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Was Auraria really as rough as its reputation?

POSTED: February 7, 2008 5:03 a.m.

Auraria, the gold-mining boom town that rivaled Dahlonega in Lumpkin County in the 1800s, started out being called Nuckollsville.

It came from a man named Nathaniel Nuckolls, who opened a tavern there as prospectors flooded the area in search of their fortune. During the gold rush days, the settlement earned a reputation for rowdiness as miners frolicked in saloons when they weren't out scratching for treasure. Fights were commonplace.

Inevitably, people began calling the place "Knucklesville." Respectable residents, however, didn't like that name and the jokes that followed. They wanted to have their community called by a more dignified name.

"Auraria," a history of the town by E.M. Coulter, said John C. Calhoun, a heavy investor in Lumpkin County mines, and a Dr. Croft from South Carolina came up with the name "Aureola," whose definition had something to do with gold. They also wanted Lumpkin County to be named "Aldoradda," which supposedly meant gold region.

In the end, the state legislature named the county after then-Gov. Wilson Lumpkin, and Major John Powell came up with the name "Auraria," for the gold-mining community. Auraria roughly means gold mine or region, and its sound suited early settlers better.

Some believed Auraria's rough reputation was overstated. W.B. Townsend, legendary editor of the Dahlonega Nugget, proclaimed he'd heard of only one murder in all his years in the county. Said Coulter in his history, "The fact that Auraria was often called Nuckollsville even after it had been properly named, led the unknowing to spell it Knucklesville (if they could spell at all) and to think the name indicated that the people there did a lot of fighting with their knuckles ..."

Coulter said Auraria couldn't be compared to the "dance-hall, gun-shooting, saloon-ridden mining towns" that sprang up in the Western gold rush.

The Gainesville News disagreed. During the days immediately following the civil war, the town became a famous fighting ground, the paper reported. "It is said that no man ever passed that important mountain retreat that he was not bantered for a fight," the paper wrote. "If he was not disposed to accept the challenge, he was made to fight anyway, or made to ‘scoot for the tall timber ... '"

Pistols and knives weren't allowed in such fights, according to the News. "Only the bare knuckles of the hand, or the stones nearby ... " The stones around Auraria were round and smooth, the News exaggerated, from the constant use in years gone by when fist fights and rock battles were common.
Charles Bonaparte Tankersley was legendary throughout the mountains. He lived most of his time in Auraria. When he died in 1908, the Gainesville News proclaimed him as "chief and leader of the old crowd."

People called him "Bony Tank." A giant physically, "As a fighter, Bony Tank wore the belt," the News said, and "... many a man has hit the dust from one of Bony's sledge-hammer blows or from a stone slung from his massive hands ... his word was law, and his knuckles were the ‘gospel.'"

As he aged, he apparently mellowed and wouldn't be able to hold his own with the younger crowd anyway. So he eschewed fighting, content to live out his years watching his sons and daughters grow into contributing, less combative citizens. Bony Tank died at age 75.

• • •

A former resident of Emanuel County noticed the misspelling of his home county in this column Jan. 13. It has only one "m" instead of two, he correctly pointed out. It was named for David Emanuel, who served as governor in 1801, completing the term of James Jackson, who became a U.S. senator. Emanuel didn't run for election after completing his term.

Don't confuse the county's name with Franklin County's Emmanuel College, which means "God with us." It has two "m's" as do eight other colleges of the same name, ranging from Boston to Cambridge to Warmambool, which is in Australia, if you were wondering.

And Hall and Emanuel counties aren't the only ones bordered by nine other counties. Fulton, in fact, has 10 neighbors. When William Hosch wrote his history of Hall County, it was before Fulton consolidated later with Campbell and Milton counties to stretch its borders.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com. First published Jan. 26, 2008.



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