The First American Gold Rush

A little while ago, we went up to the North Georgia mountains to explore the trails and wineries, but also to visit Dahlonega, which is where the first American Gold Rush took place. I’ve been wanting to write about it and its history for a long while, finally sitting down to put the finishing touches to it now. 

Twenty years before the rush out west to California, speculators and opportunists made their way to lands belonging to the Cherokee Nation, an area which was home to the largest gold deposits east of the Mississippi River.

The name Dahlonega comes from the Cherokee word ‘dalanigei’, meaning ‘yellow money’. So today I wanted to take a little trip up the mountains to talk about the Gold Rush, and how it became one of the reasons for the removal of the Cherokee in 1838, leading to the shocking events of the Trail of Tears.

Discovering the gold

There are a few different claims to being the first person to discover that this area was full of gold deposits.

The most widely accepted story is that of deer hunter Benjamin Parks, who, on October 27th, 1828, literally tripped over a huge rock about two and a half miles south of what is now Dahlonega. When he bent down to look at the rock, he realised that it was absolutely full of gold.

Within a year, some fifteen thousand miners rushed to the area (which included other towns such as Auraria), bringing all the chaos of the quick population boom: taverns, bar brawls, prostitutes, lawyers and more and more people joining to try their luck in making quick money through mining.

The Great Intrusion

The gold rush was known by the Cherokee groups as the Great Intrusion.

It has to be remembered that where the gold was found (and there was so much of it, it was lying just on top of the ground) was not land that belonged to the state of Georgia, but instead, most of the working mines were on Cherokee land. And in fact, as early as 1564, there are records of a French explorer observing Appalachia Indians panning for gold in this area.

In 1832, the state of Georgia seized the land from the Cherokee peoples without a treaty. It then became divided up through a “Gold Lottery”, with sections of land given to Georgia veterans and residents.

The US Supreme Court had actually ruled in 1832 in the cast Worcester vs. Georgia that the Cherokee were a sovereign nation, but President Andrew Jackson ignored this, and enforced the Indian Removal Act. This had followed Cherokee groups travelling throughout the states on speaking tours to lobby interest for their cause, including amassing more than fifteen thousand signatures on a petition against their removal from their land.

They also resisted removal through the creation of their own paper, The Cherokee Phoenix. It began publication in 1828 and was the first newspaper published by Native Americans in the US, as well as being the first published in a Native American language.

The Cherokee Phoenix - copy seen in Dahlonega Gold Museum
In the early nineteenth century, a written form of the Cherokee language was invented by a Cherokee man called Sequoyah. This copy of the Cherokee Phoenix is on show in the Dahlonega Gold Museum.

The Trail of Tears

So, in 1838, the same year that the US Mint recognised the importance of Dahlonega by opening a branch there (which eventually produced $6million in gold coins), the Cherokee were forced to leave their homes and walk what became known as the Trail of Tears as they were removed from their land to Indian Territory, now Oklahoma.

Cherokee groups were detained within stockades, with some remaining there for up to five months before they had to begin the walk of over a thousand miles. On the way, over four thousand Cherokee people died and were buried in unmarked graves: as a result of the Trail of Tears, a quarter of the Cherokee population was lost.

In what is now Oklahoma, they began to rebuild their nation: in 1839 passing an Act of Union, soon after ratifying a constitution, re-establishing an education system, newspaper and other support systems for the Cherokee people.

Dahlonega and the mining industry

In Dahlonega, mining continued in earnest, despite the cruelty of the clearances of Cherokee groups from their homeland.

The branch of the US mint in the town stayed open until it was seized by the Confederates in 1861.

Hydraulic mining became instituted as gold was found less and less just lying on the ground (figures when so many people flocked there to get the gold!).

In 1958, mule-drawn wagons took forty-three ounces of gold from Dahlonega to Atlanta for the dome of the Capitol building.

Today, mining still happens nearby, but not quite on the scale as it did during the first American Gold Rush…

Read more:

  • Find out more information about the Cherokee Removal and the Trail of Tears at the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian here and more on Indian Removal here.
  • Discover the story of the Cherokee nation at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian here.
  • Read more about modern gold miners in North Georgia in this article from Atlanta Magazine here.
  • And more on the North Georgia Gold Rush here.

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