Dr. Matthew F. Stephenson was an important, but sometimes overlooked, figure in North Georgia’s history.
When the 1800s gold rush began, the federal government sent him down as an official assayer to determine the value and extent of minerals being uncovered by miners. His most famous claim to fame is when he coined the phrase "There’s millions in it" from the Lumpkin County Courthouse trying to persuade prospectors to remain in North Georgia instead of joining the California gold rush.
He was a well-known in Hall County and is buried in Alta Vista Cemetery. A local newspaper gave a glimpse of his character in an article in the fall of 1876: "Dr. M.F. Stephenson walked to Cumming last Friday and back home next day. The doctor can outwalk four-fifths of the young men in the county now. He is 75 years old and yet he says he would not give a cent for a horse to ride if the distance were less than 50 miles."
Vince Evans, field services manager for Alta Vista Cemetery, provides some historical trivia about the man and his famous phrase, which later was corrupted into "There’s gold in them thar hills."
"‘There’s millions in it,’ can actually be attributed to a man who in 1881 was buried in Gainesville’s Alta Vista Cemetery," Evans writes. "Dr. Mathew Fleming Stephenson was formerly assayer of the United States Mint located in Dahlonega. Some considered him to know more about Georgia’s mineral resources than any other man in the state.
"Dr. Stephenson had several articles published by the Smithsonian Institution. In 1871, he published a treatise, ‘Geology and Mineralogy of Georgia.’ Later in 1878 he published information on precious stones of Georgia.
"The first discovery of gold in Georgia occurred in 1829 in Duke’s Creek in White County. It was several years later around 1835 before gold mining in Lumpkin County began to flourish.
"Gold fever continued for some 14 years in Dahlonega until around 1849 when news of the California gold rush reached the North Georgia hills. As Georgia gold miners prepared to make the trek west to California, Dr. Stephenson warned them of their mistake. It was on a Saturday from the Dahlonega courthouse steps when Stephenson made his famous oration in which he asked why go to California? Pointing to Findley Ridge, he declared, ‘There’s millions in it.’ When the crowd gave no response, he again proclaimed, ‘There’s millions in it.’
"As Georgia miners failed to heed Dr. Stephenson’s advice and began to head to California, their accompanying catch phrase was the words of Dr. Stephenson, ‘There’s millions in it.’ If one of the miners became discouraged on the arduous trip west another miner would herald ‘There’s millions in it,’ and the discouraged brother would be renewed in spirit. Once in California, the saying became a byword of the mining community.
"A man named William Sellers came to affiliate himself in California with the group of Georgia miners. He became infatuated by the Georgia-born saying. Adopting the saying, he was always ready to declare to anyone who would listen, ‘There’s millions in it.’
"William Sellers met a man known by the name Mark Twain in the California gold fields. Twain also was grabbed by the catchy phrase and decided to immortalize it in his book, ‘The Gilded Age,’ attributing it to the fictional ‘Mulberry’ Sellers from the remainder of the story. To this day, the phrase, ‘There’s millions in it’ is attributed to ‘Mulberry’ Sellers, when in actuality it began on the Dahlonega Courthouse steps from the mouth of Dr. M.F. Stephenson.
"You might recognize the saying by the slight adaptation that was also made famous by Mark Twain’s fictitious ‘Mulberry’ Sellers: ‘Thar’s gold in them thar hills.’"
Exactly where gold was discovered first in "them thar hills" has been the subject of debate among historians and local residents forever. There’s no doubt the biggest early gold rush in Georgia was in Lumpkin County. The story about Hall County resident Benjamin Parks stubbing his toe on a gold nugget near the Chestatee River in Lumpkin County is well known. But as Garrison Baker points out in his "In the Shadow of Yonah," prospectors also found gold in White County in 1828, and other finds were reported elsewhere.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays and on gainesvilletimes.com.