Are Charlotte’s Streets Paved with Gold? Part I
Not exactly, but we’ll get to that later. Many people are familiar with the Reed Gold Mine in nearby Cabarrus County, where a large nugget of gold was discovered in 1799. This gold was discovered in a creek and was part of a slate belt that extended from Virginia through the Piedmont of North Carolina to Mississippi. Unlike what happened in California 50 years later, no big gold rush occurred in North Carolina at the time. The gold ore was found mostly on the surface.
When farm work eased up, farmers in the region went out to their creeks and fields and either panned for the gold, or retrieved it by digging shallow holes, called placer pits. Just a pan, a shovel, and a pick were necessary. Three years later, gold was discovered in Mecklenburg County near Rozelle’s Ferry, which crossed the Catawba River where present-day highway 16 crosses at Mountain Island Lake. According to the North Carolina Department of Conservation and Development’s 1936 bulletin, Gold Deposits in North Carolina, this gold occurred in the Carolina Igneous Belt, the second largest gold-bearing region in North Carolina, which ran just west of the slate belt.
Reportedly a gunsmith, who was deer hunting nearby in 1802, discovered rocks that seemed to have gold adhering to them and began gathering small quantities to use in decorating his guns. In 1805, the Dunn Mine was organized there; it was mined sporadically, sometimes with good results. That same year mining began at the Harris Mine, located on Clear Creek.
Things were to change when, in 1825, Matthias Barringer, a farmer in present-day Stanly County, found that gold often appeared in veins of white quartz. Instead of engaging in surface mining, it was now possible to dig shafts and tunnels deep into the earth, allowing miners to extract more ore. One drawback, however, was that surface mining was fairly inexpensive, and shaft mining, because of the extensive tunnelling and the requirement for more labor, was much more costly.
This marked the beginning of Charlotte’s gold rush. To fund their efforts, prospective mine owners needed to obtain both foreign capital and a large number of laborers, some of them from mining areas in Europe. The largest number of foreign miners came from Cornwall, where tin and copper mining had been going on for centuries. Others came from Italy, Portugal, Spain, and other parts of Great Britain.
Local people also worked in the mines, some of them enslaved people hired from local slave owners. In September 1835, John Penman published an ad in the Charlotte Journal offering to hire between 15 and 25 enslaved people to work in Charlotte area gold mines: “The highest price will be given for good hands; and those having some experience in the business will be preferred. Gentlemen having slaves whom they wish to hire advantageously, will please call on me.”
In addition, slaves from local plantations sometimes escaped to find more advantageous employment in the gold mines. In October 1833, Jeremiah Cureton of Lancaster District, South Carolina, placed an ad in Charlotte’s Miner’s and Farmer’s Journal offering $25 for the return of his “boy” Jeff. According to Cureton, Jeff may have run off with his friend John Underwood to the gold mining district near Charlotte, and Cureton suspected that they were working at different mines, “carrying off the ore after night and washing it when it best suits their convenience from being detected.”
Advertisements in other newspapers also included such notices. In January 1851, A.C. Sutton of York District placed an ad in the Hornet’s Nest seeking the return of a runaway slave named Joe, who he felt might be “lurking around…the neighborhood of Dunn’s Mine.” The following year the executor of James L. Davidson’s estate offered a $50 reward in the North Carolina Whig for the capture of Amos, who had been missing about a year. Apparently, Amos “had labored several years in the mines of this, and the adjoining counties, and is supposed to be, at this time, lurking in the vicinity of some of them.”
By 1829, three of the largest mining operations in and near Charlotte were up and running. The first was a mine later known as the St. Catherine Mine, located about a half mile from Charlotte’s boundaries at that time. According to the August 29, 1826 edition of the Charlotte Journal, “Another gold mine has been discovered, about half a mile from this town on the plantation of Maj. [Samuel] M’Comb. It promises to be more valuable than any which has yet been worked in this county…the gold lies in a vein of yellowish earth…its length and depth has not been ascertained.”
The nearby Rudisill Mine, also opened in 1826, was, in fact, the other end of the St. Catherine lode and was a half mile farther from Charlotte. According to the April 24, 1832 edition of the Miner’s and Farmer’s Journal, a man walking to work at St. Catherine noticed that the land at Rudisill’s Hill was similar to that around St. Catherine. According to the Journal, soon after the discovery “Dr. Sam’l. Henderson, the intelligent ‘Gold ‘Pioneer’ of Mecklenburg, began working it. Others also worked it, but it was eventually sold at a sheriff’s sale, and there was a dispute over the rights to the land. This was settled, and in 1831 Count Chevalier Vincent De Rivifinoli, a flamboyant Italian who represented a London mining firm, leased it for 35 years. These two mines, which now sit under downtown Charlotte, were the most profitable of the almost 90 gold mines located in Mecklenburg County.
