Dahlonega Georgia in 1848

Dahlonega, Georgia, April, 1848

The Cherokee word Dah-lon-e-ga signifies the place of yellow metal; and is now applied to a small hamlet at the foot of the Alleghany Mountains, in Lumpkin County, Georgia, which is reputed to be the wealthiest gold region in the United States. It is recorded of De Soto and his followers that, in the sixteenth century, they explored this entire Southern country in search of gold, and unquestionable evidences of their work have been discovered in various sections of the State. Among these testimonials may be mentioned the remains of an old furnace, and other works for mining, which have been brought to light by recent explorations. But the attention of our own people was first directed to this region while yet the Cherokees were in possession of the land, though the digging of gold was not made a regular business until after they had been politely banished by the General Government. As soon as the State of Georgia had become the rightful possessor of the soil (according to law), much contention and excitement arose among the people as to who should have the best opportunities for making fortunes; and, to settle all difficulties, it was decided by the State Legislature that the country should be surveyed and divided into lots of forty and one hundred and sixty acres, and distributed to the people by lottery. For several years subsequent to that period, deeds of wrong and outrage were practiced to a very great extent by profligate adventurers who flocked to this El Dorado. In the year 1838, however, the Government established a branch Mint at this place, since which time a much better state of things has existed in Dahlonega.

The appearance of this village, though not more than a dozen years old, is somewhat antiquated, owing to the fact that the houses are chiefly built of logs, and, having never been painted, are particularly dark and dingy, but uncommonly picturesque in form and location. The population of the place is about five hundred. It is located upon a hill, and though the country around is quite uneven, having been deeply ravined by atmospheric agents, when viewed in connection with the mountains, (some ten or fifteen miles off,) which seem to hem it on three sides, presents the appearance of a pit to a magnificent amphitheatre. On approaching Dahlonega I noticed that the water-courses had all been mutilated with the spade and pick-axe, and that their waters were of a deep yellow; and having explored the country since then, I find that such is the condition of all the streams within a circuit of many miles. Large brooks (and even an occasional river) have been turned into a new channel, and thereby deprived of their original beauty. And of all the hills in the vicinity of Dahlonega which I have visited, I have not yet seen one which is not actually riddled with shafts and tunnels. The soil is of a primitive character, quite yellowish in color, composed of sand and clay, and uncommonly easy to excavate with the spade. Heretofore the gold ore of Lumpkin County has been obtained from what is called the deposit beds, but the miners are now beginning to direct their attention to the veined ore, which is supposed to be very abundant in all directions. It is generally found in quartz and a species of slate stone. The gold region of Georgia, strictly speaking, is confined to a broad belt, which runs in a northeastern and southwestern direction from Dahlonega, which may be considered its centre. Several auriferous veins traverse the town, and it is common after a rain to see the inhabitants busily engaged in hunting for gold in the streets. That huge quantities are thus accumulated in these days I am not ready to believe, whatever may have been done in former years. I know not that any very remarkable specimens of gold ore have been found in the immediate vicinity of Dahlonega, but an idea of the wealth of the State in this particular may be gathered from the fact, that several lumps have heretofore been found in different sections, which were worth from five hundred to one thousand dollars. More valuable specimens have been found in North Carolina; but while Virginia, the Carolinas, and Alabama have all produced a goodly amount of gold, I have heard it conceded that Georgia has produced the largest quantity and decidedly the best quality.

And now with regard to the fortunes that have been made in this region. They are very few and far between. But, by way of illustration, I will give two or three incidents which have come to my knowledge. In passing, however, I may repeat the remark made to me by an intelligent gentleman, that the expenses of digging out the gold in this section of country have ever exceeded the gain by about one hundred per cent. Immense amounts of labor as well as money have been expended, and, generally speaking, the condition of the people has not been improved; the very wealth of the country has caused the ruin of many individuals. The following story is a matter of popular history. After the State Legislature had divided the Cherokee Purchase into lots and regularly numbered them, it was rumored about the country that lot No. 1052 was a great prize, and everybody was on tiptoe with regard to its distribution by the proposed lottery. At that time 1052 figured in the dreams of every Georgian, and those figures were then far more popular than the figures 54 40 have been in these latter days. Among the more crazy individuals who attended the lottery was one Mosely, who had determined either to draw the much talked of prize or purchase it of the winner, even though it should be at the cost of his entire property, which was quite large. The drawing took place, and 1052 came into the possession of a poor farmer named Ellison. Mosely immediately mounted his horse and hastened to Ellison‘s farm, where he found the child of fortune following his plough. The would-be purchaser made known the object of his visit, and Ellison only laughed at the impetuosity of his impatient friend. Ellison said he was not anxious to sell the lot, but if Mosely must have it, he might have it for $30,000. Mosely acceded to the terms, and in paying for the lot sacrificed most of his landed and personal property. The little property which was left him he was compelled to employ in working his mines; he labored with great diligence for several years, but he could never make both ends meet, for his mines were not at all distinguished for their richness. In process of time he was compelled to sell 1052 for what it would bring, and having squandered that remnant of his former wealth, he left the country for parts unknown, a veritable beggar. But, what is more singular than all, the present proprietor of 1052 is that identical man Ellison, who is annually realizing a handsome sum of money from the newly-discovered gold ore found in the bowels of his lottery lot.

