Thursday, October 17, 2019

Gold Fever Hits Arkansas

Washington Telegraph advertisement, 1849,
courtesy of the Arkansas State Archives

James W. Marshall was working Jan. 24, 1848, at his sawmill in Coloma, California, when he saw a glint in a nearby stream. Curious, Marshall walked over to investigate and discovered gold. 

As news about the gold spread, people across the country, including in Arkansas, packed up their belongings and started the arduous trip across the U.S. to California.

Many Arkansans packed up their earthly goods to seek their fortunes. Others began seeking gold in their own state.

For those heading to the West Coast, a popular starting point for going to California was Van Buren in Crawford County. The westward route was about 1,300 miles of rugged terrain, and travelers would face many challenges along the way. The Comanche and Apache nations were hostile toward travelers encroaching on their lands. Even if travelers avoided attacks, it was impossible to avoid the arid desert and high altitude landscape of the Colorado Plateau and the Rocky Mountains. Only the most prepared travelers would be able to make it to California.

Van Buren merchants made sure their stores were stocked with items for the trip. Fort Smith and Van Buren benefited financially from the gold rush because they were located on the main road that headed west. As the first town on the route, Van Buren seemed to profit the most from the travelers. Outfitting businesses sprang up overnight. The towns’ hotels also saw a modest gain in business. 

After all, this would be the last hotel on the trail until Santa Fe, New Mexico. The editor of the Fort Smith Weekly Herald remarked, “If gold is to be found on them as plentiful as represented, we shall expect to see our town continually filling with persons going there in quest of gold as we are situated on the right road to those mountains.”

Because of difficulties in traveling, some gold hunters hoped there would be a gold deposit closer to home. It was not long before rumors of gold deposits surfaced.

One story had it that a Native American man visiting Louisiana presented a large lump of gold. When inspected, it was revealed to be authentic. The Van Buren Intelligencer reported the man saw the look of surprise from people inspecting his gold and boasted that “If they called that gold, he could show them a household of it.” He said the gold came from the shores of the Arkansas River near an unincorporated area called Walnut Creek in the Wichita Mountains in Indian Territory.

Another story held two men living near Walnut Creek discovered gold dust on the creek bank. After further exploration, the two men announced to the public that their find was massive.

 The fervor for gold caused a mad dash for mountains in Oklahoma. Within weeks of the rumor, a company had established itself on the site and several others were forming. Fortune hunters in Arkansas quickly began to form an expedition. In June 1849, the Arkansas Intelligencer in Van Buren began publishing a series of advertisements announcing a public meeting to discuss plans for the trip.
Those who gathered at Van Buren chose Col. William Black, a long-time resident of Northwest Arkansas, to lead the expedition. Black had traveled to Walnut Creek in 1826 and claimed he recalled the shores of the creek were shining with gold sands. At the time, he and his traveling companions decided that sifting through the sand would be too time consuming and vowed to return to see if they could mine the area. Now he was getting his chance. “I certainly believe,” he promised, “if we go prepared with a proper outfit and not be in too great a hurry as we were before, we will get gold enough to pay us well for our trouble.”

Eighty prospectors set out Aug. 15, 1849, from Van Buren with dreams of gold and riches. They arrived in the Wichita Mountains two weeks later and set to work. They toiled for weeks with little to no success at finding gold, and soon, people in the company became disillusioned with the enterprise.
C.W. LeGrand, who traveled from Franklin Parish, Louisiana, to join the group, left the expedition in November. When asked about his time in the mountains, he told the Van Buren Intelligencer, “Though the trip has not been altogether an unpleasant one, I feel that I would have enjoyed myself more at home.” 

Black could not account for the gold sand he claimed to have seen in 1826. Some in the camps grumbled it was not gold he saw, but mica, a mineral that can glitter like gold. As 1850 dawned, those still in the camp began to slowly drift either back to Arkansas or onward to California. Despite this, over the next 70 years, prospectors took the trip to the Wichita Mountains in search of Col. Black’s lost gold. Today, the region is dotted with ghost towns and the remains of failed mining operations.
Even though expeditions to the Wichita Mountains failed, the promise of gold in California continued to bring travelers through Arkansas. The town of Van Buren went from sleepy to bustling, full of energy, and vibrant.

For more information about Arkansas history, visit the Arkansas State Archives at 1 Capitol Mall, Suite 215, email or call 501-682-6900.