An Englishman’s Trip To Rutherford, 1837
In 1837 G. W. Featherstonhaugh, an Englishman, made a trip through the Southern states, largely for the purpose of studying mineralogy. Later he wrote of his trip, publishing it in two volumes, under the title of “A Canoe Voyage Up The Minnay Sortor, with an account of the lead and copper deposits in Wisconsin; of the Gold Region in the Cherokee Country; and Sketches of Popular Manners.”
A section of his account, from volume two is given here, starting with his trip from Asheville to Rutherfordton.
In 1949 Clarence Griffin, who was at that time a Director of the North Carolina Department of Archives and History, the Rutherford County Historian and the editor of the Forest City Courier, wrote a periodic column for the Courier titled “Dropped Stitches in Rutherford History.” The following appeared in “Dropped Stitches” over several weeks beginning April 28, 1949. No effort has been made to replace the British (and in several cases perhaps incorrect) spelling. Griffin himself points out in an editorial comment that while the name “Bechler” appears repeatedly in the text, the German metallurgist spelled his name “Bechtler.” Moreover the reader will notice that the date September 24 is omitted in the narrative. Whether this is a typo or if that date was omitted by Griffin, or Featherstonhaugh, is unknown.
Contributed by Don Bailey
On taking my place in a corner of the stage coach at 1 a. m., I found three male passengers besides myself, and certainly they turned out to be the three of the most consummate blackguards I ever had the misfortune to be in company with. Their language was infamous; I had not conceived it possible for human beings to make themselves so detestably odious, or to express themselves in such a horrible profane manner as they did. They had been drinking and gambling up to the moment they got into the stage, and when they got tired with screaming and shouting, they began the most beastly practices, and made the stage coach so offensive that the instant the dawn began to appear I stopped the coach, just as we entered the defile, or “gap” as it is called, and apprized the driver of my intention to proceed the rest of the way down the mountain on foot. As the descent through the defile was precipitous, the stage-coach was obliged to proceed very slowly, so that I had sufficient leisure to look at the rocks, and enjoy the magnificent scenery, for eight miles from the summit of the mountain to Harris’s where we were to breakfast. I had a charming cool walk, free from the offensive noises of those execrable villains, and wished from the bottom of my heart, that this noble defile with its magnificent escarpments, instead of being only eight miles long, had extended all the way to Rutherfordton, where I proposed stopping. The rocks towards the upper part of the gap were gneiss, with an imperfect sort of granite at the bottom.
The breakfast-house, which I reached some time before the stage-coach, turned out to be a clean place, and the landlady consequently respectable people, so true it is that cleanliness is allied to Godliness. My first care was to let them know what sort of wretches were coming on in the stage, and what their conduct had been. I had gathered from their infamous colloquies, that one of them was called Ruff, another Alston, and the third they called Doctor. The landlord knew who they were, and said, “There wasn’t one of them fit to carry guts to a bar.” To understand this estimate of their manners, it is necessary to understand that the country people, when they take a bear cub, frequently tame it, and chain it in the yard, where it is the business of some negro boy to carry the entrails of any other animal to it for its food. I gave the landlord a sketch of the long journey I had performed, and told him that I had not met with such consummate scoundrels on the whole route. This procured me the satisfaction of eating my breakfast alone, and of learning it was the intention of the landlady (who was a South Carolina woman, and a country woman of these worthies, who, I was told, came from Winnsborough, in Fairfield County, of that State) to give them a little of her mind on the subject of their conduct, and to make the lesson more impressive, she began by giving them a very bad breakfast, which calling forth remonstrances, she entered upon the subject, con amore.