Another instance of good fortune, unattended with any alloy, is as follows: Five years ago a couple of brothers, who were at work upon the Georgia railroad, took it into their heads to visit Dahlonega and try their luck in the mining business. They were hardworking Irishmen, and understood the science of digging to perfection. They leased one or two lots in this vicinity, and are now reputed to be worth $15,000.

And now that it has come into my mind, I will mention another lottery anecdote, which was related to me by an old resident. By way of introduction, however, I ought here to mention that this region is famous for the number and size of its rattlesnakes, and that our hero had an utter abhorrence of the reptile. Among those who obtained prizes at the great drawing, before alluded to, was an individual from the southern part of the State, who drew a lot in this vicinity. In process of time he came to the north to explore his property, and had called at the house of a farmer near his land, for the purpose of obtaining a guide. In conversing with the farmer, he took occasion to express his dislike to the rattlesnake; whereupon the farmer concluded that he would attempt a speculation. Remembering that in going to the stranger’s land he might (if he chose to do so) pass through an out-of-the-way ravine which abounded in the dreaded snake, the farmer beckoned to the stranger, and they took their way towards the ravine. After they had arrived at the spot, hardly a rod did the pedestrians pass without hearing the hiss of a snake or seeing its fiery tongue and the stranger was as completely frightened as anyone could possibly be by a similar cause. In his despair he turned to his companion and said:

“Are snakes as plenty as this all over the country?”

“I can’t say about that, stranger, but one of my neighbors killed about a hundred last year, and I’ve hearn tell that your land is very rich in snakes.”

“Now I ain’t a going any further in this infernal region, and I want to know if you have a horse that you’ll give me for my land – gold ore, snakes, and all.”

“I have, and a first-rate horse too.”

“It’s a bargain.”

On the following morning, the stranger, like the hero of a novel, might be seen mounted on a Dahlonega steed, pursuing his devious pathway along a lonely road towards the south pole.

Of the uncounted gold mines which are found in this region, the most fruitful at the present times lies about twenty-five miles from here, in a northerly direction, and is the property of Mr. Lorenzo Dow Smith. And the success which has ever attended Lorenzo is worth recording. In a conversation that I had with him in this place, where he is now staying, I remarked that I should like to embody his history in a paragraph of my note-book, and he replied to me as follows:

“I was born in Vermont; I came into this Southern country twenty-four years ago as a clock peddler, where I drove a good business. I used to spend my summers among the mountains of the Cherokee country, partly for the purpose of keeping away from the fever, and partly with a view of living over again the days of my boyhood, which were spent among the Green Mountains. I made some money, and when the gold fever commenced I took it and went to speculating in gold lots, though I spent many years without finding lots of gold! I associated with bear hunters, and explored every corner and stream of this great mountain land, away to the north, and have seen more glorious scenery than any other live man. I’m forty years old, unmarried, love good liquor, and go in for having fun. ‘Bout four years ago, it came into my thinking mug that there must be plenty of gold in the bed of Coosa creek, which runs into Coosa River. I traded for a lot there, and went to work. I found a deposit, gave up work, and went to leasing small sections, which are now worked by a good many men, and give me a decent living. I have had all sorts of luck in my day – good luck and bad luck. When I’m prosperous I always hope to be more prosperous still, and when I have bad luck, I always wish for worse luck – if it’ll only come. I never allow myself to be disappointed. The longer I live the more anxious am I to do some good to my fellowmen. I’ve passed the blossom of my life, and I don’t expect to live many years longer; I haven’t lived as I ought to have lived, but I hope it’ll be well with me when I come to take my final sleep. But enough. I’m going out to my mine on a visit tomorrow, and if you’ll go with me, I’ll show you some real Vermont trout, and mountain peaks which would shame the camel’s hump of old Yankee land.”

I did not accept Lorenzo’s tempting invitation, but I made up my mind that he was an original. Some of the scenery to which he alluded I shall visit in due time.

