By Warren R. Johnson. Photography courtesy of Warren R. Johnson and New Georgia Encyclopedia
The words gold digging and Georgia aren’t often uttered in the same refrain, especially since California is widely known as the site of the U.S. gold rush. But that gold distinction, in fact, is held by the quiet north Georgia town of Auraria where America’s first major gold rush occurred.
While today it remains a ghostly sketch of a once thriving town, the history that exists is as fascinating as the remaining structures.
Gold was discovered in Auraria in 1828 and the population swelled to 4,000 by 1848. When gold was discovered in California in 1849, most of the miners had left Auraria for better diggings, which reduced the population to 300 in just days.
Benjamin Parks is credited with finding the first gold. About 1828, he went deer hunting in the vicinity of Auraria. Walking quietly through the woods, he stumbled over a rock. He knew it was gold. He took the rock home and tried to keep his find a secret until he could decide what to do with this nugget.
That decision was to get mineral rights to the land with a lease for 40 years. Soon, the news was out and others started streaming to the area. They came to be known as the ‘29ers. There was no town; there was no county. This was Cherokee land. These Cherokee were a civilized people, molded by the white missionaries who had come among them.
The Federal Government promised Georgia the Cherokee would be removed from the land. By 1830, that had not happened, so Georgians instituted a raffle to give the land to whites in 160 acre parcels or 40 acre parcels where there was known to be gold. The Cherokee fought for their rights in the U.S. Supreme Court, where they were upheld. But President Andrew Jackson ignored the ruling and thus began the Trail of Tears, driving the Cherokee off their land toward Oklahoma.
Miners flocked onto a ridge of land between the Etowah and Chestatee rivers, developing the little town of Auraria. Its name derives from the Latin meaning gold mine. By 1833, it was incorporated by the state legislature.
One of the more interesting personalities in Auraria was Grandma Paschal. She was known as the Angel of Mercy of Auraria, taking care of the sick and the infirmed; although Auraria had an abundance of lawyers, it did not have a doctor.
Grandma Paschal took subscriptions to start the first church in Auraria – the Antioch Baptist Church. Hastily built, the church crumbled with the first snowfall. She built another church that lasted 110 years.
Auraria lost its place in the run for the county seat, as the land that reserved for the courthouse had been won in the raffle and could not be legally verified. Dahlonega, a town five miles up the road, became the center of county government.
The 1849 California Gold Rush achieved more fame than the 1829 Georgia Gold Rush yet, the gold discovered in Georgia was more pure than that found in California. The Georgia miners remembered this and many returned to Georgia.
The national Panic of 1857 caused American people to live in survival mode. This struggle forced the Russell brothers of Auraria – Wm. Green, Joseph, and Levi – to look to the Kansas Territory for the opportunity to seek new gold claims. In June 1858, the Russell brothers stopped in the foothills of the Rockies at Cherry Creek, Colorado. Here they found gold and started the Pike’s Peak Gold Rush.
Quickly, a town developed on the banks of Cherry Creek that they named Auraria. A little west of this second Auraria, they found a major gold-bearing quartz vein and a second town sprung up across the creek from Auraria. These two towns were arch rivals but eventually became one town named Denver.
Today, Denver is a major city, but Georgia’s Auraria is a ghost town. Only a few buildings are visible to the public. Auraria Road extends from Dahlonega to Highway 400, a freeway running into Atlanta. Without knowledge of Auraria, one might wonder why those old dilapidated buildings are there. A drive down the west side of the ridge to the Etowah River will bring you to a new concrete bridge. The days of this once prominent town in Lumpkin County are long gone, but not dead.