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Mining History in the United States

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By Albert S. Bolles in 1879

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Nevada MinersThe hope of finding mineral treasure was one of the incentives that led the early colonists to America and they were quite diligent in searching for metals. All along the Atlantic Coast, almost immediately after the first settlements, discoveries were made of silver, lead, copper, iron, tin, antimony, coal, and other valuable minerals; but, they were found generally in small quantities; and, in competition with foreign production, the working of mines was frequently found unprofitable. Then, too, the presence and hostility of Indians made such enterprises dangerous.


Iron ore was sent to England from near Jamestown in 1608, the year after Virginia was first permanently settled; and in 1620, 150 skilled workmen were sent to the colony to erect and operate ironworks. An Indian massacre two years later; however, put a discouraging end to the proceedings. Another discouragement grew out of such blunders as the supposed discovery of gold in Virginia by Captain John Smith. A shipload of the glittering dust was sent to England, and there, pronounced to be nothing but iron pyrites.


However, the plucky colonists persevered in spite of all depressions and obstacles, and made very creditable beginnings. was resumed permanently in in 1715. The metal was found in Massachusetts in 1628 and later, a company was formed to work it in 1643. Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, and Pennsylvania followed suit. Penn had discovered iron as early as 1683; but no forges are mentioned on his grants earlier than 1719-20. began in Missouri, then belonging to France, in 1720; and the old Southampton silver-lead mine was opened in Massachusetts in 1765. Copper mining is first heard of in Connecticut, the Simsbury mines being worked as early as 1709; but they were abandoned as unprofitable about the middle of that century. The Schuyler Mine, near Belleville, New Jersey, was discovered in 1719, and is historic as the scene of the building of the first steam-engine in America in 1793-94. Lake Superior copper was first mined by the whites in 1771, and in small quantities. In the early colonial days the settlers used wood for fuel, and charcoal for the forge and smelting-works. Coal, however, was found in Rhode Island in 1768, and mined for use. The great bituminous seam near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania was struck in 1784. Previous to this time coal, was found in quantities in Virginia; and canals were cut, connecting parallel rivers to facilitate its transportation. By 1789, quite an export trade with adjacent colonies had been built up.


Frontier LingoAt numerous other points along the Atlantic seaboard, these and other metals were found prior to the American Revolution. Smelting works and forges were erected to reduce the ores, some of which, were exported. The home government discouraged the manufacture of metals in this country, though, at that period; which was a damper upon From these humble beginnings, slow advances were made for several decades. The Revolutionary War, by cutting off supplies from England, and creating a special demand for iron and copper ordnance and lead bullets, as well as other metal for domestic and other implements, gave a peculiar stimulus to mining, although the army so drained the country of men as to leave few for such occupations.


It was not the early 19th Century, that there were any marked strides in the mining business. In 1820 attempts were made to mix anthracite coal with charcoal in iron smelting, but the experiment was not successful until 1831, when the hot-blast was invented; then both the coal and iron industry took a tremendous start. In 1835, lead mining received a wonderful impetus in Missouri and Iowa from new discoveries.


Copper mining was revived along Lake Superior about 1842, and made a sudden jump. The California gold fever of 1849 was the beginning of the search and procurement of that metal on a considerable scale. Petroleum came prominently into notice for the first time in August, 1859, when the Drake Well struck oil; and the Comstock Lode was discovered in Nevada that same year, and laid the foundation of these silver mining business.


A review of the history of mining during this important period shows that our operations have been characterized by intense excitement and magnified speculative speculation, by gross blunders and by great waste. Says Kimball, the character of it "is an instructive narrative of fluctuating fortune, ranging through all the intermittent vicissitudes of prosperity and stagnation, of factitious inflations and calamitous recoils, of blind delusion and credulity, of stolid unbelief, of highest popularity, and general distrust."



Continued Next Page




Savage Works Mill, Virginia City, Nevada

Savage Works Mill, Virginia City, Nevada, photo by  

Timothy H. O'Sullivan, 1867.

This image available for photographic prints  and downloads HERE!



Gold Panning in the American West

Old Prospector.

This image available for photographic prints  and downloads HERE!



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