Gold Fever in Rabun County and Northeast Georgia: Muddy Creeks, 18 Pennyweights and Meager (or no) Profits

At one time, Rabun County was dotted with nearly 30 gold mines as prospectors hoped to strike it rich with the yellow metal. Unfortunately for the Rabun miners with dollar signs dancing in their heads, more money was put into the ground than ever taken out. However, that was not the case elsewhere in north Georgia.

The largest quantity of gold in the eastern U.S. was found in the Southeastern Gold Belt, stretching along the Appalachians from Virginia to eastern Alabama. The belt widens in the Georgia mountains, which proved to hold the most gold. The richest deposits were discovered in Lumpkin, White, and Cherokee counties. Regardless of where it was mined, most Georgia gold was nearly 100 percent pure at close to 24 carats.

As early as the mid-1500s, French explorers observed the Indians of Appalachia panning for gold in rivers and streams. Evidence exists that the Cherokee panned for gold along the Tallulah River in Rabun County. However, the indigenous population did not lavish the metal with the same fervor as their European trading partners and, years later, white settlers.

Gold Discovered in 1829

Legend has it that Benjamin Parks tripped over a small rock while deer hunting in 1829 and compared its color to that of an egg yolk. It was a gold nugget. More were unearthed on this piece of land, which was near present-day Dahlonega.

Word spread like wildfire about Parks’ find, unleashing the nation’s first gold rush, the Georgia Gold Rush of 1829. “They came afoot, on horseback and in wagons, acting more like crazy men than anything else,” Parks later recalled. Within a few months of finding that first gold nugget, 10,000 to 15,000 miners, the so-called ’29ers, swarmed the area to stake claims. Auraria was established at the center of this manic activity, quickly becoming a gold rush boomtown. Derived from the Latin word for gold, Auraria also was known as Scuffle Town and Knucklesville, courtesy of its saloons, brothels and conflicting claims.

Gold deposits soon were discovered several miles north of Auraria at a spot the Cherokee called Dalanigei, which roughly translates into gold. The Cherokee name soon was Anglicized to Dahlonega, which became the nation’s second roaring boomtown. Auraria, whose population and importance rapidly declined with the rise of Dahlonega, eventually disappeared into history as a ghost town.

U.S. Mint Opened Dahlonega Branch

So much gold was mined in this region that the U.S. mint opened a branch in Dahlonega in 1838. More than $100,000 of gold coins was minted in the branch’s first year of operation. By the time the branch closed in 1861 with the outbreak of the Civil War, nearly 1.5 million gold coins valued at more than $6 million had been minted.

There was a dark side to the Dahlonega gold rush. The Cherokee Nation owned much of the gold-bearing land in north Georgia. Gold whetted the appetite of white settlers for the remaining Cherokee land that had not been ceded to Georgia. Tensions between settlers and the Cherokee escalated, ultimately leading to the forced expulsion of the Cherokee from north Georgia during the winter of 1838-39 on the infamous Trail of Tears.

If gold was a contributing factor to the Trail of Tears, that reason was short-lived. The get-rich-quick gold fever started cooling in 1849 when many of Dahlonega’s ‘29ers” became “49ers” in the California gold rush. Moreover, the Dahlonega gold deposits were gradually mined out.

Rabun County Gold Found in 1830s

Gold fervor was not limited to the area around Dahlonega. It spread in a northeasterly direction to Rabun County, but a distance of only 40 miles made a world of difference.

John Morris is believed to have made the first discovery of gold in Rabun County in the 1830s on a parcel of his land along Dick’s Creek, west of the town of Burton, which now is submerged under Lake Burton. Mining operations in this area ceased during the Civil War, but later resumed for another 25 years. The county’s other primary gold field was on land owned by James Stonecypher along Moccasin and Wildcat creeks, also on what is now the western shore of Lake Burton. Mining here, too, ended with the Civil War but continued sporadically for many years after the war.

The mining operations in this area kept creek waters muddy due to the placer method of prospecting for gold. Unlike the Dahlonega area, Rabun County did not offer miners rich veins of gold. Rather particles of gold were embedded in quartz rock formations. Once the gold-bearing quartz was mined, stamping machinery crushed the rocks. The resulting gravel was dumped into wooden troughs called sluice boxes through which creek water flowed. The sluice box contained a series of wooden strips. The gold dust, which could be as fine as flour, dropped out of the water and accumulated against these strips, since gold is heavier than sand and gravel. In this way, gold was captured while the waste material spilled out of the end of the sluice box into the creek, causing the muddy creek water downstream.

18 Pennyweights Per Ounce of Gold

The meager profitability of Rabun County gold mining is evident by the fact that gold valued at only about $150,000 to $250,000 was mined from all of the operations along Dick’s, Moccasin and Wildcat creeks. The same was true of a few other mines in other parts of the county. An 1897 edition of the Tallulah Falls Spray newspaper reported, “In the Persimmon district is the Moore mine that has been worked at for years and has always paid expenses and a small margin over.” In other words, minimal profitability was a hallmark of the Moore mine.

The Spray went on to report that an average of 18 pennyweights, or less than one ounce of gold, was being extracted per ton of quartz from the Moore mining operation. By current standards, that level of output is not considered economically feasible. Neither was it then.

These paltry profits and amounts of gold did not dampen the Clayton Tribune’s enthusiasm for mining. A 1920 newspaper article exclaimed, “The Rabun Mineral and Development Co. is moving right along…The yellow metal is showing grand promise upon approach of the famous McClain vein (on the western side of Lake Burton) which has produced millions in years gone by…We think we are on the inside of information concerning this mine (and) before many moons, we can give something exciting to the lovers of gold and that means all of us, of course.” This was sheer fantasy, based upon wishful thinking not hard facts.

Ohio Mining Company Finds Little Gold

Mining companies located outside Rabun County also got into the act. An 1899 article in the Clayton Tribune reported, “Mr. Chas. F. Renner of the Eureka Mining Co., Canton, Ohio, has returned to the Moore mine…Mr. Renner will have the tunnel cut further in the hill (to mine quartz ore)…and it is thought the real vein will be reached soon. They anticipate putting up an expensive (rock crushing) plant somewhere near here, if they find indications (of significant gold).” Eureka never found any rich gold deposits.

Gold mining all but ceased in Rabun County by the 1930s as prospectors finally realized the amount of gold in this area did not justify the expense and backbreaking labor to mine it. Gold was not the only mineral that has attracted attention of Rabun miners. Rubies, citrines, opals and amethysts have been found. As late as 1963, Harley Ledbetter was mining amethysts near Mountain City. He claimed his amethyst mine was the largest in the nation. A 75-carat amethyst discovered near Tate City in neighboring Towns County is displayed in the museum of Georgia’s state capitol. However, gem mining, like that for gold, failed to make prospectors wealthy.

Gold fever burned brightly in the minds of generations of Rabun County prospectors. But the hope never matched the reality; there simply was not that much gold in them thar hills. Gold fever that started with a bang ended with a whimper.

This article by Society member Richard Cinquina was originally published in the Laurel of Northeast Georgia magazine in April 2022.

About the Rabun County Historical Society 

The Rabun County Historical Society is dedicated to keeping alive Rabun County’s 200-year history in the Appalachian Mountains of Georgia. We collect, preserve and display important historic artifacts, photographs and records in our 2,300-square-foot museum and archives located at 81 North Church Street in downtown Clayton, Georgia. The Society is a not-for-profit organization under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, making membership dues and donations fully tax deductible. For more information, please contact us.