On re-entering the stage, I was surprised with an unexpected abatement of their insolence: the most offensive of the three, Ruff, (who was very much in want of three additional letters to his name) got to the top of the stage, and I saw no more of him until we arrived at Rutherfordton. The Doctor and the other fellow, having found out that I was a friend of Mr. C.____ in South Carolina, and that I knew who they were, and had it in my power to expose them, were submissive and civil. I was happy to be relived from their odious society by reaching Rutherfordton at half-past 1 P. M., where to my great pleasure I got room to myself at Mr. Twitty’s a very intelligent and obliging landlord. Here I made a clean and comfortable repast, during which Twitty crowned my satisfaction by producing a bottle of excellent London brown stout, of which he had received a hamper. Such a long period had elapsed since I had met with such a treat, that this noble bottle, of which I took every drop, made me forget all past annoyances; and after taking a very pleasant walk in the environs of this pleasing village, I retired to a nice clean bed.
The morning was beautiful, but cool enough to make a nice wood fire agreeable in my bedroom, which was not too well protected against the wind. After breakfast, I walked a few miles to visit a German, of the name of Bechler, who issued gold coinage of which I had seen several pieces. He received me very civilly, and I passed a great part of the day with him at his cottage in the woods. Bechler emigrated with a very clever young man, his son, from the Grand Duchy of Baden, where he had been a gunmaker and goldsmith of some reputation, and had acquired a considerable knowledge in the management of metals. He had resided seven years in this country, and had established for himself a character for integrity, as well as skill in his profession. I found him rather mystical and imaginative, as many Germans are; and certainly if he had lived when alchemy flourished, he would have been a conspicuous operator in that inviting art. It was probably this bias that induced him to settle in the Gold Region of North Carolina, where his career had been a rather singular one, but hitherto distinguished for much good sense.
The greater part of the small streams in this part of the Gold Region, have more or less gold in them, so that all the settlers upon the streams were engaged, more or less, in washing for gold. Each of them possessing but a small quantity, and there being no general purchaser, it was an article not easily disposed of without taking the trouble to go great distances. Bechler had also obtained some in the usual manner, and having made a die, coined his gold into five-dollar pieces, of the same intrinsic value as the half-eagles of the United States, which are worth five dollars each. He also coined pieces of the value of two dollars and a half, and stamped the value, as well as his own name, upon every piece that he coined. These, after awhile, found their way to the Mint of the United States, were assayed, and found to be correct. This becoming known, all the gold-finders in his vicinity—and, indeed, from greater distances—began to bring their gold to his mint to be coined. At the period of my visit, his gold coinage circulated more freely than that of the United States, which was very scarce. He told me that his books shewed that he had coined about two millions of dollars from the gold found by the settlers; putting his name, with its weight and quality to every piece. On receiving the gold from the country people—which in this part of the Gold Region is alloyed with silver—he first reduced it to a common standard, then made the five-dollar pieces equal to those of the United States in value, and when coined, delivered it to the respective proprietors, deducting two per cent, for the seignorage. It would be in his power to take improper advantage of the confidence placed in him; but I heard of no instance of his having attempted this. Some of the gold of this region is alloyed with platina, the specific gravity of which, compared with that of gold, is as 21 to 19. He might, therefore, have made the difference in weight up with platina, which would have put fourteen per cent into his pocket. As a metallurgist, he had all the skill necessary to do this; but when I mentioned the possibility of this as an argument against its being received into general circulation, he answered that it was what an honest man would not do, and that if any man were to do it, he would soon be found out, for the gold did not remain long in circulation, since it found its way very soon to the United States Mint, where it was necessary for him to keep a good character.
