Mark Twain went out West during the California Gold Rush, and, as was the case with most of those who did so, the only real wealth he returned with was the rich memories of his many adventures, some of which found their way into his stories. His experiences there gave rise to two of his more popular quotes, the first of which is “A mine is a hole in the ground with a liar standing next to it.” The second: “When everybody is digging for gold, it’s good to be in the picks and shovels business.”
The tale of Dan and Lucinda Riley is one, like Twain’s, where the wealth they found wasn’t exactly the wealth they were looking for. The details of this fascinating story came to my attention thanks to Valdosta State University history professor David Williams’ 1991 Georgia Historical Quarterly article on African Americans and the Georgia Gold Rush, and his book, “The Georgia Gold Rush: Twenty-niners, Cherokees and Gold Fever,” published by the University of South Carolina Press in 1993.
The discovery of gold on Cherokee land was a significant factor in Georgia’s displacement of the Cherokee people in the 1830s. And, when the confiscated lands were sold via lottery, a fair number of people were buying parcels in hopes of finding gold. During this time, around 99% of African Americans in Georgia were slaves. For the 1% known as free people of color, their luck in the lottery was equally nonexistent, because, while free, they were not classified as citizens and were not eligible to enter the lottery.
But, African Americans did participate in the effort to find gold. According to Williams, a great many farmers found that using their slaves to placer mine (separating gold from sediment) in the streams and rivers on their property during the winter season generated some income once the growing season ended. People who had no suitable property to mine but owned slaves could hire them out to work for others. However, actual tunnel mining was very dangerous, and a fair number of slave owners refused to do it, out of fear of losing their slaves to an accident. One example was at the Franklin Mine in Cherokee County, where an entire work crew of slaves was killed when supporting timbers failed and the roof gave way. Suffice it to say, the discovery of gold was almost as much of a curse for African Americans in Georgia as it had been for the Cherokee. However, there are exceptions to every rule, and the story of Dan and Lucinda Riley is one of them.
A few slave owners allowed their slaves to keep small portions of the gold they found. One in particular, James Scudder, allowed that any gold slaves found during the day was his outright. But, if a slave chose to work through the night, whatever was found overnight was his or hers to keep. Scudder required that they sell it back to him, but, in doing so, a slave with the ability to pan for gold by torchlight actually could earn enough money to buy his or her freedom. Dan and Lucinda, who were among Scudder’s slaves, did exactly that. After buying their freedom from Scudder, and thereafter working as sharecroppers in fields near Franklin Mine by day, they continued to supplement their income by panning for gold at night.
In 1849, shortly after hearing great tales of gold in California, Dan found what he termed “coarse, ragged” gold in a stream adjacent to the Scudder property. He was smart enough to realize that this meant the vein itself must be nearby (it hadn’t been polished and smoothed by the action of water). Before long, he located the vein on a hill alongside the stream. He dug down a little and found the telltale quartz veins where Georgia gold typically resides. And, as the saying goes, “his pan had color.” In fact, his pan had a whole lot of color.
He noticed some of Scudder’s slaves working on the other side of the stream. Afraid they’d discover it, too, he carefully covered it back up and removed any trace. He sold the gold he’d found the next day for $70. Dan and Lucinda used the money to head west to California, where they’d heard the amount of gold dwarfed what was being found in Georgia.
However, they didn’t strike it rich in California, and the Gold Rush eventually played out. After a great many years, Dan decided that they should return to Georgia and instead work the vein he’d located and hidden many years before. They returned, but, despite years of searching alongside the creek, Dan and Lucinda never were able to rediscover the rich vein left behind. As they grew old, they enlisted the help of a nearby farmer named Richard Carnes. A part-time miner himself, he helped them search, and continued to look on his own after they’d passed away. The vein never has been found, and, more than a century later, some folks in the area still tell the tale of “The Lost Mine.”
Dan and Lucinda Riley never struck it rich — or did they? Gold gave them a life filled with travel and adventure. I imagine Dan, late in life, smiling at his wife and saying, “We sure have had a pretty good run, haven’t we, Cindy?” Most important, gold gave them their freedom, which is worth far more.
– The Wanderer has been a resident of Cherokee County for nearly 20 years, and constantly is learning about his community on daily walks, which totaled a little more than 2,000 miles in 2022. Send questions or comments to email@example.com.