DAHLONEGA, Ga. — Long before the California gold rush, the mountains of North Georgia were the site of the nation’s first gold rush in Dahlonega, a city of 5,000 located 65 minutes north of Atlanta.
It was 1849 when Matthew Fleming Stephenson, an assayer with the Dahlonega Mint, stood on the steps of the courthouse and urged people not to head west in search of gold. After all, there was plenty in the hills surrounding the North Georgia city, he stressed.
“Why go to California? In that ridge lies more gold than man ever dreamt of. There’s millions in it,” Stephenson said as he pointed to nearby Findley Ridge. Thanks to Mark Twain who heard Stephenson’s quote from miners who in fact headed west, Stephenson’s quote is remembered as: “There’s gold in them thar hills.”
Indeed, the city’s fortunes changed forever in 1828, nearly two decades before the famous California Gold Rush. That year, gold was discovered in around Dahlonega, attracting miners by the thousands, but by 1849, the nation’s first gold rush was quieting down.
Exactly who discovered the gold in North Georgia — and where and when — is open to some debate; some sources say the Spanish discovered gold in the region during the 16th century. But what is certain is the impact gold had on the city.
The natives were forced out, and the U.S. Mint opened a branch mint in the city, which remained in operation until the start of the Civil War; the Confederate Treasury Department took over the facility following the state’s secession from the Union.
Between 1838 and 1861, the mint coined more than $6 million in gold. The dome of the state capitol in Atlanta has 60 ounces of gold panned in Dahlonega.
Today, the 1836 Lumpkin County Courthouse, where Stephenson uttered his famous words, is home to the Dahlonega Gold Museum Historic Site. Located on the town’s square, the courthouse is the oldest surviving courthouse building in the state, serving in that capacity until 1965.
The state park is a testament to the nation’s first major gold rush. The museum’s collection includes exhibits about how gold is mined, tools miners used and actual samples of gold. The building features wooden seats from 1889 and the judge’s chambers.
In addition, each October, the city hosts “Gold Rush Days,” a celebration of the city’s past. The festival features arts and crafts, food and a gold panning contest. More adventurous souls can try their hands at panning for gold at locations around Dahlonega.
Venture onto the campus of North Georgia College and State University and visit the Price Memorial Building. The building replaced the former U.S. Mint building, which was destroyed by fire, and features a steeple leafed with Dahlonega gold.
The museum is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday and from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. on Sunday. For more information, visit gastateparks.org/DahlonegaGoldMuseum.