Another prosperous early mine was the Capps Mine. In 1827, farmer James Capps discovered gold on his land off Beattie’s Ford Road, about five miles north of Charlotte. He leased it to foreign investors, and the mine became the most productive in Mecklenburg County. According to Gold Mines in Mecklenburg County (1936), information about early work there has been lost, but the ore was of “superior grade,” and “There is perhaps no vein in the whole section which shows such extensive prospecting on the surface, and bears all the appearance of having been highly remunerative.”
Older mines were rejuvenated by the new mining methods. In August 1829, the Raleigh Register and North-Carolina Gazette reported that “A new and very rich mine has been discovered on the plantation of Maj. Jonathan Harris, of Mecklenburg County. By the labor of four negroes, Major Harris realizes about a hundred dollars worth of gold daily.” Two years later Charlotte’s Miner’s and Farmer’s Journal reported on the “extraordinary yield of gold from a small quantity of ore” at Harris’ mine. Ore had been found in a new vein near the surface and guards had been posted to prevent the “illegal search for gold.”
Charlotte became a boomtown. According to a May 1829 article in the Raleigh Register and North-Carolina Gazette, “In the county of Mecklenburg alone, it is believed, the amount of Gold dug from the bowels of the earth, in each week, produces $2,000. And it is nothing uncommon for the merchants of the town of Charlotte, when they go on to make their purchases, to carry with them from 10-40 pounds of the precious metal. It can easily be imagined what life and activity is infused into every department of business, where the only Bank which is required to relieve the wants of the people is a bank of earth.”
Incorporation records and other information in Charlotte newspapers reveal the names of a number of other area gold mines and enterprises. Among these are the Alexander Mine (1828); an unnamed mine on the Morrison property (1831); the Washington Mining Company (1834); the Penman gold mining tract on Twelve Mile Creek, once owned by Sampson Wolf (1834); the Franklin Mine (1835); the Lewis Mine (pre-1835); American Gold Mining Co. (1836); the Smart mine (pre-1837); the Charlotte, Mecklenburg, and Long Creek mines (before 1838); Anglo-American Gold Association (pre-1839); and Hunter’s Mill, five miles north of Charlotte (pre-1841).
As mines came up for sale in the late 1830s, sale ads revealed the names of a number of other mines, including Claremont Place, Roger’s Hill, Clark, Sample, Blair, Elms, Jameson& Blake, and McGinn (adjoining the Capps Mine). Gold Mining in Mecklenburg County lists a number of others: Smith & Palmer (near the Rudisill Mill); Howell (southern extension of the Rudisill vein); Stephen Wilson (near the Capps Mine); Jane (near the Capps Mine); Means; Hopewell or Kerns (11 miles northwest of Charlotte); Henderson (seven miles north of Charlotte); Ferris (six miles north of Charlotte); Ray (nine and a half miles southeast of Charlotte); and Surface Hill (Clear Creek Township). A 1903 article in the Charlotte News mentions yet another Charlotte mine, the Chinquapin Mine in the northwestern part of the city, which “might be re-opened.”
News about gold mining began to appear regularly in local newspapers. The industry was so popular that a new paper, the Miner’s and Farmer’s Journal, was established in Charlotte. Local landowners began to put their land on sale, touting its potential for gold mining. In February 1831, Joseph Smith was selling his plantation on Sugar Creek, “immediately in the gold region.” According to Smith, there had been no real attempt at mining, but some gold had already been discovered, and there is “no doubt that [the land] is rich with that precious metal.”
In March of the following year, Sten. Fox announced he was auctioning off 100 acres of land near Charlotte “embracing a rich vein of Auriferous Ore, of more than a quarter of a mile in length. The vein has been exposed at various places and appears to be uniformly rich.” Included in the sale was “my Gold Mill, about one mile and three quarters from the Mine.”
Other mining news also appeared in the Journal. In the summer of 1831, A.M. Doret of New York, who was staying in Charlotte, offered his services assaying gold ore to determine the value of gold it contained. In March 1832, William Davidson and Samuel M’Combs proposed to the North Carolina legislature that they organize the Charlotte Gold Mining Company. In May 1834, the Journal bemoaned the fact that mining operators around Charlotte had been too “timid” and were confining themselves to deposit mines. They praised the efforts of Ware and Matthews in developing a vein mine.
Nancy Griffith lived in Davidson from 1979 until 1989. She is the author of numerous books and articles on Arkansas and South Carolina history. She is the author of "Ada Jenkins: The Heart of the Matter," a history of the Ada Jenkins school and center.