Nothing, not even the declaration of war, seems to motivate man more than the word “gold.” The discovery of gold in California, later in Alaska is well known and both resulted in thousands rushing to the site of the discovery. For a few the results were rewarding but for most it was futile, sometimes devastating. A similar situation occurred in the Cherokee Nation in 1829.
Gold was first discovered in California January 24, 1848 and the boom lasted until 1855. Almost immediately, the sleepy village of San Francisco was transformed from a population of 200 to 36,000, a few finding gold, others found ways to extract it from those who did. During those same seven years over 300,000 migrants from the United States and abroad flooded the region.
Alaska was impacted the same way. Gold was discovered on Bonanza Creek, north of Juneau on August 6, 1896 and the population of Dawson City jumped from 500 to 30,000. But getting to Alaska proved difficult. Canadian officials required prospectors to bring a year’s supply of food in order to prevent starvation. And, most of those who didn’t arrive until 1898, found few opportunities and left. Both the California and Alaska gold rushes affected the native population. Disease, genocide, displacement and starvation resulted, but none had the devastating results of an earlier discovery, the Cherokee gold rush of 1829. Discovery of gold proved to be another factor that set efforts in motion to move the tribe west.
Georgia, one of the original thirteen colonies that became a state, had complained to the new federal government about the Cherokee Nation overlapping in their territory since 1802. As years passed the dispute became more contentious and by the time John Ross was elected chief in 1828, the Georgia legislature, with encouragement from the federal government, was passing even more restrictive laws against the tribe. Their efforts gained further support with the election of Andrew Jackson as president in March of 1829, a strong proponent for removal of tribes to west of the Mississippi. But the final momentum for removal occurred six months later when gold was discovered in northwest Georgia, a disputed region also claimed by the Cherokee Nation.
The Georgia Journal trumpeted the news, “Two gold mines have just been discovered in this country and preparations are being made to bring the hidden treasures to us.” Gold seekers flooded the territory and there was no mention of the fact that both those gold mines, as well as others discovered later, were within the traditional boundaries of the Cherokee Nation. A tidal wave of Georgians and others descended on the region searching for gold trampled fields, killing livestock and indiscriminately rousting Cherokee citizens out of their homes.
The gold strike resulted in some farmers selling land they tilled to the intruders however the practice violated an ancient Cherokee principle that land could not be owned, that it belonged to everyone. Major Ridge, elected first counselor to Chief Ross in 1828, was vehemently opposed to selling land. On October 24, 1839 he proposed a law later approved by the National Committee, that concluded, “Anyone who sells Cherokee land without authorization would be put to death.” The law also stated that if a seller would somehow escape trial, he would be considered an outlaw and anyone would be free to kill him without penalty. This was termed “Blood Law,” obey it or die. Ironically, Ridge would be assassinated in Indian Territory less than a decade later as one who signed the Treaty of New Echota in 1835, effectively selling the Cherokee Nation to the federal government.
Georgia continued to press forward with its claims to the Cherokee territory where the gold mines were located. On December 19, 1829 the governor decreed that not only did the gold in the Cherokee mines belong to Georgia, so did the land. The decree declared that land on which the mines were located were now in parts of four Georgia counties. Other laws were also passed further restricting Cherokee authority. For example, the Cherokee National Committee was no longer permitted to convene in the capitol, New Echota, because it now was on Georgia soil. The penalty for committee members convening would be arrest, conviction and a sentence of four years in jail. Other restrictive measures followed until the eventual removal of the tribe to Indian Territory.
As history reflects, the discovery of gold in a settlement or region usually does not result in progressive change. The population swells, gold is taken but there may be no lasting positive influence that can be attributed to gold. Perhaps Indian Territory, now Oklahoma, has been fortunate in that respect. There have been rumors of Spanish gold mines even in the Grand Lake area, but the only proven gold production occurred in the Wichita Mountains in the southern portion of the state. In 1901, following years of rumors, mining was opened to prospectors and while some gold was found in sporadic locations, the cost of removal proved prohibitive. By 1916 efforts ceased. Given the result of gold rushes elsewhere, that’s probably fortunate.
Bruce Howell is an author and retired educator. His work includes 1806, an exploration of the Cherokee Nation in Indian Territory. He resides on Grand Lake with his wife, Kay.