtually all discovery missions to the New World by European powers in the 15th and 16th centuries were funded with the hope of finding untold riches – specifically gold. The phrase, “gold, God, and glory” perfectly describes the true mantra behind these explorations. The pursuit of riches always topped the list but expanding their territory in the name of their god was important, too. While these were men of adventure and glory, they were financed with the goal of finding riches in unexplored regions.
These riches took many forms, but gold was the first prize. Just like today, it was all about the money then, too!
Gold has always been the dream. Imagine these early explorers pitching their adventure to, say, Queen Isabella of Spain. Yes, I’m certain Queen Isabella was quite concerned with her God and the glory the potential discoveries could bring her kingdom. The new territories (because of the wealth they promised), as well as the inhabitants of those lands who could possibly be “brought to the faith”, were certainly important, but it was really about the gold. There’s no way any of these “adventures” would have been financed without the promise of gold.
Between 1492 and 1615, more than 20 voyages of exploration were launched from the European continent. Spain and Portugal led the charge, but England, France, and the Netherlands all dispatched exploration voyages from their shores, too. The foremost goal for virtually all these explorers was for wealth, although many were in the service of their country and would share little in the spoils if any.
Gold finds in what is the U.S. today prior to the 19th century were non-existent. For the most part, very little gold was found by these early explorers in the Southeast, Southwest, or any of the other parts of what would become the U.S. and Canada. Not a single one of these exploration voyages was successful in locating gold. Rumors of gold from Cherokee peoples were as close as Spanish conquistador Hernando de Soto came during his four-year journey into the interior of the eventual southeastern United States.
Ironically, de Soto’s trip took a big loop through what would later become the Georgia and North Carolina “Gold Belt” before he continued west.
A celebrated explorer, de Soto accompanied Pizarro on the latter’s expeditions to Central America and Peru in 1531, enabling de Soto to return to Spain in 1536 a very wealthy man. The search for gold in the southeastern regions of later U.S. territory would prove to be de Soto’s downfall. Although he was the first European man to cross the Mississippi River, he died on the river’s banks in 1542 in what is now either Lake Village, Arkansas or Ferriday, Louisiana. After his death, the remaining 300 party members continued west across the mighty Mississippi into Arkansas and then south through Texas to the Gulf of Mexico. I find it very interesting that despite hearing rumors of gold in North Carolina and Georgia during the early parts of his trip he continued west.
The only other early explorer to have come close to finding gold in North America was Francisco Vasquez de Coronado. Coronado had been successful as a regional governor of Nueva Galicia (what is now Jalisco, Nayarit, and Sinaloa in present-day Mexico) before his 1540 expedition in search of Cibola, known as one of the Seven Cities of Gold. A prior exploration by Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca reported vast riches to the north. In February 1540, the group of 300 Spaniards and 1,000 Native Americans departed Compostela in Nueva Galicia with Coronado in charge. He was funded in part by Antonio de Mendoza, the Spanish Viceroy.
Coronado’s searches were far-flung. His group would eventually travel all over the American Southwest and even up into what would become Kansas. The original party took four months to travel to Cibola. Once there they found only a Zuni pueblo town called Hawikah in what would become New Mexico. Interestingly, the seven cities of Cibola described were a string of Indian settlements built near what is now west-central New Mexico by Zuni pueblo tribes, including Hawikah.
Further explorations into the region included one by Garcia Lopez de Cardenas (part of a smaller Coronado party), who became the first European to sight the Grand Canyon and Colorado River in present-day Arizona. Another small party, led by Pedro de Tovar, traveled to the Colorado Plateau, where gold was found a couple of hundred years later.
After his reunited party wintered on the Rio Grande at Kuana (present-day Santa Fe) in 1540-41, they encountered several clashes with local tribes and moved east into Palo Duro Canyon in Texas. Coronado then led a small group north to what is now Quivira, Kansas, where the rumored store of riches turned out to be another Native American village. Coronado, like de Soto, had been on top of gold in Colorado yet failed to find it.
Coronado returned to Mexico in 1542, but his expedition’s failures had damaged his reputation and his partner opened two separate investigations into Coronado’s conduct as leader. He was cleared of all charges, but in 1544 he was removed from his governorship. Coronado spent his last 10 years as a city councilman in Mexico City.
The First U.S. Gold Rush
There are no other documented gold-find rumors in the continental United States until the late 1790s when reports of small gold discoveries began appearing in the Appalachian Mountains. For a couple of centuries, dozens of well-financed expeditions had been funded to the “New World” in search of mainly gold. All failed.
Much has been written about the California and Alaska gold rushes. Even the smaller Dakota and Nevada gold strikes are more well-known than the first gold strikes in the United States in mainly North Carolina and Georgia. Arguably, part of the lack of information on the early Gold Belt mining operations is due to the period itself and the smaller but numerous widespread mines often worked by individual farmers once the growing season was through. While there were (and still are today) also gold finds in Virginia, South Carolina, and Alabama that are peripheral to the Gold Belt, the major gold-bearing areas roughly parallel the Atlantic Coast running southwest to Northeast from northern Georgia up into western North Carolina.
Indeed, when the first gold rush occurred in the U.S. there was very little rush!
In 1799, 12-year-old Conrad Reed found a 17-pound gold nugget while fishing in Little Meadow Creek (Carrabus County, North Carolina). He carried the 17-pound “rock” home and until 1802 it served as nothing more than a doorstop. In 1802, Conrad’s father John sold it to a local jeweler (who recognized it as gold) for $3.50. The price he quoted reflected the value of a week’s pay for a farm laborer at the time. No rush, it sat on the floor for three years!
In part two of this four-part series, I will discuss the North Carolina and Georgia Gold Belt, the mining years, and both the Reid and Bechtler private mints.
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