Bechler’s maxim was, that honesty is the best policy; and that maxim appeared to govern his conduct. I never was so pleased with observing transactions of business as those I saw at his house during the time I was there. Several country people came with rough gold to be left for coinage; he weighed it before them and entered it in his book, where there was marginal room for noting the subsequent assay. To others he delivered the coin he had struck. The most perfect confidence prevailed betwixt them, and the transactions were conducted with quite as much simplicity as those at a country grist-mill, where the miller deducts the toll for the grist he has manufactured. As gunsmiths, he and his son were pre-eminent for their ingenuity; they had invented various ingenious modes of firing rifles eight times in a minute. One with a chain of sixty caps, revolving by a catch of the trigger, was very neatly constructed, and was exceedingly curious. Young Bechler fired it off several times at a target placed at a distance of one hundred and sixty-five yards, and with great success. Having partaken of Mr. Bechler’s frugal dinner, I walked over his farm with him, which consisted of four hundred acres, with several mineral veins running through it N.N.E. and S.S.W.; some of which were auriferous, but, as I thought, not at all promising. This was not Mr. Bechler’s opinion, who was a great enthusiast about gold-mining, and entertained extraordinary mystical notions about mineral veins. Some of the specimens of auriferous rock were associated with arsenic; and in a tunnel which he had driven upon a vein, I observed talcose slate loaded with fine garnets. It appeared to me that he was in some danger of wasting the fair profits of his industry upon impracticable schemes, many of which his son did not approve of.
Highly gratified with my visit, I returned to my quarters at sunset, got a comfortable supper, and, by the side of a cheerful wood fire, wrote my letters and brought up my notes in peace and tranquility in my bedroom.
Having breakfast early, I left my luggage under the care of my worthy host, Mr. Twitty, and mounted a horse he had procured for me, for an excursion into the mountains, directing my course to Major Forney’s at Minersville. On my way I called at Bechler’s and directed him to have my name inlaid with the gold found on his own farm, on the barrel of one of his pistol rifles that kills at one hundred yards. From thence I rode to Jamestown, a straggling place in a valley something like the Nahcoochay Valley, in Georgia, but all turned topsy-turvy by the gold-diggers, who had utterly ruined these beautiful valleys for agricultural purposes. Continuing from hence, I reached the beautiful situation where Major Forney had established himself, and where he had made another desolation. His buildings were situated on a knoll in a lovely valley surrounded with lofty hills, which was defaced in every direction with piles of washed earth and gravel eight and ten feet high. Here I saw the first attempt to restore some fertility to the soil by paring the best part of the alluvial earth from the top, and throwing it on one side to be afterwards replaced when the subjacent gravel had been washed.
The general formation here was gneiss; hornblende slate also abounded. Major Forney was a country-merchant and store-keeper as well as a gold-washer, and politely asked me to stay at his house, offering to accompany me in any excursions I was desirous of making. These kindnesses I gratefully accepted; and after dinner we went to look at a vein called the Nichol’s vein, running on the side of a hill east and west, and dipping to the north. The older veins running N.N.E. and S.S.W., appeared to have been swept away from where the valley now is when it was excavated, but can be yet traced. The Nichol’s vein is composed of a brittle, glossy, and fissile quartz, containing a good deal of galena, with copper pyrites, malachite, and blue carbonate of copper. Specks of native gold are occasionally found in it.
On our return in the evening, I went to see the closing of the day’s work at the gold-washing. Twelve men were employed. Major Forney had dug a trench through the alluvial deposits, about nine feet wide, and with a view to prevent the rich bottom-land from being utterly destroyed, had very laudably adopted the following process. A small portion of the trench was dug until they came to the gravel containing the gold; the metal being taken out of this by means of the rockers, the gravel was then thrown to the left of the trench, and covered with sand and loose soil at hand; as fast as this was done other labourers pared off with spades the fertile soil laying on the top of that part of the trench which remained to be dug, and placed it at the top of the sand and loose soil till it had reached its former level. The sand being now reinstated in every thing except the gold, was ready the next spring for being leveled with hoes and harrows, and for being planted with Indian corn. As soon as one trench was dug out and the gravel washed, another was commenced. This was an excellent piece of work, and I had the satisfaction of seeing a crop of Indian corn that would average about fifty bushels per acre growing upon land that had been trenched the previous year.
