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Extending the Story: Georgia Gold Rush and the Trail of Tears

By: David Pitman, Northview High School Duluth, Georgia

The first people who were known to live in what we know now as north Georgia were hunter gatherer nomads who migrated to the Americas over ten thousand years ago. Over time, tribal organization and migration resulted in the establishment of two native groups, the Cherokees and the Creeks, in north Georgia. Around 1532, the first whites began to explore the same area. Over the next 250 years, white settlement and activity in this area was limited. Whites lived primarily in the coastal areas of modern Georgia.


After the American Revolution, Georgians began to encroach on native lands in central and north Georgia. As Georgia grew, white antipathy over the presence of Creek and Cherokee Tribes began to grow. Despite the natives' obvious claim to the land, the 1825 Treaty of Indian Springs compelled the Creek population living on the eastern bank of the Chattahoochee River to leave their homes and resettle in Indian Territory (Oklahoma).


The Cherokees to the north were destined for displacement next, prompted partially by the discovery of gold in 1828 in the Appalachian Piedmont. Although the Cherokee people were not as fond of gold as the Europeans were, they quite often used the precious metal as a form of jewelry, but the white man's appetite for gold was exponentially greater than the Cherokee's. Consequentially, just three years after the Treaty of Indian Springs, Georgia passed a bill extending the state's jurisdiction over the Cherokee lands to take effect on June 1, 1830.


The Cherokee Nation was quickly invaded, as early as 1829, by gold prospectors eager to try their luck. The period was known to the Cherokees as the "Great Intrusion," and like the name implies, the presence of miners was not very welcome. The Cherokee Nation had a legal position, namely that Georgia, by its own law was not to take control of the land until June 1830, therefore, white Georgians were not allowed if not welcomed. Upon appeal to the federal government, U.S. troops were dispatched to arrest and prevent miners from intruding. But, not even the U.S. army at the time could ebb the growing tide of miners flooding to the region. Once one miner was arrested, another would take his spot. When the June 1 deadline passed, the governor of Georgia George Gilmer proclaimed authority over the land and quickly notified President Andrew Jackson that the presence of U.S. troops was a violation of the Constitution. In compliance with Gilmer's desires, Jackson worked speedily to move the Indian Removal Act through Congress, mandating all Native Americans be relocated west of the Mississippi River. The Cherokee Nation immediately challenged the new law in American courts. The legal battle over the law culminated in Worcester v. Georgia in which Chief Justice John Marshall issued the court's majority opinion stating that the Cherokee nation was a distinct community in which Georgia laws were unenforceable. Despite this stunning legal victory, the Cherokee could not celebrate long as President Jackson refused to enforce the ruling, thus freeing Gov. Gilmer to proceed with the removal of the Cherokees from north Georgia.


The first two mining towns of any consequence were Knuckollsville and Lick Log. The former was named after the man who speculated on the area by putting up a tavern and hotel. This popular spot quickly grew and was renamed Auraria. Its rival, Lick Log, grew in the shadow of Auraria until time came to establish the Cherokee County seat. Lick Log, eventually renamed Dahlonega, was selected as county seat largely because the preferred site in Auraria was under ownership dispute. The Georgia Land lotteries which took place sporadically over the next few years would carve up the former Cherokee lands, dividing it by land lots and gold lots depending on its most productive potential. In the lottery, 85,000 people competed for 18,309 land lots while 133,000 hoped to secure one of only 35,000 gold lots. Though the "winners" were not to take control of their lots until the peaceful removal of the Cherokee, some began as soon as they were personally able.


Between 1830 and 1837, the Philadelphia Mint received roughly $1.8 million in Georgia gold. A closer alternative was the private mint of Christopher Bechtler in North Carolina, who coined roughly $3.63 million between 1831 and 1840. Some smaller, though more local mints such as Templeton Reid's were used as well. Through the enthusiastic support of Senator John C. Calhoun, Dahlonega received a federal branch mint, constructed in 1838. By this time, however, the gold was almost spent and the mint never operated at the anticipated level. It eventually closed in 1861 without helping to overcome the national coin shortage or the local economic uncertainty.


The most renowned legacy of the Georgia Gold Rush is the Trail of Tears. Chief John Ross, led numerous petitions on behalf of his people. Even notable figures such as Davy Crockett and Ralph Waldo Emerson spoke out on behalf of the Cherokee. Despite the Supreme Court decisions, numerous appeals to legislators, and a change in the Presidency, the Cherokee could not win their case. In 1838, President Van Buren ordered Major General Winfield Scott to North Georgia to carry out the Cherokee removal. With the full might of his troops, Scott forced the removal of the Cherokee to what would become Oklahoma. Of the thirteen thousand men women and children who began the march, five thousand died along the way.