Site of the First Documented Discovery of Gold in the United States
Reed Gold Mine is the site of the first documented gold find in the United States. From this discovery, gold mining spread gradually to nearby counties and eventually into other southern states. During its peak years gold mining was second only to farming in the number of North Carolinians it employed. The estimated value of gold recovered reached over one million dollars a year. North Carolina led the nation in gold production until 1848, when it was eclipsed by the great rush to California.
A Simple Man
John Reed (Johannes Reith) was a Hessian soldier who left the British army near the conclusion of the Revolutionary War and came to settle near fellow Germans living in the lower Piedmont of North Carolina. Most of the people dwelt on modest family-run farms in rural areas, where they raised small grain crops such as corn and wheat.
The life of farmer John Reed would have been long forgotten had it not been for a chance event one Sunday in 1799. On that day, Reed’s son Conrad found a large yellow rock in Little Meadow Creek on the Reed farm in Cabarrus County. This rock reportedly weighed 17 pounds and for three years was used as a doorstop at the Reed house.
In 1802 a Fayetteville jeweler identified the gold nugget. He purchased it for the asked price of $3.50—one-tenth of one percent of its true value.
The following year John Reed began the Reed mining operation by forming a partnership with three local men. The partners supplied equipment and workers to dig for gold in the creek bed, while Reed provided the land. The returns were to be divided equally. The men mined mainly in the off-season from farming, giving first priority to raising their crops. Before the end of the first year, a slave named Peter had unearthed a 28-pound nugget. Using only pans and rockers to wash the creek gravel, the part-time miners recovered an estimated yield of one hundred thousand dollars by 1824.
The Fever Spreads
Hearing of Reed’s good fortune, other Piedmont farmers began exploring their creeks and finding gold. Men and women, both young and old, worked in the gold fields. Foreigners joined them, including the skilled Cornishmen from England.
“Placer,” or creek, gold mining led to underground mining when it was learned in 1825 that the metal also existed in veins of white quartz rock. The search for underground or “lode” gold required much more money, labor, and machinery. Underground work at Reed was not begun until 1831. Four years later a family squabble resulted in a court injunction that closed the mine for a decade.
John Reed was a wealthy man when he died in 1845. Soon the Reed mine was sold at public auction. The mine changed hands many times through the years until 1912, when the last underground work took place there. Placer miners found the last large nugget at Reed in 1896. The yield of the mine in large nuggets alone ultimately totaled more than one hundred pounds.
From Working Mine to Historic Site
Portions of the underground tunnels at the Reed mine have been restored for guided tours. A visitor center contains exhibits of gold and historical mining equipment. An orientation film highlights the first gold discovery, and tours of a restored ore-crushing stamp mill are offered. A picnic area is available, and trails wind through the historic mining area.
The Reed Expansion Committee, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of North Carolina’s gold mining heritage, supports many ongoing projects at Reed Gold Mine.
Golden Promise in the Piedmont: The Story of John Reed’s Mine
by Richard F. Knapp, North Carolina Office of Archives & History, Revised Edition, 1999.
Gold Mining in North Carolina
by Richard F. Knapp and Brent D. Glass, North Carolina Office of Archives & History, 1999.
The Reed Gold Mine Guidebook
designed and edited by Linda Funk, North Carolina Office of Archives & History, 1979.
The First Gold Rush: A Master Plan for Reed Gold Mine
National Park Service, 1972.