Two hundred thousand dollars worth of native gold had been already taken out of this extensive bottom, of which a great many acres remain yet untouched. The production in gold was said to amount to about four thousand five hundred dollars annually, while the cost of trenching and washing one acre was about one thousand dollars, the labour being performed by both white and black men. The first received fifty cents or half a dollar per diem, and maintained themselves. They were natives of this mountainous country, were altogether illiterate, not knowing even their letters, and with very few exceptions their children received no education whatever. I looked into many of their huts, and it would be difficult to find any thing more rude and dirty. The women seemed to be very prolific, for it was not an uncommon thing to find a woman big with child suckling an infant in her arms, and screaming to a set of brats that were crawling about like kittens in every corner of a room without either windows or doors. And thus they crawl through life without either religious or moral instruction. Yet upon inquiring of them, they all seemed to prefer their mountain life with all its disadvantages, the greatest of which unfortunately they seem to totally insensible of.
The black men employed in washing were slaves, and appeared to be submissive in their manners and to work very hard. They were closely watched to prevent their secreting any pieces of gold they might find. Many beautiful minerals were found in these washings, fine tourmalines, crystallized hornblende, with extremely transparent specimens of rock crystal; a few brilliant diamonds, too, although very small, had been found, and some platina, of which I collected a few grains of very small size. From the general resemblance of this mineral district to that of the Ural district in Russia, it is far from being improbable that specimens of platina of greater magnitude, as well as other minerals corresponding to those in that district, will hereafter be found in the mountains of North Carolina. Major Forney, who had had a great deal of experience in washing for gold in this valley, says, that he uniformly finds the heaviest particles of gold lying nearest to the veins, and that he is able from long practice to recognize the gold of different veins, so that when gold-finders bring their metal to his store, he knows at once what vein it comes from.
After breakfast, I started for an excursion with Major Forney to Huntsville. On our way, we passed some fine looking land, and crossed a ridge of hornblende slate. The valley at Huntsville had been washed with some success, much of the gold being in rough pieces and partly crystallized into curious shapes, specimens of which I purchased according to my custom to add to my cabinet. We visited a great many auriferous veins, which although they were larger than those at Dahlonega, in Georgia, did not appear to be so numerous or so productive. After a fatiguing ride we returned to our quarters. I found the population in the course of this day’s ride a very low cast, scarce superior to Indians in any thing but the use of tools. On arrival at Major Forney’s, I again attended the closing of the gold washing, and saw that the deposit in this valley was about twelve feet deep down to the talcose slate. At the surface, there was a fertile light red-colored loam, then a dark-coloured clay, and lastly came the auriferous gravel about two feet deep, being the order in which these substances are deposited in Georgia. A large branch of poplar had been found this day lying upon the dark-coloured clay and covered with the red loam. It looked very fresh, and on taking it up, it smelt like soaked leather. Every fibre and layer of the wood was distinctly preserved, and being saturated with water it was heavy. On applying my knife to it, it cut easily and waxily, like soap, the wood being reduced to a quasi gelantinous consistency. Lower down in the deposit, and just within the gravel, was a portion of the root of a hickory tree, just as fresh looking as the poplar, it was in the same state as the poplar and smelt exactly like it. The overseer told me he had frequently found similar pieces of wood pressed into the top part of the slate. If these facts prove that the country was wooded before the gravel was deposited, there is reason to suppose also that it was inhabited, for on the 6th of September, Mr. John Ewing C_____ shewed me an antique Indian stone pipe which one of his labourers had dug out of the slate near Dahlonega beneath the gravel. The talcose slate is often soft and decomposed for several inches below the gravel; but on applying the pickaxe to it, the dry, hard rock is soon reached, so that there is no room to doubt that it is the true talcose slate.
