* * * * by KD McCall
So much has been written about North Carolina gold reference material is easy to come by. Maps and gold pans are still available in retail stores. One map the Big Ten depicts the entire Golden Valley area under a solid gold blob. And with reason. You can find gold dust in many of the creeks. You might pick up a nugget or flake, on a woodland path, in a logging road, or an old dirt drive. These days, unless you have professional mining equipment, it’s scarcely worth the trouble to work a creek. It can take a day to find a dollar’s worth of dust, and a dollar doesn’t go as far as it used to. But at one time the gold in our area profoundly affected the quality of life.
In a 1924 issue of the Salt Lake Mining Review Don Maguire, a “veteran mining engineer from Ogden,” said before the discovery of gold:
…the inhabitants were wretchedly poor. To quote the vernacular, they were simply “poor as rats.” A patch of cultivated red, reluctant soil afforded every family each year a few bushels of Indian corn, a limited crop of potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, carrots and cabbage. One or two horses, a yoke of oxen, perhaps a dozen sheep, and a few razor-backed hogs, with the associated usual number of chickens, ducks and geese, made up the live stock wealth of the average family of these mountain regions in the old halcyon days.
Don Maguire had a way with words. I’ve condensed his five page version, at a great loss, but basically here’s his version of the story.
It happened that a fellow, Samuel Martin, a thirty nine or forty year old stranger to these parts, was going home to Connecticut. He’d shipped out as a sailor from Grey Town, Nicaragua and had landed on the Alabama coast. He’d spent part of his life as a sailor and part of it as a miner. He’d been working in the gold fields in Nicaragua and after sailing to Alabama he planned to walk home. He expected it would take about three months, more or less.
By the time he reached Brindle Creek his shoes were in “dire need of repair”, so when he saw Bob Anderson’s shoe repair sign he stopped. The cobbler welcomed him, inspected the shoes and said he could do the job in about three hours for two bits. Since it was nearly dinner time he added an invitation to dine at no extra charge.
The traveler said that was satisfactory, so the shoemaker sat down to the job and his entire family, consisting of one boy, four girls and Mrs. Anderson, were soon busy preparing dinner, while Samuel Martin walked out in his stocking feet into the yard fronting the mud-daubed cabin of the shoe maker.
As Samuel puttered about the yard he began to notice the country round about. The red hills and knolls reminded him of the Central and South America mine fields. On closer inspection the gravel he saw in the cabin chinking looked like gold-bearing gravel. Curious he inspected the cabin more closely finding “slate, granite, and rusty looking quartz” in the chimney. These common things meant nothing to the Anderson’s, but Samuel was fresh from the mining fields and they meant a great deal to him. A chunk of mud-daubing was loose and about to fall off so he took hold of it and pulled off to get a better look. Hummm.
Mrs. Anderson called him in to dinner and he took a last look at the low hills and flats about the countryside, noting “the reddish, light brown gravely surface.” Hummm.
During supper after the family was seated and after he had a chance to tell them about his mining experience, according to Maguire, he said:
Mr. Anderson, do you know that I believe it might be possible that you have ground around here that would produce gold if a little work was done; and if you will put in your time with me today and tomorrow, after my shoes are repaired, I will begin the work of finding out if there is any gold on your place. After supper, the entire group gathered outside of the cabin to watch Martin wash some of the clay from the cabin. In the bottom of the pan after all the swirling was done there, in a “little three inch string,” was gold. At that time it was worth about twenty five cents. Four more pans of dirt from the cabin were washed and each yielded from twenty five cents to a dollar’s worth of fine yellow gold dust.
When Martin asked where they got their house daubing clay Anderson told him it had come from the creek bank. The excited group hurried to the creek and Martin ran down ten more pans. Each one produced gold. Martin guessed the fifteen pans he’d tested produced about nine dollars worth. He struck a deal to partner with Anderson agreeing to stay for six months and to teach the family to mine for half of the mining profits.
It had been a most eventful day for those present and also for the state of North Carolina, if not the United States of America, for on that day gold was first discovered in the territory over which the Stars and Stripes waved.
Within weeks a prominent mining camp had grown up in the vicinity of Bob Anderson’s home. Brindletown. Today’s travelers on highway 64 between Rutherfordton and Morganton in Burke County might take note of the Brindletown fire department. The community exists to this day.
Which brings me to the Valley, well within the mining region. Mining brought hordes of people into the area. Several mines went into operation, a number of schools were built, and two post offices sprang up to serve the community.
New methods of extracting the gold were being constantly tested. The rocker and long Tom (sluice-box) increased the yields. The rocker was a “crude invention usually powered by women or children.” says Theresa Thomas who reports in THE STATE, January 25, 1936:
the sand was washed through a system of wooden troughs, called rockers or cradles, where quicksilver caught a portion of the gold. The cradles were nothing more or less then hollowed-out logs, usually four in number, set upon a frame of other and smaller logs, and joined together in such a manner that a person standing upon the small platform on the center ones was able to rock all of them. It worked on somewhat the same principle as the tread mill except that instead of moving continually forward, one stepped from side to side.
Although crude extracting methods captured only twenty-five percent of the gold, leaving seventy-five percent to wash down the creek, people were getting rich. Land prices soared and poor mountaineers sold homesteads for prices that seemed fabulous. Slaves were brought in to work the mine fields.
