Chasing Gold, Then and Now

Part of the Gold exhibition.

More than 90 percent of all gold ever used has been mined since 1848, when gold was discovered at Sutter's Mill, California, but the lure of gold has been felt since the beginning of human civilization.


West Africa was one of the major suppliers of gold to the ancient world. Gold came through Carthage, in present-day Tunisia, as early as 264 BC. Arabian traders dominated the gold market through the Middle Ages. Although many African tribes valued gold as a symbol of status and power, it was seldom used as money. In 1471, Portuguese explorers landed on the African coast near the mouth of the Pra, a river whose bed was filled with deposits of gold. Soon the Portuguese were building forts, castles and a prosperous world trade in gold. The area, in present-day Ghana, became known as the Gold Coast. Portuguese explorers were dazzled by the abundance of African gold and established a thriving Gold Coast trade.


In the late 1600s Portugal was in need of new sources of wealth. Expeditions set out to search the Brazilian interior, and in 1695 explorers discovered gold in many streams and rivers. Enslaved Africans, many from the Gold Coast with experience in placer mining, were used to retrieve Brazilian gold. Over the next century, 1,000 tons of gold were exported from the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais.


In 1719, Peter the Great, czar of Russia, issued an act permitting Russian gold seekers to pursue wealth for the enrichment of the state. By the time of the California gold rush, Russia was providing more than half of all newly mined gold in the world. After the serfs were freed in the mid-1800s, many of them flocked to the gold-mining areas of eastern Siberia. Despite harsh winters and mosquito-plagued summers, mining boomed in eastern Siberia.

The Great Gold Rushes

The gold rushes of the past few hundred years marked the first time that gold was pursued and acquired by--and for--individuals instead of governments or states.


The 1848 discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill in California sparked the greatest gold rush of all time. Hopeful prospectors from around the world, known as forty-niners, streamed to the hills of California. This migration played an important role in settling and developing California.

The forty-niners extracted over $500 million worth of gold from California's 100-mile-long Mother Lode. That amounts to over $10 billion at today's rates. The Mother Lode is the gold-bearing quartz formations east of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and west of the Sierra Nevada. The term "mother lode" has come to mean an abundant source of any kind.

Carpenter James Marshall found a pea-shaped lump of gold in a ditch at Sutter's Mill in California. The forty-niners extracted gold through panning, sluicing, hydraulic washing/mining and dredging.


Australian prospector Edward Hammond Hargraves discovered gold in the hills around Bathurst, New South Wales, in 1851. Hargraves was a veteran of the California gold rush and recognized in his homeland similarities to the gold-bearing geology he had seen in California.

Despite the government's efforts to control the flood of eager wealth-seekers, gold fever hit hard. Further discoveries were made from Victoria to Western Australia over the next 43 years. The final strike occurred in the Dundas goldfields in 1894.

Although gold had been discovered earlier in Australia, it was Hargraves' strike in 1851 that ignited the Australian gold rush.


From the 1850s to the end of the century, gold strikes were reported in Canada and Alaska. But it was the discovery of gold on the Klondike River in 1896 that sparked the last great gold rush, the most physically challenging of all. It took over a year for news of the strike to reach the public. By the time most of the tens of thousands of hardy "stampeders" made the steep, icy ascents of the Chilkoot and White Passes to reach the goldfields in Yukon Territory, Canada, the claims were already staked. By 1906, mining companies had purchased most individual claims. About 404,000 kilograms (1.1 million troy pounds) have been mined from Yukon placer deposits since 1898--an amount worth more than $5 billion in 2006.

After traveling by steamship to Skagway, Alaska, miners made the arduous 500-mile journey to the goldfields on foot and by boat.

"My feet are sore, my heels are blistered, my legs sore and lame, my hands, neck, shoulders sore and chafed from rope. But boys, don't think I'm discouraged; there is a golden glimmer in the distance." -Fred Dewey, Klondike prospector, 1898

Other Significant Gold Rushes

North Carolina and Georgia

The first documented gold find in the United States was in Cabarrus County, North Carolina, in 1799. Conrad Reed, a farmer's son, brought home a curious, 17-pound yellow "rock." His family used the nugget as a doorstop for three years before it was finally identified as gold. The Reed family began to mine gold the next year. They ran a placer mining operation at first--that is, the gold was in surface deposits--but underground mining began in 1831, after the discovery of a subsurface vein.

Enslaved Africans made up the labor force at the Reed Mine. In some southern mines they were allowed to keep a small amount of the gold they found to buy their freedom.

North Carolina led the United States in gold production until 1848, when gold was discovered in California.

Although gold had been mined in Georgia since the 1500s, first by the Cherokee and later by the Spanish, the rediscovery of gold in the 1820s brought a rush of thousands of prospectors to the region. By 1830, 8,500 grams (273 troy ounces) was being mined every day. The federal government produced the first gold coins at its mint in Dahlonega, Georgia.

Black Hills and Lead, South Dakota

In 1874, two miners, apparently part of Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer's expeditionary force, discovered gold in the Black Hills. News that Custer's expedition had found gold spread quickly and sparked the Black Hills gold rush.

In 1876, Fred and Moses Manuel, along with Hank Harney and Alex Engh, staked a claim near present-day Lead, South Dakota. They named their claim the Homestake. By the time it closed in December 2001, the Homestake Mine ranked as the oldest continuously operating mine in the United States. It had produced nearly 10 percent of the country's total gold supply.

The Homestake Mine is the deepest mine in North America. Its 375 miles of tunnels are as deep as 8,000 feet below Earth's surface.

Witwatersrand Goldfields, South Africa

Out on a hunting trip in 1834, Carel Kruger discovered gold in the Witwatersrand region of north-central South Africa. It was not until 1886, however, that gold deposits large enough to be profitable were found. Since then, South Africa has become the largest gold producer in the world.

Of all the gold ever mined, 40 percent has come from South Africa. About 98 percent of that gold came from the deep mines of the Witwatersrand region.

Sluice Box

The sluice box is a sloping wooden trough with small boards called riffles across the bottom. Miners pour a mix of water and gravel from the streambed into the sluice. Gravity causes the mix to flow down the sluice over the riffles. The dense gold is trapped in the riffles, and the lighter sediment washes away.

Placer miners use a sluice box to harness gravity and extract gold from stream gravels.