One of Jimmy Anderson’s favorite characters in Lumpkin County history is Harrison W. Riley, a large landowner, father of an undetermined number of children and whose buried treasure remains a mystery.
Anderson is a Dahlonega genealogist, history researcher, writer, storyteller and retired postmaster and businessman.
He has unearthed considerable information on the life of Riley, who on his deathbed told two of his most trusted friends about where he buried $2,000 in gold. If they told anybody else or found the gold themselves remains a mystery. That was in 1874 when gold sold for about $20 an ounce; it sells for more than $1,300 per ounce today. It would be worth even more if the gold were in the rare Dahlonega gold coins or even rarer coins minted in the private mint by Templeton Reid of Hall County.
Treasure hunters mostly searched for Riley’s gold around his plantation in White County. A story handed down by Riley descendants told of a raid on the plantation during the Civil War. It was undetermined if the raiders were Confederate or Union soldiers or just plain thieves. They searched for some of Riley’s fortune, ransacking the place, but overlooking $30,000 hidden under a pile of dirty clothes.
After Georgia seceded from the Union as the Civil War began, Riley threatened a raid on the federal mint in Dahlonega, saying the gold it held belonged to nobody in particular because of the secession. However, his childhood friend, Georgia Gov. Joseph E. Brown, intervened, Riley backed off and continued to be a strong friend and supporter of the governor.
It is speculated that Riley’s wealth resulted from an 1838 triple murder in South Carolina. In a transaction involving slaves, three people were on their way back home with their money when they stopped to camp out at the Georgia border. Two horsemen came along and killed the three with a hatchet and stole all their money.
Lawmen traced a suspect, one of Riley’s slaves named Isaac, to Dahlonega and charged him with the crime after they found some of the money on him. Isaac testified in his trial in South Carolina that Riley had promised him freedom and some of the money if he would do the deed for him. Isaac was convicted, but his testimony against his owner wasn’t believed, and Riley was never charged.
A short time later, Riley had built a large hotel on Dahlonega’s square and accumulated acreage all around as well as in Alabama.
As for Riley’s prolific fatherhood, Anderson said many of his children were born among 14 slaves he owned. Some estimated he had as many as 100 children, both black and white, but Anderson said it was probably more likely 25 to 30. Most of his life, he didn’t live with any of his women, maintaining separate residences for them and taking good care of them and their children. In his will, bequeathing property to various people, he didn’t refer to the children as “his children,” only as children of whatever mother.
One intriguing aspect of Riley’s slave ownership was Eliza Jefferson, born about 1819, who bore at least seven of Riley’s children. Anderson said he received inquiries from the curator of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home place, to determine if there was any connection between Eliza and the former president. Jefferson worked numerous slaves on his plantation. No connection could be found.
In his will, Riley bequeathed to Eliza a farm in Dawson County.
Harrison W. Riley Jr., age 14, of Dahlonega joined the Confederate Army in 1861, but Anderson couldn’t confirm he was the son of Harrison W. Riley Sr. Riley Jr. was wounded at Hanover Junction, Va., in 1864, was hospitalized, later furloughed, but listed as “absent without leave” on the final muster roll.
The gravestone for Harrison W. Riley Sr. in Mount Hope Cemetery in Dahlonega, reads, “Let his faults be buried with his bones.” Somebody else wrote of him: “Harrison Riley … at the very mention of his name, Heaven blushes, Hell trembles, and the whole world shudders.”
Watch for more local history in this column next Sunday.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville; 770-532-2326; firstname.lastname@example.org.