At that time gold dust was traded at a dollar per pennyweight, but a lot of dust was lost during the trades. This posed a problem. The nearest mint was in Philadelphia, it took months to have coins minted, but the government could not be convinced to build a mint in the mining region.
Berry Bright Freeman, a local author, writes that Christopher Bechtler of Rutherford County posed a solution. Bechtler was a, first rate, German born jeweler. He proposed to coin gold into two and one-half, and five-dollar gold pieces. Like a miller he would accept a portion of the dust in exchange for his labor. A deal was struck.
An Old Time Advertisement
North Carolina SpectatorRutherfordton, NCAugust 27, 1831
To Gold Miners and Others:
The undersigned having coined a great quantity of N. Carolina gold into pieces of $2.50 and $5.00 value, of 20 carats fine and being well prepared to increase the business to any extent, is established 3 1/2 miles on the road leading from Rutherfordton to Jeanstown, invites the attention of miners in South Carolina and Georgia as well as N. Carolina to the advantage which would result from having the product of their mines coined or made into ingots bearing their just value rather then disposing of it in it’s fluxed state, without an assay and therefore liable to produce an improper value: gold in a fluxed state of 22 and 23 carats is generally sold for 84 cents, consequently an actual saving of 6 cents per dwt. in the bank, whereas it’s intrinsic value, if coined, is 90 to 94 cents, consequently an actual saving of 6 cents per dwt. will be made by having it coined after paying all the expenses of coining, etc. Should encouragement be given, new dies will be made especially for stamping South Carolina and Georgia gold.
He would also make here known the plan which he has adopted and will pursue; on receiving a bar of fluxed gold to be coined, the same will be divided, a portion assayed (by a fire ordeal) for the purpose of ascertaining it’s exact fineness, and he will be accountable for the amount of the value of the whole so ascertained — at the same time returning to the owner 1/2 dwt. of each assay, which he may keep for his own satisfaction or for the purpose of having it assayed elsewhere to find it’s value, that no deception of fraud may be practiced, and, in case there should be, that he might have the means of detecting the same – – for all which he holds himself responsible. The following are his prices: for fluxing 400 dwts, or less $1.00; for assaying (by a firs ordeal) 1000 dwts, or less $1.00; for coining 2 and 1/2%. When the gold is to be coined no charge is made for the assay.
(Signed) C. Betchler.
Betchler’s mint occupied two sites one behind what is now the Rutherford County Courthouse at W. Sixth Street and N. Washington, another on HWY 221. Memorial placards mark the sites.
Several newspaper articles appear in the book Betchler’s Gold, one tells a little about him and how much gold he minted:
The Charlotte News, November 6, 1935.
The Money Maker: Christopher Bechtler of Germany, a foreign immigrant who never became a citizen, was granted permission by the U.S. Government to MAKE HIS OWN MONEY! His private mint was located at Rutherfordton, N.C., and he coined $2,241,840.50 in gold pieces.
Just how much gold was actually minted? This has been a topic of debate for many years. The question being; if he coined that much gold, where is it? Since the coins were minted privately the US treasury was unable to record and consequently unable to substantiate the amount. However it is a fact that Christopher Betchler operated a mint in Rutherfordton from 1831 and passed the business to his son, August, who operated the facility from 1842 until it’s closing in 1849. It is also on record that he and his son appeared in court in Rutherfordton, July, 1832 and were granted citizenship. Misinformation abounds.
“The effect of a gold discovery,” says Maguire, “in any country, if such a discovery is of importance, is truly wonderful.”
And the gold found here was of some importance.
None of the folks who got rich during the mining boom kept their fortunes. Tom Melton says, “It wasn’t their nature.” They lived lives of feast and famine. When they found gold they feasted, when it was gone they famished.
The Anderson’s? According to Maguire, all together, the Anderson’s earned $39,500 from their venture. They lived well for a time. Bob purchased a small plantation and four Negroes, paying half down for the plantation. He financed the Negroes. Within five years he was flat broke. “His son, Jackson, took to drinking, gambling, horseracing, and went to the devil completely.”
Within eleven years of the Brindletown strike, Bob, his wife, and his daughter, Rachael, were dead, leaving the remaining girls, Jane and Matilda to die in the county poor house. Maguire says, ” so often perishes the glory of this world.”
Samuel Martin was a true rags to riches story. He ended up staying not six, but eight months and earned $18,473.50 for his trouble. After buying horses, a wagon, camping gear, blankets, a gun, and some clothing, he departed. He was last seen driving his team of horses north.
When the Gold Rush hit California in 1849 the largest part of the miners and their families left the Golden community and hurried out west to get rich.
Ahhh, the good old halcyon days. So full of passion, so romantic….
Map. Big Ten “Gold Map” MCMLXXX1, Champion Map Corporation, Coco Beach, Florida.
Don Maguire, “Discovery of Placer Gold In North Carolina in 1828; True Story, Dressed Up in Romantic Raiment of Legend.” Salt Lake Mining Review Volume 26 Number 10. August 1924.
Theresa Thomas, “Turning Back The Clock In North Carolina.” The State 25 January 1936, 19-22.
Maguire, Salt Lake Mining Review Volume 26 no. 10.
Berry Bright Freeman, Betchler’s Gold distributed by the author. Rutherfordton, NC, 1958. 12-13.
Maguire, Salt Lake Mining Review Volume 26 no. 10.