How the New York Times Missed the Underlying Ugly History Behind a Fun Story About a Georgia Gold Rush

tags: New York Times

Mr. Walsh is an HNN intern.

In Villa Rica, Georgia, history can mean business. The town, about 30 miles east of Atlanta, is currently embroiled in a dispute with Dahlonega, 75 miles to the northeast, over which town was the site of the first gold rush in American history. For both communities, the claim could lead to increased tourism and therefore increased revenues. Douglas Mabry, an amateur historian in Villa Rica, recently revived the claim, based on an 1830 map identifying Villa Rica as “gold country” and a mysterious spike in land values starting in 1826. Dahlonega’s claim dates from 1828.

The New York Timesprofiled the dispute in its July 17 edition, and all of the preceding information was culled from the article. Missing from the report, however, and from the debate between Villa Rica and Dahlonega, is the impact that the gold rush had on the Native American population of Georgia. The timeline of the gold rush overlapped with the removal of the Cherokee Indians to Oklahoma along the infamous Trail of Tears by the federal government and the state of Georgia, and indeed was a contributing factor in the land seizure.

The tribes of northern Georgia had probably been aware of the riches under their lands for centuries. Professor David Williams of Valdosta State University, in his book The Georgia Gold Rush: Twenty-Niners, Cherokees, and Gold Fever, writes that “certainly by the nineteenth century the Cherokees knew there was gold on their land, but were understandably reluctant to have that fact generally known.”

Seizure of Indian land for economic exploitation is a common motif in American history. Perhaps the most famous incident occurred in South Dakota in the 1870s, when gold was discovered in the Black Hills, sparking a conflict between the native Lakota and trespassing whites that would ultimately culminate in the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. The removal of the Cherokee was one of the first instances in the United States where gold mining and Indian resettling overlapped.

Europeans had been searching for gold in Georgia since the 16th century. In 1540, Hernando de Soto led a Spanish expedition into what is now Georgia on a search for gold, encountering natives who wore gold jewelry and were familiar with metallurgy, but the expedition did not strike the proverbial mother lode. British and American gold-mining efforts centered primarily in the Carolinas. The first documentary evidence of gold mining in Georgia dates from 1829, on the southern edge of Cherokee land.

Although the discovery of gold on Indian lands was an accelerating factor in Indian removal, the state of Georgia had been pressing for the eviction of its indigenous tribes for years. In 1802, the state gave up its land claims in Alabama and Mississippi in exchange for a federal promise that the eviction of its Indians would proceed as soon as land could be obtained “on reasonable terms.” Increasing state pressure was brought to bear on the numerous Georgia tribes, and after the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828 the federal government finally came down on the side of Georgia in the land dispute.

The Creek Indians were forcibly removed by 1826, due partly to the machinations of state and federal officials with corrupt tribal leaders. Although gold would later be found on Creek land, the prospect of cotton farming rather than of gold was the major factor in their eviction beyond the Mississippi. Professor Williams speculates that it was the eviction, and not the discovery of gold in Villa Rica, that caused the spike in property values. Indeed, the land vacated by the Creek would become some of the most productive cotton territory in the country, and incidentally solidified the slave economy of the antebellum South.

The conflict between Dahlonega and Villa Rica, although of great concern to both towns in their quest for tourism dollars, is ultimately unquantifiable. Regardless of when whites first discovered gold in northern Georgia, the gold rush proper did not begin until 1829. The discovery of gold was widely publicized in the newspapers, attracting a rush of “twenty-niners.” Within a year, nearly 10,000 miners, according to one estimate, flooded the region.

The Cherokee faced another problem stemming from the influx of the “twenty-niners.” The complete eviction of the Cherokee Nation did not occur until 1838, and in fact Georgia would not be in official possession of Cherokee land until the summer of 1830. In the interim white prospectors constantly trespassed upon Cherokee lands in the “Great Intrusion.” Because Indians could not sue or testify against whites in state courts, the Cherokee were subject to “untold abuses.” “Thus protected,” writes Professor Williams, “bands of whites roamed the Cherokee Nation taking not only gold but also livestock, household goods, and anything else they could carry away.”

Unfortunately, none of the consequences of the gold rush were mentioned in the New York Times. A perennial problem with media treatment of history is the perfunctory treatment historical events receive, especially when an historically oppressed or underrepresented group is involved. Indeed, this problem extends to professional historians. Only in the past fifty-odd years has Native American history begun to receive its due in academic circles.

The scope of the media’s treatment of history is the real issue. The story in the New York Times, by the reporter's own admission, was not ultimately about an historical event, but the competition between two sleepy Georgia towns for tourists. Although the article did provide some basic background information on the Georgia Gold Rush, it neglected its historical consequences and the complex interrelationship between the gold rush and the Native American evictions in Georgia.

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