By Victor Bozarth for PCGS ……
In part one of this series, I discussed the early European explorers who, despite numerous attempts, never located any gold in the United States. As we learned, from 1492 through 1799, there was no substantial gold find in the continental U.S.
In part two, I am detailing the early North Carolina finds starting in 1799, the evolution of mining techniques, and Georgia finds in 1828. I am also going to describe the growth of the Southeastern United States and the encroachment on Native American lands by white settlers. Integral to the story from this period are the actions of Andrew Jackson, who was inaugurated president in January 1829.
The Potato Patch
In 1539, Hernando de Soto had been told by several different Cherokee peoples he encountered that there was gold in Georgia and North Carolina. The de Soto party had done a huge loop directly through the middle of Georgia, from Florida north up into North Carolina, turning back south all while being directly on top of the Gold Belt. Despite these reports from the native peoples, de Soto chose to turn right and trek almost straight west on a route that took him ever further from the gold!
John Reed (actually, Johannes Reith) was a Hessian soldier who left the British Army toward the end of the Revolutionary War. Hessian soldiers were German mercenaries paid to fight for the British. This wasn’t uncommon and many of our early citizens “saw the light”, as it were, and became Americans. John settled in the lower Piedmont region of North Carolina near others of German descent.
During this period virtually all U.S. citizens were small family farmers raising corn and wheat. The general populace was almost entirely agrarian, although the gold finds would change that demographic scene significantly over the next five decades. When Reed’s 12-year-old son Conrad found a 17-pound nugget while fishing in Little Meadow Creek on their property in 1799, nothing happened. The nugget used as a doorstop was finally sold in 1802 to a local jeweler who recognized it as gold. Whether Reed realized what he had prior to his sale of this 17-pound nugget for only $3.50 is questionable. He did partner with Federick Kisor, James Love, and Martin Phifer later in 1802.
In 1803, their mine in Carrabus County, North Carolina, produced a 28-pound nugget and the actual North Carolina gold rush was on. Unlike the earlier find, this nugget generated publicity more widely. This particular area of the Gold Belt generated numerous large nugget finds in the area surrounding Little Meadow Creek. The area became known as “The Potato Patch” because nuggets could be dug from the ground like potatoes!
News spread via regional newspapers, and most landowners across the area began to search. Almost all the mining in the region up until about 1820 was surface mining conducted by farmers at the end of the harvest using placer mining in streams. The techniques were crude and dependent on gold close to the surface.
Mining in the region continued to expand in the 1820s when lode mine shaft digging (requiring professional miners) began. The first shaft was excavated in 1825 pursuing a gold-containing quartz vein. Reed and his partners’ early mining operation, despite using very crude techniques and only mining during non-farming months, produced an estimated $100,000 in gold.
Skilled miners, many Cornishmen from England, joined those hunting for gold. These professional miners’ more complicated methods took time to develop. It wasn’t until 1831 that underground work began at the Reed mine. By 1831 a significant portion of the region’s population was involved in mining.
When gold was discovered near Dahlonega, Georgia, in 1828 there was a marked shift from the North Carolina mines to the new strikes. This slow exodus over several years also marked the slowing of production at the older North Carolina mines. Indeed, the Reed mine was closed due to a court injunction for 10 years starting in 1831. John Reed passed in 1845 as a wealthy man. His mine operated under different owners up until 1911, but the last large nugget, a 23-pounder, was found in 1896.
During the three decades of North Carolina gold mining from 1802 to 1831 there were national and regional events occurring that would shape and direct the future. The most instrumental figure to emerge in the early 19th century from the region was Andrew Jackson. Legislation he backed forced the Cherokee and other members of the Five Tribes off their lands (guaranteed by earlier U.S. treaties) in the Southeast – especially in the Gold Belt. Over the next 10 years, five forced migrations moved the Cherokee west of the Mississippi River and eventually to Oklahoma. The last of these horrid expulsions is often called the Trail of Tears.
From the time of the first Gold Belt finds, there had been a need for coins. Jewelers, assayers, and metallurgists were few and far between in the region. The rub with raw gold has always been the question of weight and fineness. Only after an accurate assay did you know for sure what you had.
American society itself was still predominantly agrarian. The sheer difficulty of travel in the region also complicated matters. As an example, the distance between Charlotte and Dahlonega is just 218 miles. If you map the route today it will show you it’s roughly a four-hour drive by highway. At best, travel in the region in the early 19th century would have been measured in days and possibly weeks. The area was remote and getting any gold out of the area would have been an issue, too.
Production in Philadelphia was sporadic at best. With the problems of distance added, little gold coinage ever reached the area. The need for coins was real. Entrepreneurs recognized this need, and the first territorial gold coins were struck in 1830 and 1831 from two different private coiners.
The first territorial gold coins struck in the United States were produced with Gold Belt bullion by Templeton Reid in Milledgeville, Georgia, in July 1830. Shortly after, he moved his operation to Gainesville, Georgia, to be closer to the existing mines. Although a talented gunsmith and jeweler, his efforts were vilified in the press. A total of only 1,600 coins were struck in three denominations. While his weights were accurate, his assays were not, resulting in slightly light coins. Confidence was lost and Reid ceased operations before the end of October that same year.
Reid made gold coins in 1830 in denominations of $2.50, $5, and two different $10 designs, one of which is not dated. PCGS has graded examples of the three dated denominations, but none of the “no date” $10 coins have been graded (although three are known). PCGS has certified 18 examples of the $2.5, with just three of the $5 and only one of the dated $10 design. Reid was a businessman and later manufactured cotton gins.
Reid’s later California issues were dated 1849. Although they bear the 1849 date, nobody is certain when the coins were made. Reid was making cotton gins by then, he never went to California, and he died in 1851. Only one of each of the $10 and $25 denomination coins is known to exist. The only 1849 Reid $10 is housed in the Smithsonian. The only known example of the 1849 Reid $25 was stolen from the U.S. Mint Cabinet on August 16, 1858, and has never been recovered.
The father-and-son team of Christian and Augustus Bechtler made coins starting in 1830 and continuing through 1857, and these coins were very well accepted by the public. Christian Bechtler, the father, was a skilled German metallurgist who operated a mint in Rutherford County, North Carolina, which is part of the Piedmont Region of both North Carolina and Georgia. The Charlotte, Dahlonega, and New Orleans Mints all opened in 1838. Despite the opening of these mints and the death of his father, Augustus Bechtler, Christian’s son, continued making coins for another two decades because of their widespread acceptance.
Several major events occurred during the final years of the 1820s. In 1828, gold was discovered near Dahlonega, Georgia. In March 1829, Andrew Jackson was inaugurated as the seventh U.S. president. In 1830, Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act. Despite a Supreme Court ruling upholding previous treaties, Georgia defied the federal government and extended the state’s jurisdiction to about nine million acres of land occupied by the Cherokee. Jackson made no attempt to restrain Georgia and was said to have privately declared about then-Chief Justice John Marshall: “He has made his decision, let him enforce it!”
All three of these events will be key in part three of this four-part series on why the Charlotte and Dahlonega Mints were built. I will expand the discussion on Jackson, the Indian Removal Act, the Trail of Tears, and the eventual establishment of the three new U.S. branch mints in Charlotte, Dahlonega, and New Orleans. I will also discuss further the Bechtler coin issues I touched on here in part two.
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