The first documented discovery of gold in America occurred in 1799, some 50 years before the California gold rush began. The owner of North Carolina’s first mine was a German immigrant who, strange as it may seem, preferred farming to working his rich mine.
John Reed’s original name was Johannes Riedt, Ried, or Rieth. He was born on April 14, 1759, in the province of Hessen Cassel in west-central Germany. As a teenager, Rieth joined or was drafted into the Hessian militia from nearby Appenfeld. In 1776, Frederick II of Hessen Cassel mobilized Rieth’s unit and shipped it to America to help his brother-in-law, George III of Britain, in his war with the American colonies. Rieth was probably a replacement recruit who reached America in 1778.
Rieth deserted on June 21, 1782, from a post “outside of Savannah.” Rieth and several other Hessians made their way to rural Dutch Buffalo Creek in eastern Mecklenburg—now Cabarrus County. Decades earlier, some of the Germans who had traveled down the Great Wagon Road from Pennsylvania settled there. Most lived in crude log houses on modest farms. In 1782, Rieth married Sarah Kiser. They had nine children—four sons and five daughters. With the help of his brother brother-in-law Frederick Kiser, Rieth acquired 330 acres by 1800. Sometime thereafter he changed his name to John Reed.
Little is known of Reed’s personal life and qualities. He signed papers with an X, so historians have assumed that he was illiterate. Unlike most German immigrants, he was not a member of a Lutheran church. Perhaps Reed and his family attended church with his neighbor, Rev. James Love, a Baptist preacher. Love became Reed’s partner in mining. Reed’s obituary later called him a Christian and a friend of the poor. To local historians he was “honest but unlearned,” “a rather primitive character, but a good liver in his way and a respected citizen.” In 1799 he was forty years old.
That year the accidental discovery of gold on his property changed his future. One Sunday his son, 12 year-old Conrad went bow-and-arrow fishing with his siblings in Little Meadow Creek on the family farm. He retrieved “a yellow substance shining in the water.” The heavy, wedge-shaped rock was the size of a small flatiron and weighed about 17 pounds.
Conrad showed the rock to his father, who set it aside as a doorstop. So far as we know, Reed tried only one time in three years to find out what the rock was made of. He asked a jeweler in Concord to identify the rock, but the latter was unable to do so. In 1802 a jeweler in Fayetteville, whom Reed visited on a marketing trip, fluxed the metal into a bar of gold. When the craftsman offered to buy it, Reed asked for $3.50, a week’s wages. The merchant was quite willing to fleece his unwary customer.
Reed later discovered his error and supposedly recovered about $1,000 from the jeweler. In 1803, Reed took three friends—Frederick Kiser, Reverend Love, and landowner Martin Phifer Jr.—into partnership. In late summer, after crops were planted and the stream had nearly dried up, each of the three supplied equipment and two slaves to dig for gold in Reed’s creek. The partners planned an equal division of returns. That first season, Peter, an African American owned by Love, unearthed a 28-pound nugget.
Gold enabled intelligent but uneducated Reed to become one of the wealthiest men in his part of the state. Reed invested in land and slaves but otherwise lived modestly. He forbade destructive mining on land he cultivated, and ultimately bought over 2,000 acres, nearly half of which he had retained at his death. He purchased three African Americans—Dinah, Charity, and Sam—in 1804. Reed later owned as many as 17 slaves.
The outside world had learned of the mine by 1803. Apparently Peter’s nugget was shipped to the United States mint in Philadelphia. In one year, miners at the Reed found five nuggets weighing up to nine pounds each, as well as gold in dust and fine particles. The four partners reportedly garnered over $14,000 (approximately $936,000 today) in six weeks. In 1804, $11,000 in Cabarrus gold reached the mint. A few periodicals mentioned the mine, and word reached Washington, Philadelphia, and New York. Other farmers found gold, but Reed’s creek remained the nation’s principal gold mine. Soon workers there had gathered the larger nuggets and began panning for smaller, more numerous, particles. An apparatus called a “rocker” superseded the pan for washing gravel in the area. Both devices used the high specific gravity of gold (19 times as heavy as water) to isolate the metal. A typical rocker was a box, a half-barrel, or half of a hollow log. After adding auriferous gravel and water to the device, the miner rocked it to wash away lighter material.
By 1824, haphazard digging at the Reed had yielded $100,000 in gold. Yet Reed’s creek mine remained a simple operation. Reed farmed and collected royalties while relatives, slaves, and partners mined. Before 1826 gold found in pieces exceeding one pound reached a total of 84 pounds. Shortly, people estimated the total yield at $200,000. Little Meadow was probably the state’s most dug-over creek. While larger mines had steam power and professional underground miners, Reed continued a close family operation, choosing not to disrupt his lifestyle with outside workers, values, technology, and perhaps capital.
John Reed never allowed his farm to become a big mining operation like the Rudisill and St. Catherine’s mines in Charlotte. The first shaft dug underground at the Reed Gold Mine was opened in 1831, several years after miners in Charlotte had been following gold through quartz veins into the earth.
In 1831 underground work began at the Reed. Isaac Craton, Reed’s grandson, dug the first pit on Upper Hill and found a vein yielding five dollars per bushel of ore. The amateurs made considerable underground progress while continuing creek (placer)mining. Miners, many of whom were relatives of Reed, deepened pits into shafts. The family probably utilized both African American and local white labor. There were four or five shafts up to 90 feet deep on Upper Hill and probably others on Lower Hill, which at one point supposedly produced four pounds of gold daily.
In the late 1820s and early 1830s, when miners at the Rudisill used ore-crushing equipment that processed nearly 3,000 pounds of ore a day, many miners at the Reed still relied on primitive methods of surface mining. Heavy machinery wasn’t brought to the Reed until the 1850s, after John Reed’s death in 1845.
John Reed had plenty of chances to expand his mining operations, though. But he was strict: neither his partners nor his sons and sons-in-law were allowed to mine in any areas where he cultivated crops. Apparently the old farmer wanted to stay a farmer first, and a miner second.
In 1826, when Reed was 67 years old, he had an interesting, foreign visitor. Matthew Thomas, a mining engineer and speculator from Cornwall, England, offered Reed a ninety-nine year lease for gold mining activity – with a fair percentage of profits to go to the old German. Reed turned Thomas down.
In late 1894, Oliver and Warren Kelly, along with Dr. Justin Lisle, visited Reed Gold Mine, on a shopping expedition. All three were looking for a gold mine to buy, and buy they did. On January 10, 1895, they purchased Reed Gold Mine.
In 1899, Warren bought Dr. Lisle’s share of the Reed and sent his eldest son, Armin, to be the next superintendent, but very little gold was produced.
Almost 23 years later, the Kelly family hired Frank Cox to reopen the mine and work several veins on the surface of Upper Hill. To no avail. Little was found and operations ceased once again. In 1935 the Kellys allowed anyone to pan freely along the creek, as long as any large nuggets were reported to the family and profits shared.
In 1971, after owning the mine for three-quarters of a century, the Kelly family donated their historic mining acreage and sold the remaining portion of their property to the state of North Carolina. Reed Gold Mine became a state historic site in 1976, and continues to be the only underground gold mine open to the public in North Carolina.