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John Reed’s Doorstop: America’s First Gold Rush Was Not in California

Most people have heard of the 49ers and the California Gold Rush. Few are aware that there was an American Gold Rush before the 49ers. This rush took place in the Southeastern U.S., primarily in  North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, with additional production and activity in Virginia and Alabama.

It all started on a Sunday in 1799 when 12-year-old Conrad Reed and some of his siblings were shooting fish with a bow and arrow in Little Meadow Creek, Cabarrus County, North Carolina. Conrad saw something gleaming in the creek and found a shiny rock which he took home to his father, who used it as a doorstop for the next three years. In 1802, John Reed sold his doorstop to a jeweler for $3.50. It turned out to be a 17 pound gold nugget that was worth roughly $4,000 at the price of $20.67 per ounce of gold and about $240,000 at today’s gold prices. About a year later, John Reed started mining on the property and continued to do so for several decades. The largest documented nugget from the Reed Mine was 28 pounds.

The news of Reed’s gold spread slowly but generated a substantial gold rush in the southeastern U.S. It is unlikely that the Reed gold discovery was the first southern gold discovery; mint records and other sources indicate gold was sold from the region before 1802. But the Reed discovery generated the first documented regional activity and North Carolina was the largest gold producing state in the U.S. until the 1849 rush. The mine is now a state historic site.

Stamp Mills at the Reed Gold Mine in North Carolina. The mill crushed gold ore into a sand-like consistency for processing.
Stamp Mills at the Reed Gold Mine in North Carolina. The mill crushed gold ore into a sand-like consistency for processing.

A number of writers and historians have erroneously credited this as the first documented gold found in the US. The earliest gold reported was actually by Thomas Jefferson in 1782. He recorded a gold-bearing rock weighing four pounds and containing about 17 penny weight (0.85 oz.) of gold from the north side of the Rappahannock River about four miles below the falls. This is near the present day town of Stafford, Virginia

Gold has been intermittently mined from the Southeastern U.S. ever since the 1799 Conrad Reed discovery. Most recently gold was mined from the state of South Carolina from a number of mines at Barite Hill, Brewer, Haile and Ridgeway. The Haile Mine, which was discovered in 1828, has had numerous episodes of production which were interrupted by historic events, including Sherman’s March to the Sea during the Civil War, a boiler explosion that killed mine manager Earnest Thies in 1908, and the WWII War Production Board Order L-402 closing all U.S. gold mines. This particular history is typical of the mines and gold mining activity in the Southeast.

Canadian junior Romarco Minerals purchased the Haile property in 2007 and began development and permitting. In 2015, Romarco was purchased by Australia-based OceanaGold (ASX:OGC). Gold production at the Haile Mine began in October 2017, with 137,413 oz gold produced in 2020. As of 2021, the reserve and resource estimate includes Proven and Probable reserves of 2.84 Moz, Measured and indicated resources of 3.18 Moz, and Inferred resources of 1.11 Moz. The estimated life of mine is 12 years. OceanaGold is currently exploring the area and looking to expand the mine. For a detailed overview of the Haile Mine, click here.

The mine is located in the Carolina Slate Belt, a collection of sedimentary and volcanic rocks formed in an island arc environment from 650-500 million years ago. The rocks were metamorphosed during the collision of Africa and North America about 500 million years ago. The gold is associated with pyrite (iron sulfide) and molybdenite (molybdenum sulfide) with minor silver, copper and zinc. For a detailed overview of the Haile Mine, click here.

Map of Southeastern Gold Belt Mines including the former Haile Mine being developed by Romarco.
Map of Southeastern Gold Belt Mines including the former Haile Mine being developed by Romarco.

Other Important Mines in the Southeast

There are more than 300 documented gold mines in the southeastern U.S. Some of the more important mines include:

Ridgeway

Kennecott Minerals operated the Ridgeway open-pit gold mine in South Carolina from 1988 to 1999. This mine reportedly produced about two million ounces of gold. Quite unusual given the Slate Belt’s long history of gold mining, this was a total grassroots discovery in an area where there was no past record of gold activity. This mine was undoubtedly the largest single producer in the Southeast until its closure.

Portis

This is one of the classic producers of the Eastern Slate Belt of North Carolina and had production via early placer mining, hydraulic mining and milling of residual quartz and some open pit mining. This mine is usually credited with a production in excess of $3 million (more than 150,000 ounces) prior to 1900. There is a very interesting story as to the discovery of gold here. According to early writers, a traveler staying with the family that owned the property saw gold in the mud chinking between the logs in the log cabin where he spent the night.

Morrow

This mine is located in Buckingham County, Virginia, and had a substantial stamp mill and steady operation before the Civil War. It was the site of the discovery of a nine pound gold nugget during the depression. This nugget is said to be in the Smithsonian today.

Further Reading

  • John Reed’s Gold Mine (website)
  • USGS – Gold Deposits of the Carolina Slate Belt (PDF)
  • OceanaGold’s Haile Gold Mine (website)
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James E. Bond

James E. Bond is an attorney, prospector, mining executive and mineral land consultant with more than 40 years experience in the mining sector. Mr. Bond has also been active in exploration, acquisition and evaluation of precious and base metal properties in the U.S. and Canada. He has actively prospected for gold, base metals, and the PGEs in many parts of North America. He is currently actively engaged in consulting and advisory efforts for a number of publicly listed junior exploration companies both in gold and in base metals. Mr. Bond’s hard rock and metal prospecting activities have resulted in the confirmation of significant PGE and nickel-copper-cobalt mineralization at Samuels Lake, gold and copper at Minnitaki Lake, and copper, nickel and PGE at Rainy Lake in the Province of Ontario. These projects were or are now controlled by publicly traded companies and have all had significant exploration and core drilling. In addition over the last few years he has been actively involved in the acquisition of additional coal, platinum, gold and base metal properties by a number of other private and public mining companies. He has actively vended numerous mining properties in the province of Ontario, Canada which have been, or are now, the subject of significant exploration and drilling. In addition to his coal and related activities in the US Mr. Bond has been actively involved with Gold, Base Metal and industrial mineral properties in a number of states in the US including Arizona, Nevada, Wyoming, Colorado, Minnesota, North and South Carolina and Virginia. Mr. Bond was awarded his permanent Ontario prospectors licence in 2004

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