In former times, as before intimated, the miners of this region were mostly foreigners, and an abandoned race, but the principal deposits and veins are now worked by native Georgians, who are a very respectable class of people – Among them are many young men, who labor hard and are intelligent. The dangers of mining in this region are rather uncommon, owing principally to the lightness of the soil. Many of the accidents which occur, however, are the result of carelessness; and the most melancholy one I have heard of is as follows: A man named Hunt, together with his son and another man named Smith, were digging for gold on the side of a neighboring hill. At the end of a tunnel, which was some thirty feet long, they excavated a large cave or hall, which they had neglected to support in the usual manner. They apprehended no danger, but were told by a neighbor that their conduct was imprudent. The elder Hunt thought he would be on the safe side and on a certain afternoon went into the woods to cut the necessary timber, while his son and Smith continued their labors in the cave. Night came on, and the father, having accomplished his task, retired to his home. On taking his seat at the supper table it came into his mind that his son and Smith were somewhat later in coming home than usual. He waited awhile, but becoming impatient set out for the cave, and, on reaching it, to his utter astonishment and horror, he found that the roof of the cave had fallen in. The alarm was given, and the whole village was assembled to extricate the unfortunate miners, and by the aid of orches the bodies were recovered. The boy was found in a running attitude, as if overtaken while endeavoring to escape, and the man Smith was found clinging to a single post, which had been vainly used to prop the ceiling of the cave.

With regard to the means employed by the miners I have but one word to say. The deposit gold is extracted from the gravel by means of a simple machine called a rocker, which merely shifts and washes out the metal. The vein gold is brought to light by means of what is called a pounding mill, which reduces the rock to the consistency of sand, when the ore is separated by the use of quick-silver. In this particular department of their business the Dahlonega miners confess themselves to be comparatively ignorant; and what proves this to be the case is the fact, that some of their ore has frequently been worked over a second time with considerable profit.

But the prominent attraction of Dahlonega, I have not yet touched upon – I allude to the Mint Establishment. The building itself, which is quite large, has a commanding appearance. It was erected in 1837, at an expense of $70,000, and the machinery which it contains cost #30,000. It is built of brick, but stuccoed so as to resemble stone. It gives employment to nine men, who receive for their services, collectively, the sum of f 12,000. The Superintendent, who also acts as Treasurer, is J. F. Cooper, (son, by the way, of the famous actor of that name;) the Coiner is D. H. Mason, who has a very interesting cabinet of minerals, and the Assayer is J. L. Todd. The Dahlonega Branch Mint and the one located at Charlottsville, North Carolina, are the only ones in the United States which coin the gold on the very spot where it is found. The New Orleans Branch, as well as the mother Mint in Philadelphia, are chiefly occupied with foreign ores. Of the two first mentioned, Dahlonega has thus far been the most successful, the coinage in one year having amounted to $600,000. At the present time, however, the business of this Mint is said to be on the wane. The coinage of the three branch Mints mentioned above is uniform with that of the mother Mint, and it is all systematically tested there for approval. It thus appears that the whole establishment is a branch of the Treasury Department of the United States, and under the supervision of the Secretary of the Treasury, and an account of the progress and condition of the bureau is annually given to Congress.

The smallest amount of gold ore received at the Dahlonega Mint by law has to be worth one hundred dollars. When the miner has obtained a sufficient amount, he takes it to the Mint and delivers it to the Superintendent. That officer takes an account of it, and passes it over to the Assayer, who fixes its value, when the miner receives the allotted sum of money. The operation of coining is per-formed by the power of steam, and may be briefly described by the words rolling, drawing, cutting, and stamping. Some of the Dahlonega gold is said to be as pure as any in the world, but it is commonly alloyed with silver. One or two specimens were shown me, which were just one half silver: and yet it is said that silver ore is nowhere found in this section of country. The value of pure gold is one dollar per pennyweight: and I have learned since I came here that every genuine American eagle is made by law to contain one-twentieth of silver and one-twentieth of copper. The word bullion, which we hear so often mentioned among commercial men, is a misnomer, for it is legitimately applied only to unwrought gold, washed grains or gold dust, amalgamated cakes and balls, and melted bars and cakes; and the word ingot is applied to a bar of gold, which may-be manufactured into two hundred half eagles, or one thousand dollars. To give a scientific account of what I have seen in the Dahlonega Mint would probably please my scientific readers, but, as I am not writing for them, they must excuse me. “What is writ, is writ; would it were worthier!”

Gold Rush, History,

Lanman, Charles. Letters from the Alleghany Mountains. New York: Geo. P. Putnam, 155 Broadway. 1849.

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