The Story of Charlotte, Part 3: The Corrupting Treasure
Two hundred years before Charlotte becomes a banking hub, a gold rush gives the city its first taste of wealth
Last year, Mecklenburg County celebrated its 250th anniversary. This year, Charlotte magazine looks back at life in the region through the years. From Charlotte’s beginnings as a rural crossroads to its current status as a major U.S. city, this 12-part series traces Charlotte’s growth and highlights some of the turning points that made the city what it became. And it's doing that by simply telling stories about people who lived here—their lives, their dreams, their failures, their successes, and their piece of the great city we are now.
1799—Early on a Sunday morning, a barefoot boy runs along Little Meadow Creek about 25 miles east of Charlotte. The boy stops here and there to aim his bow and arrow at schools of fish in the shallow rocky water. As he pulls back his bow, a flash of light catches his eye. Jutting out of the white quartz is a rock—bright and shiny and yellow—like nothing he’s seen before. He digs it out of the soil and hauls it home.
Look what I found, 12-year-old Conrad Reed tells his father in German.
John Reed has never seen anything like this 17-pound rock either. Not in his childhood in Hesse, Germany, nor in his years as a mercenary soldier for the British during the American Revolution 20 years earlier. The Reeds take it to a local silversmith, and the silversmith can’t tell them what it is either. But it makes a good doorstop, so that’s where it sits for the next three years, propping open the door to the Reeds’ modest farmhouse.
In 1802, John Reed takes the rock with him on a supply trip to the markets in Fayetteville. A jeweler there knows what the rock is.
Name your price, the jeweler tells Reed. Reed asks for $3.50, a week’s wages. The jeweler accepts. A few weeks later, bars made from the rock sell for $3,600.
That makes John Reed mad. Not too mad, though.
He knows where to find more gold.
News of Reed’s discovery travels through Mecklenburg and Cabarrus counties, and farmers start spending their offseasons wading in cold-water creeks with frying pans, sifting through the gravel and dirt for a glimmer of gold, no matter how small.
For anyone who doesn’t strike it rich—and most people don’t—farming is the only way to eat and make a little bit of money. Farmers eat most of what they plant and sell the rest at the markets. A few ironworks spring up in Mecklenburg, and a handful more open to the northwest across the Catawba River in Lincoln County. There, blacksmiths mold iron into pots and pans and, as war with England looms again in 1812, cannonballs for the American troops.
But the real money now is in cotton. And Mecklenburg County soil is good for growing cotton. Archibald Frew, the orphan nephew of a Charlotte tavern owner, buys a few hundred acres off Salisbury Road near Little Sugar Creek, three miles northeast of Charlotte. Frew opens a general store, and his slaves farm the land.
He’s appointed federal tax collector for the district, a job that pays well. He starts work on a new house by 1815. Simple log and stone houses dominate the county, but Frew envisions a three-story mansion with gold-colored trim. Wagon riders and walkers along the nearby dirt trail see the home rising through the trees and call it “Frew’s Folly.” They turn out to be right. By 1818, after two years of drought and cool summers destroy local harvests, the poor farmers in Mecklenburg have little money to spend, so there’s not much to tax. Frew falls deep in debt. His wealthy brother-in-law, William Davidson, quietly buys the property and lets Frew live there until his death in 1823 at 47.
By the 1820s, North Carolina is at a standstill. Politicians from the eastern part of the state, who have large plantations and plenty of income, reject investments in education and infrastructure, such as canals or improved roads. Travelers from the North dub North Carolina the “Rip Van Winkle” state, referring to the 1819 Washington Irving novel about a man who sleeps through the American Revolution and wakes to find himself in a changed country. Rip wouldn’t have a hard time adjusting to North Carolina, the outsiders say.
Young people leave the state, seeing a poor future for North Carolina, and the wealthy head for Alabama. Recent wars have pushed the Native American tribes west, leaving fertile land free for vast cotton plantations. Others leave for Ohio or, like Mecklenburg’s Polk family, for Tennessee.
Gold could change everything, some people believe. But the hunt for gold stands still, too. Although Reed and others make a living off their discoveries, most mining attempts are haphazard. Washington journalist Anne Newport Royall mocks the poor farmers and their dreams of quick riches. “It is laughable to see these tall long-tail cotton coat North Carolinians … poking about like snails and picking up the quicksilver every now and then and eagerly squeezing it in their hands to see how much gold is in it.” The machinery at these primitive mines looks “as though it had been made by children.”
Some local miners get lucky. James Capps finds gold on his barren land north of Charlotte on Beatties Ford Road. Despite “liberal offers” for his land, Capps decides to mine it himself. He’s so successful that he carries a scale with him everywhere. In the stores and taverns of the slowly growing village, Capps uses the scale to measure flakes of gold to buy whatever he wants. Thing is, he mostly wants whiskey. By 1828, he dies from alcoholism.
One day in 1825, Matthias Barringer is panning for gold near Long Creek, about 40 miles northeast of Charlotte. He notices that where the white quartz ends, so does the gold. He digs deeper, though, and sees the top sliver of a gold vein—the source of the gold extending deep into the earth. For nearly 25 years, people have been panning streams after harvests, picking up whatever gold had washed downstream from these veins. Now they learn that the real money is underground. Throughout the Piedmont, farmers and miners find more veins. On the southern edge of Charlotte, innkeeper and farmer Samuel McComb opens a mine on his property just west of South Tryon Street.
Underground mining promises higher returns. Mining at the source makes finding gold—and more of it—more certain. But vein mining requires skill and experience and expensive equipment, including explosives to blast underground and steam engine-powered stamp mills to crush the quartz and get to the gold. Few natives know anything about mining. Northerners who are educated in European mining schools rush to town. New Yorker J. Humphrey Bissell purchases a stake in the McComb mine and renames it “St. Catherine.” Bissell brings experience and new technology to several mines in the 1820s. People say Bissell, refined and eloquent, “lives the life of a lord” and “is not a man to be trifled.”
