In 1799, a child fishing in a North Carolina creek found an enormous piece of gold that eventually sparked a big hunt for more
The most commonly known American gold craze was the California Gold Rush, when people started racing west to mine after a rich streak was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in Columa. From 1848–1855, approximately 300,000 people came to California to look for gold. Some found what they were looking for. Many more did not. However, it served to quickly build up the population and infrastructure of what became the 31st State in the union in 1850.
The California Gold Rush may be what most people think of when discussing gold in the United States, but it was actually decades after the first real boom, which occurred on the other side of the country.
In 1799, Conrad Reed, the 12-year-old son of a former Hessian soldier named John Reed, (he Americanized his name from Johannes Reidt) who deserted from the British army during the American Revolution, lived on the family farm in Little Meadow Creek, North Carolina. One day, while fishing in the creek, he found a large and unusually colored rock. Weighing in at 17 pounds, the child lugged it home as a new bauble. For the next three years, it served as a door prop at the home.
In 1802, John, who had finally gotten curious about what his son found, brought the rock to a local jeweler. He determined that it was in fact an enormous gold nugget. Asking permission to hold on to it temporarily so he could refine the gold, when the farmer returned he was presented with an eight-inch long gold bar that had been made. Salivating at the opportunity, the jeweler asked John Reed how much he wanted to have it taken off his hands. The farmer, who was ignorant to the market value of gold, gave his pie in the sky answer of $3.50, which was the rough equivalent of one week’s worth of wages and about $95 in modern value. It was actually worth closer to $3,600 at the time, or just under $100,000 in today’s money. Unsurprisingly, the jeweler jumped at accepting the lowball offer.
Once word got out about the enormity of the find, Reed began understanding how much money he missed out on. In 1803, he opened a small gold mining business on his land while others in the area began searching for gold in earnest. It wasn’t long before a slave named Peter came upon a 28-pound nugget (which is still the largest piece of gold ever reported to be found east of the Mississippi River), stoking the fires of treasure lust all the more.
John Reed’s mining operation was initially panning in the creek bed, but eventually moved to working underground. Despite the rudimentary nature of the mine, for years it was the largest gold operation in the country. He never found any nuggets the size his son brought home, but did well enough that when he died in 1845 he was a wealthy man. By 1824, the mine had racked up more than $2 million in sales from gold found on the property. The last large gold find on the property was in 1896, when a man named Jake Shinn found a 22-pound nugget that he wound up selling for $4,800 (a little over $165,000 in modern money).
Gold mining continued to flourish in North Carolina until the Civil War served to tamp it down due to a shortage of manpower. However, so much gold was found during the 19th century in North Carolina that the Charlotte Mint was built to handle all the volume. The Reed Mine is long out of business as a commercial mining operation, but still open as a historical site and museum. Between April and October each year, visitors can still pan for gold themselves at the price of $3.21 per pan.
While history most frequently recalls the ‘49ers of California when it comes to the first American gold rush, it in truth started nearly 50 years earlier on the east coast after a boy brought home something he thought looked interesting. That single innocent action helped spur a major movement to mine gold in North Carolina and helped build a family fortune in the process.