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 enslaved men 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, an enslaved boy named Peter had unearthed a 28-pound nugget, which was the largest documented found in the United States. Peter's Nugget remains the largest gold nugget found at Reed Gold Mine and the largest found east of the Mississippi River. 

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 was eventually purchased in 1895 by Dr. Justin D. Lisle, Oliver S. Kelly and his son O. Warren Kelly for $15,000. They started exploring the older workings on Lower Hill, then worked towards Upper Hill. A 10-Stamp California style mill was purchased from the Mecklenburg Iron Works of Charlotte by 1896 and placed along Little Meadow Creek to crush and process the quartz faster. The Upper Hill workings were deepened first to the 100-foot level and finally reaching 150-feet looking for quartz veins. Unfortunately the gold they hoped to find never materialized and the Kelly family ended all underground mining in 1912, abandoning their efforts at Reed. 

One highlight during the Kelly era at Reed was the discovery of a 23-pound gold nugget by four men - Jacob L. Shinn, Jesse Cox, his son A.M. "Mack" Cox and Dr. J.R. Jerome. They were digging near an old road, an area not completely searched in the past during April 1896. On the 9th of April, the men found a rather large heavy rock, but it didn't have the correct look, so was tossed aside. Finally Jacob Shinn took it to the creek, washed it off and realized it did in fact contain a large amount of gold. All the partners grew extremely excited, and took a wagon ride back to Georgeville to put the gold in Shinn's store. This rock was then determined to be a 23 pound gold nugget, the last large nugget of any size to be reported from the Reed property. Plaster casts were made of the nugget for the N.C. State Museum and the Smithsonian Institution, who had also taken an interest in the nugget. Once the excitement ended, the nugget was sold for $4,800, the value of the gold at the time ($20.67 per troy ounce). While Reed interprets this as the Shinn nugget, some of the Cox family descendants claim Mack actually discovered it in the ground. There is evidence to substantiate this claim, since the photograph showing the original nugget lists A.M. not Jacob Shinn as the person who discovered the nugget. Either way, both men, along with their partners, aided in this great discovery.

Historic Site

Portions of the underground tunnels at Reed Gold Mine have been restored for tours. A visitor center contains exhibits of gold and historical mining equipment. An orientation film highlights the first gold discovery. 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.

Further Reading

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.