The educated and elegant Bissell makes for an unusual sight in small and backwoods Charlotte, which has only about 700 people. But he seems plain compared to another outsider, Chevalier Vincent de Rivafinoli, who arrives in Charlotte in 1830. An agent of a London mining company, Rivafinoli says he’s an Italian count. In conversations, he regularly mentions his title or his supposed service with Napoleon. He dresses the part, too, importing his fashionable clothes from Europe. He obtains leases on the Rudisill and St. Catherine mines, then builds a large mansion at the south end of Tryon Street. Each morning, he leaves the house in his fine clothes carrying a gold-tipped cane. He walks west to oversee his mines, followed each step by a man named Paulidon Brickett, his servant, butler, and barber.
Rivafinoli brings the world with him. The best miners, he says, are from France and Italy, Ireland and Wales, Switzerland and Scotland, Mexico and Brazil. About 13 languages echo through the mine shafts over the blasts of explosives and clank of picks. The most common language is the strange English dialect from the Cornwall region of southwest England. Cornish families had mined tin there for generations. They know how to work steam engines and drilling equipment and explosives. The simple farmers of Mecklenburg don’t.
Richard Wearn and John Gluyas leave Cornwall for Charlotte because they can make more in a day here than in a week back home. In time, Gluyas buys his own mine.
Around the mines in Charlotte, a small village grows. Many miners sleep in tents, but small shacks and boarding houses spring up, too. Rivafinoli builds some housing for his 130 workers near Rudisill. The mining village quickly gains a rough reputation. “I can hardly conceive of a more immoral community than exists around these mines,” one visitor from New York says. “Drunkenness, gambling, fighting, lewdness and every other vice exists here to an unlawful extent.” Another visitor expresses shock that “business is neglected through the week and even the churches [are] deserted on the Sabbath to search for the corrupting treasure.” Early temperance and anti-alcohol organizations trot out the story of James Capps as a cautionary tale for the debauched miners. Sarah Frew Davidson, the niece of Archibald Frew, occasionally tours the mining town in search of Sunday school students among the miners’ children.
In 1831, the Charlotte ground is so pocked by mine shafts that a man and the horse he’s riding fall into a pit one night. Both escape with minor injuries, and the man is in town the next day to tell the story. Others aren’t as lucky. One blind horse dies after he runs away and falls into a shaft. A slave named Wiley helps drag the dead horse out. Mine overseers begin to use more slaves for these dirty jobs. Mining companies take out advertisements to sell and rent slaves in Charlotte’s weekly newspaper, Miners and Farmers Journal. The ads run in columns near stagecoach schedules and breathless articles about the New York-to-Philadelphia railroad that transports passengers in six hours.
Slaves work harder than the lazy native whites, mine owners say. And they won’t abandon mines on a whim like Irish miners, or try to strike for more money like the Cornish. Some slaves make enough to buy their freedom. But that’s rare and becoming rarer in the 1830s. In 1831 in Virginia, Nat Turner and a group of slaves kill 57 slave owners and local whites. After news of the “Southampton tragedy” reaches Charlotte, locals start to see headlines of exaggerated tales of a slave uprising brewing in Sampson and Duplin counties in the eastern part of the state. Armed men from Mecklenburg County set out for Clinton, North Carolina, to help put the potential rebellion down, but it never happens.
Some slaves seek fleeting freedom in the mines and mine villages. There, they can fade into the background with the mine shafts and the transient cast of workers. In December 1832, one slave named Jeff escapes from Jeremiah Cureton’s farm in Lancaster, South Carolina. Jeff and his partner, John Underwood, a white shoemaker, sneak into the Charlotte mines, washing the gold ore in the dark and taking what they can pocket. At least that’s what Cureton believes; he posts a $25 reward for Jeff’s return.
Mine owners wonder what to do with their gold. They’re finding more and more of it. North Carolina miners find 9,969 ounces worth $204,000 in 1830. By 1833, that more than doubles to 22,980 ounces worth $475,000. At a time when most grand homes cost no more than $2,500, those numbers are more than anyone can hope to spend on their own.
The United States Mint, where raw gold is valued then molded into coins, is 500 miles away in Philadelphia. Highway robbers with fast draws and fast horses make it a dangerous trip. Some miners prefer to take their gold to Charleston, then ship it to Europe.
Others simply sell to the local banks at steep discounts.
In Rutherford County, a German immigrant named Christopher Bechtler starts his own mint. Bechtler makes good coins at decent prices, but some mine owners in Charlotte want the government to back their coins. Charlotte businessmen push their representatives in Raleigh and Washington for a federal branch mint. In 1835, Congress approves three new mints. One goes to New Orleans. Another goes to Dahlonega, Georgia, where South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun just happens to own some newly discovered mines. And the third goes to Charlotte, the center of the Southern gold region.
Two years later, the stone and brick U.S. Mint building goes up. A gold-plated eagle above its door keeps watch on West Trade Street. But just as the Charlotte Mint opens its doors, bad news arrives from up north. The banks there are holding on to their gold, worried about the value of paper money. Credit dries up and cotton prices plummet. Banks and shopkeepers pull back on credit. The nation’s economy plunges into recession. The smaller mines throughout North Carolina go quiet, their owners too broke to keep them running. On South Tryon Street, Count Rivafinoli’s mansion goes dark. He slips out of town unnoticed, debts unpaid. Later that year, the sheriff will auction off the house and everything in it.
The rush is over.
Next month—Charlotte boosters score their first big victory. On the horizon, war looms.