The soft state of the wood found under these circumstances suggests some reflections. Lignite is found in the tertiary and in some higher beds in the series which have been left dry; but these woods found in the auriferous deposits, are not in the state of lignite, but of wood saturated with water, with its structure softened down to a saponaceous consistency. The inference, therefore, presents itself, that these last specimens have been deposited at a period posterior to the tertiary beds, and that the excavation of these valleys in the Gold Region, the general modification of the surface, and the deposit of gold and gravel with wood in the valleys, may have been produced by the historic deluge. In this view Mr. C____’s pipe is evidence of the existence of man here at that period. Has there not been too much haste in abandoning the opinion once generally entertained, that a great portion of what geologists have called diluvium, was a result of the Noachic Deluge?
After breakfast we again mounted our horses and proceeded towards Rutherfordton. On our way we examined a promising looking N.N.E. vein, which cuts the valley obliquely. Forney said the gravel deposit was very rich where the vein touched the valley, and became poorer in proportion to its distance from it. The principal rock here was gneiss with occasional garnets. After looking at various veins, we came at length to Wallace’s vein, which I thought the richest lode I had seen. It contained an unusual quantity of dark sulphuret of iron, and where it was above the water-level, and was affected by the atmosphere, was very much decomposed, and shewed a great deal of gold in the folds of the crystallized pyrites. It was an exceedingly beautiful ore. I have seen a shaft down which the solid ore—a copper pyrites containing gold—was in a hard state, quite brilliant, and undecomposed. Two veins were here parallel to each other equally rich. At one place the ground was strewed over with pieces of massive sulphuret of iron, shewing gold, but not in the cubical form. This estate, containing three most promising veins, belonged to Major Forney, and consisted of four hundred acres of land with very ample and commodious water power. The country was singularly beautiful, perfectly healthy, and if any confidence may be placed in gold mining, I thought it one of the most promising places I had seen. Many of these places were certainly very productive; but all their owners appeared to be embarrassed in their circumstances.
This perhaps can be explained; they came here without capital, buy a place on credit, apply their profits to the purchase of slaves, and to the unavoidable expenses of the management of their undertakings; and not contented with waiting until they are rewarded by a patient industry that would in the end release them from mortgage and debt, they endeavour to monopolize every new place that promises to be productive, purchasing them at the most extravagant prices on credit, so that the profit they obtain at each locality are insufficient to keep down their debts, and they are harassed to death by their creditors. They believe themselves to be in the possession of unbounded wealth at the moment when every body acquainted with their affairs believes them insolvent. If an opportunity presents itself of selling any part of their property, they feel as if they were parting with a mountain of gold, and ask twenty times more than the property is worth, and so never sell it at all, but drag on a harried and painful existence, the slaves of their creditors, till they are forced to a general liquidation, and lose everything. This I found to be pretty much the history of all the large undertakers in gold mining who entered it without capital.
We reached Rutherfordton near sunset, loaded with fine specimens. On the road Major Forney told me an anecdote about bees. He had an apiary at his place, and I had remarked that the honey was very fine. He said that was because it had been a bad season for fruit, and that he had remarked when peaches, apples, and pears were plentiful, the bees were apt to resort altogether to them to drink their juices, and to neglect the flowers; so that when the fruit season was over, they first devoured their small store of honey, then went marauding to other hives that did not belong to them, and lost many of their numbers in fighting. At such seasons, the dead bees about the hives were very numerous, many dying from their wounds and others from starvation. Steady occupation, therefore, it would seem keeps bees honest as well as men, and idle indulgences produce in the end mischief and crime.
