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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Texas Gold Rush

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Only four years after thousands of Forty-niners flocked to California in search of riches, a wave of Fifty-threers headed for the Hill Country in a little known and short-lived Texas gold rush.

Word of potential wealth in newly created Burnet County spread across the nation as fast as sailing ships could make it from Indianola and Galveston to New York with Texas newspapers.

“Important from Texas – The Gold Discoveries Confirmed—Great Excitement,” read a one-column headline in the April 20, 1853 edition of the New York Times. That report had been abbreviated from the New Orleans Picayune of April 18. According to the item:

“The news fully confirms the previous reports received of rich discoveries of gold on the Upper Colorado River, and also above Austin. Large amounts had already been collected by those who proceeded to the ‘diggins,’ and the greatest excitement prevailed throughout all Texas.”

Of course, the shining belief that gold – and silver – could be found in the Hill Country dated back to Spanish Texas. Later, colonizer Stephen F. Austin bought into the idea, as did the adventurous scalawag Jim Bowie. While his dreams of wealth ended at the Alamo, the notion persisted that the mineral-rich hills north and west of Austin held untold riches. And for a few months in 1853, it looked like Texas would be the new California.

A week after its first report, the Times offered its readers more details on the Texas bonanza. Reprinting a story from the April 15 Galveston News, the New York newspaper said:

“The steamer James L. Day arrived this morning from Aransas and Matagorda Bays. The most important item of news is the discovery of gold mines in Hamilton’s Valley, above Austin. We have heard rumors of these mines by gentlemen from the interior, but we had occular proof of their existence in a specimen which Captain Talbot exhibited to us this morning. It is a piece of quartz rock, a little larger than a common-sized marble, with pieces of bright gold attached to it. The color of the gold is much clearer than California specimens.”

The newspaper went on to report that “rumors are rife of large quantities of gold being found throughout the western portion of [Texas]” with “great excitement prevailing at Austin, San Antonio, Seguin, Gonzales and other points.” Indeed, several "companies" (used in the 19th century as a synonym for "parties" or "groups") were organized and en route to search for gold.

Though longer, this story offered no further detail on the location of the reported gold find other than in Hamilton’s Valley “and various other places.” Still, the final information in the story doubtless contained all the information seekers of wealth needed to read: “One person sold a piece of quartz in San Antonio for $25.” Back then, $25 had the purchasing power of $780 today.

A month later, the Texas gold rush continued to make national news.

“The latest news from Texas will excite all those who desire to make money in any other than the natural way—by hard work of the hands and brain,” began a piece in the Alton, Ill. Weekly Courier of May 20, 1853. The Illinois newspaper went on to reprint an item from the Lavaca Commercial (a long-extinct Port Lavaca sheet) that actually offered some detail on Texas’ new-born mining district.

“There are now from 300 to 400 persons at work in the mines, and we learn that they are averaging from $5 to $10 per day each, and some few of them have already succeeded in gathering as much as $1,500 to $2,000 worth of gold.”

Austin’s Texas State Gazette weighed in with a report that up to 500 people were hard at work digging for gold “in our neighborhood,” including one operator who in two days “obtained $500 worth of gold.” Noting that the gold play was “easy of access from this city,” the newspaper continued that “we shall not be surprised to hear soon of discoveries equalling in importance the golden stories of California.”

On July 3, 1853 Burnet County pioneer Logan Vandeveer, a Kentuckian who had fought in the Texas Revolution, wrote his father that there was “some excitement in this country about gold mines and other minerals.” He continued: “I cannot see how it will turn out. The people come here in great quantities. Some of them return and some and others remain. It could be the means of selling this country.”

Despite all the hoopla, at least one out-of-state newspaper editor had his doubts about the purported gold discoveries in Texas.

“This reads very much like a hum,” the Milwaukee’s Weekly Wisconsan had observed on May 18. By “hum,” the writer meant humbug, as in hoax or fraud.

Alas, even if all that glitters IS gold, that particular precious metal has to be available in real plentitude to sustain a boom. While some apparently did find some gold, by summer of that year reports concerning the great Texas gold fields had disappeared from the newspapers.

Though the Hill Country did not prove to be the new El Dorado, gold has been and can be found in the beds of various streams feeding into the Colorado above Austin, including Hamilton Creek in Burnet County. But while geologists have long since concluded that the mineral-rich region (with Llano County being the epicenter) does have gold deposits, it does not exist in commercial quantity.

Still, with the current price of gold being $1,400-plus an ounce….

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" July 14, 2011 column

Texas Buried Treasures

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