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Graduate research: ‘Manufactured savagery’ during the Georgia gold rush

  • Justin Estreicher stands beside stacks in a library
    GRS award winner:  Justin Estreicher will discuss his research into the Georgia gold rush and the false narrative inflicted upon the native Cherokee to remove them from the land that they were actively mining for gold.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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Two decades or so before the great California gold rush, there was a smaller, but still considerable, excitement surrounding the precious metal in Georgia.

Justin Estreicher says that many of the historical details about the Georgia gold rush are murky. For instance, there are a number of stories about who first discovered the Georgia gold and where.

“The short answer is that no one really knows, as no documentary evidence of the discovery appears until an August 1, 1829, report by the Georgia Journal,” he said.

Other aspects of the Georgia gold rush are not so difficult to pin down, even if they may not be particularly well-known. Estreicher is probing the connection between Georgia gold and the displacement of the indigenous Cherokee who were living in the region.

Estreicher is a Ph.D. student in William & Mary’s Lyon G. Tyler Department of History, where his advisor is Andrew Fisher, an associate professor in the department. For his research on the connection between gold and Cherokee displacement, Estreicher is the recipient of the William & Mary Interdisciplinary Award for Excellence in Research.

The award is one of three honors bestowed in conjunction with the annual Graduate Research Symposium. This year, the symposium content is being presented in an online format in accord with the university’s social-distancing policies during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Estreicher's work is titled "‘Unoccupied and of a Valuable Kind’: The Georgia Gold Rush and Manufactured Cherokee Savagery.” It describes how the region’s Cherokee, especially those tribal members who had begun to mine gold themselves, were subjected to a campaign that began with fake news, quickly escalating into what Estreicher calls “manufactured savagery,” creating a narrative that the Cherokee were too primitive to mine or even appreciate their own gold. It progressed into legal chicanery and even physical violence.

The aim was to give Euro-American miners and speculators a clear field at the emerging Georgia gold fields, he explained. Media and politicians portrayed the Cherokee as simple hunter-gatherers, incapable of taking advantage of all that gold.

The Cherokee goldlands were “unoccupied and of a valuable kind,” according to the narrative of the time. The phrase comes from an 1832 article in the Milledgeville Recorder, reprinted in the Cherokee Phoenix (the Cherokee national newspaper).

“The author was expressing his confidence that President Andrew Jackson's actions would make Cherokee lands available for purchase within a few years,” Estreicher said. “In the meantime, he claimed, white Americans could find plenty of land and gold mines to work, both being ‘unoccupied and of a valuable kind.’”

Those lands, while certainly valuable, were not unoccupied and indeed the gold fields were actively being worked by Cherokee miners. Estreicher says that it is likely that the early waves of intruding white miners used methods that were no more efficient than those being used by the Cherokee — panning and simple surface mining. But the era of low-tech gold mining didn’t last.

“The arrival of larger mining companies and the exhaustion of readily accessible surface deposits would lead to much more capital- and technology-intensive Euro-American operations as the gold rush wore on,” he said. “We also know that many white gold-seekers brought slaves to work their mines for them; we do not know whether any Cherokee slaveholders used similar labor in their workings.”

Estreicher also points out that evidence exists for a Cherokee understanding of gold that predates European contact. He cited archaeological evidence of crucibles that could have been used to process precious metals. He added that historians believe that Hernando DeSoto’s explorations found that Native peoples in the region were working with gold nuggets.

“The fact that white newcomers in the 1830s chose as the name of the town where the mint would be located — Dahlonega, a Cherokee word that they understood to refer to ‘the place of yellow metal’ — suggests that the Cherokees, at least by that time, had a culturally established association between their land and gold,” he said.

The infamous Trail of Tears — the forced migration of the Cherokee — is one chapter in the tragic book of Cherokee removal; the Georgia gold rush is another, less-known chapter.

The gold rush is a smaller chapter, as well: Estreicher says that he believes that the gold rush accelerated the process, but the larger Cherokee removal was motivated by Euro-American pressure to acquire Cherokee agricultural lands — land that the tribal members had been successfully farming using European-style agricultural practices. Estreicher says the Euro-American appetite for Cherokee land holdings was driven in large part by the spread of large-scale cotton production to the Deep South.

The gold rush chapter in the tragedy of Cherokee removal may be smaller and less well-known in comparison to removal of the Cherokee from agricultural lands, but the actions of those who coveted the Cherokee gold fields were more intense.

“Assaults on Cherokee agriculture were mostly confined to the realm of rhetoric, whereas white Americans quickly turned to physical violence, property destruction and the force of law to prevent the Cherokees from mining,” Estreicher said.

He explained that the Cherokee were protected by a number of laws. Once gold was discovered in Georgia, the interests brought about legal machinations to negate those safeguards.

“Even the notorious Indian Removal Act of 1830 acknowledged the reality and inviolability of Native ‘improvements,’” Estreicher said as an example. “Georgia's land lottery law, though, effectively excluded constructions around gold mines from the category of protected ‘improvements,’ thus providing for a legal erasure of the Cherokees' resource use.”