After breakfast, I walked out to Bechler’s and other places in his neighborhood. The old man was very glad to see me, and conducted me to various interesting places. I obtained some specimens of gneiss with transparent garnets from his tunnel; the arsenical rock came in at eighty feet deep from the surface. The whole of this neighborhood was remarkable for the abundance of massive auriferous pyrites it contained, generally more or less decomposed for about eighty feet from the surface. I observed that the rocks adjacent to the decomposed ones were sometimes tinged with a vermillion red. In many of the veins, however, the pyrites were not massive, but consisted of detached cubical crystals. These also, when they had been exposed to moisture, were partially or entirely decomposed, and the cavities in the crystals frequently contained crystals of sulphur, and then laminated gold. When the sulphuret has undergone this chemical action, the plates which form the skeleton of the cube appear in some instances to be silex, in other to be native gold. The gold appears to be perfectly covered with the sulphuret, and only exhibits itself when heat is applied. In some of the gold ores the quartz is blotched with dark purple-coloured spots, which show no gold under the most powerful microscope; but upon exposing them to heat, a small globule of gold appears surrounded by a dark stain. I suppose the gold to exist in the sulphuret in such a thin leafy state, that on application of the heat, the sulphur is driven off, and the lamina melted into a minute globule. The decomposition of the massive sulphurets beneath the surface is the effect of a spontaneous combustion produced in the manner of some shales and coal mines and is attended with an extrication of heat sufficient to colour the rocks. These facts are deserving the attention of philosophers engaged in the discussion of “central heat”. Amongst other rocks, I found one that was quartzose and brittle containing a fine steel-grey-looking metal resembling tellurium.
Mr. Bechler having inlaid my name on the rifle with native gold, I paid him for it, and took a hearty leave of him and his worthy son, and again returned to my lodgings loaded with specimens. Amongst other practical observations, Mr. Bechler told me that the finest gold is obtained from the streams in the winter, because in cold weather the quicksilver only has an affinity for the purer quality of gold, whilst in warm weather it is more active, and takes up various metals. I saw also at Bechler’s a very sensible barometer in a tub, containing nitrate of silver and a piece of copper, the silver floating in fine weather, and sinking on the appearance of rain.
This morning I walked to see a vein of mammillary quartz, running east and west, about two miles from Rutherfordton which was very curious. In every direction something new was to be found in this remarkable mineral country; either auriferous veins, or lodes varied with large plates of talc and other interesting minerals. The hornblende lands appeared to be uniformly fertile, and nothing could be more rural and picturesque than the general surface of this salubrious country. Every cottage had its collection of curiosities and specimens of native gold. A more agreeable country for a mineralogist cannot be imagined, and I prepared for my departure with regret. Having made a last and hearty dinner at my worthy landlord’s, Mr. Twitty, and drank a bottle of his good London porter, I got into the stage-coach once more for Lincolnton.
We had twenty-three miles to drive to Schenck’s, a house upon the road where we were to sleep, and it would have been an agreeable drive enough, but for the crazy conduct of the incorrigible driver. The road went through a pleasant woodland country, varied with gentle hills and vales watered by the sources of the Santee River, with a few shabby taverns here and there. The fellow had no sooner got out of Rutherfordton, than he whipped his horses into a gallop, which I was not sorry at, as the road was tolerably good; but this was only to arrive quicker at the first tavern, where he drank rum enough to make him noisy, talkative, and obstinate. I could not prevail upon him to leave the place for near an hour, and when he got on the box, he lashed his horses again into a gallop, cursing and swearing in the most atrocious manner. Again he stopped at another tavern, and immediately flew to the rum bottle, treating all the blackguards at the place, and making the most foolish bets with them. The fellows that kept these low taverns were as bad as himself, the rum seemed to make them all supremely happy, and they cared for nothing. At last, by coaxing, I got him on the box again, but he was in such an inflamed state with the liquor he had drank, that I soon saw he had very little judgment about his reins, and on we went at full gallop, continually grazing the stumps, forty times on the point of being upset whilst at full speed. There was no remedy; once or twice I thought of knocking him off the box and taking the reins myself; but it was a perilous experiment, and at length, I made up my mind to remain quiet and meet the chances with as much composure as I could. If he had upset us, it was very probable we should both of us had our limbs broke, and remained in the woods all night; but it was not ordained, and we reached our destination without accident. At the supper-table I found two traveling Methodist preachers, strange uncouth persons, and upon my relating the conduct of the driver to the landlord in their presence, one of them asked him, “if there was no tea-total society in the neighborhood,” upon which he answered, “No, I reckon we are all rum-total in these parts.”