Saturday, October 8, 2016

Fool's Gold Rush

I have always been a geology geek.  I have been reading geology books since shortly after I finished all of the Hardy Boys series.  As a kid, I talked about rocks with everyone who would listen.  And with many who fooled me into thinking they were listening.

I still fall into that trap from time to time.

So when I was in Brasil, in the middle of one of the largest deltas in the world (which means NO ROCKS), I had to get all of my .  And one day when we were visiting the metropolis of Belem, my dad introduced me to a geologist from the local university.

He did this to feed my curious soul, but also in some small measure, I suspect, to get a break from trying to bluff his way past an irritatingly insistent 9-year old.

The geologist was wonderful, and spoke English to me, answering questions and talking story about some research.  It was my first time talking with an academic, and I loved it.  At the end of the conversation, he gave me a small piece of translucent, red amber-like material.  He explained that it was volcanic glass, and told me a little about how it was formed.  (Now that I have worked with obsidian for about twenty years, I have my doubts that the piece he gave me was obsidian).

But a story that he told Dad fascinated me.  This was the late 70s, and a gold rush had started in the state of Brasil where we lived, Para.  There were stories of men who found large nuggets.  LARGE nuggets.  Like 40 pounds and more.  When a particularly large nugget was found, the government confiscated it for the Banco Central Museum. Without paying the miners for the find. After that point, all largish nuggets had shovel marks on four sides.

The geologist acknowledged the stories about the gold rush, but said that a colleague of his had actually been involved early on, and had been given a large nugget.  Thinking that it was a piece of fools gold, he used it as a doorstop for ears, until a member of the geology faculty asked if he could test it.

Once it was recognized as real gold, it triggered a gold rush as everyone went to cash in on the mine.

I have repeated the story through the years.  It is one of my favorites, and I love getting to try and re-capture the excitement and wonder of that little boy, thrilled to be talking to someone who knew everything about a subject.

So this morning, when I read an article from Blanchard on the Reed Gold Mine, located somewhat north of  some very notable locations in North Carolina: (Frog Pond and Locust), I smiled in memory of the first time I heard about a gold mine from someone who had some first hand experience with it.

And yet, as I read further, the story sounded awfully familiar.

The story is of the first gold rush in the United States, dating back to 1799.  A kid by the name of Conrad Reed skipped church to go fishing, and found a yellow rock.  He gave it to his dad, John, who didn't know what it was, and used the 17-pound hunk of metal as a doorstop.  He asked a local silversmith (note that his specialty was, well, SILVER) and the guy just didn't know whether it was gold or not.

Eventually, three years later, John showed it to a jeweler in Fayetteville who knew what it was, and melted it down to a gold bar 8" long.  And then offered to buy it.

Since spot gold prices were not available on the internet yet, Mr. Reed asked the princely sum of $3.50.

He got it.  That much gold was worth about $3600 at that time, so the jeweler made some money off the trade.

This discovery led to a frenzy of activity, as gold mines were quickly opened across NC, and the first gold rush was born, eventually leading to the opening of only the second US mint in existence in Charlotte (which kept the risks of theft during travel to Philadelphia to a minimum).
Gold $1 piece, minted in Charlotte.  (C is on the obverse, center bottom)

I read the story with great glee, realizing that what the geologist had told me almost 40 years ago, in the middle of the Amazonian rainforest in Brasil, was an urban legend that had been modified from a real story from Appalachian history.

I see a trip to Frog Pond in my future.  Anyone want to go with me?


Bruce Baker said...

Sounds like fun! I wonder if the Conrad Reed story is itself a folktale copied from somewhere else. There's a little bit of gold at a couple spots in the hills above where I live:

Crorey Lawton said...

Bruce, I wondered the same thing. I love the folk tale equivalent of the troubadour, reselling the tale to fill the needs of far-flung communities.