Mining History in the United States

By Albert S. Bolles in 1879

Gould and Curry Miners, Lawrence and Houseworth, 1866

Gould and Curry Miners, Lawrence and Houseworth, 1866

The 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.

At 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.

Virginia City, Nevada Mining Works

Virginia City, Nevada Savage Works Mill, by Timothy H. O Sullivan, 1867. Click for prints products and downloads.

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.”

The possibility of making a great deal of money in a short time always crazes people; and the discovery of large deposits of metal, both the baser and the precious, affords just such inviting possibilities to the workman and to the capitalist. And so, in the case of each of the great discoveries of lead, copper, gold, oil, and silver, a large proportion of the country’s population has been rendered frantic. An immense rush has set in toward the center of interest; fortunes large and small, often augmented by extensive borrowing from credulous friends and relatives, have been invested in land claims, and stock companies to work them; towns and villages have sprung up almost in a day, like Jonah’s gourd. The hopes of but few out of many would be realized; disappointment and ruin ensued; and not only were poverty, sickness, and death often the result, but whole towns of the mushroom type have been almost as suddenly wiped out of existence.

Eldorado County, CA Miners

Eldorado County, CA Miners

In this mad rush of greed and excitement, other blunders besides those of investing in unprofitable lands were made. Furnaces for smelting were located without due regard for getting fuel; costly machinery for crushing ore was bought and forwarded to the scene of action, without knowing whether ore would be found at all, or whether the apparatus was suited to the kind of ore discovered; new processes for extracting metal were resorted to, without reliable information as to their value; and other such ruinous mistakes were committed by frenzied speculators.

There was also an enormous waste of valuable minerals in consequence of this same impetuous desire for wealth. In the lead regions of the Mississippi Valley, argentiferous galena was quite common, and often the lead was entirely wasted in the extraction of the little silver. In the coal regions, especially before the organization of the large companies and their combination in monopoly, only the richer measures would be worked, leaving a large quantity of inferior, yet valuable coal on higher levels to be lost by caving.

Such recklessness in handling was practiced, that from a third to a half of the product was lost. The same state of things was found in the silver country. Mines were neglected as soon as the rich surface deposits were procured, and the accumulation of water and rubbish made it next to impossible to work what were really paying shafts. But, by the latter half of the 19th century, a reaction set in in these regards and the extravagances steadily began to decline.

The two great causes, which, after the discovery of our great resources and the passion for wealth, have stimulated American mining, are the government’s general policy of encouragement, and the advancement in mechanic and natural science. Under the old English laws, the crown was entitled to the gold and silver found on government lands, and a certain proportion of other minerals. But, in this country, although legislation was very slight until the late 1800’s, the gold and silver miners of the Pacific Coast were ruled only by self-made regulations, the government has favored the free occupation and investigation of the rocks for minerals, and facilitated the cheap purchase and lease of mining lands. There has been a protective tariff, too, on foreign metals at times, the heaviest having been since 1861; and this has greatly promoted the development of our iron, copper, coal, and other minerals.

Skidoo Mine and Mill

Skidoo Mine and Mill

Among the most serviceable inventions in practical mining and metallurgy in the late 19th century were the California stamp mill for crushing quartz, the mercury amalgamation process for gold, the pan process for silver, the hydraulic process of gold mining in alluvial regions, the application of new explosives to rocks, new methods of drilling, new blast-furnaces, and new methods of converting iron into steel.

Albert S. Bolles, 1879. Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated September, 2017.

About the Article: The article first appeared in a book written by Albert S. Bolles, entitled Industrial History of the United States, Volume IV, in 1879. Published by the Henry Bill Publishing Company, Norwich, CN. Bolles was a lecturer in Political Economy at the Boston University, editor of the Banker’s Magazine, also lectured on banking and trusts at the University of the City of New York, and wrote several other books including The Financial History of the United States, The  Conflict Between Labor and Capital, and Practical Banking.

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Also See: 

Gold Mining in America

Silver Mining in the United States


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