The cities of Dahlonega and Villa Rica remain in dispute about who claims the first discovery of gold, but officials in both areas are shrugging off the discussion.
"If it is true that Villa Rica had the discovery before us — they claim to have some documentation — it’s still undisputable that we were the site of the first major gold rush," said Joel Cordle, director of Dahlonega’s downtown development authority. "We never claimed to be the first place gold was discovered. Locations in North Carolina predate both Dahlonega and Villa Rica, and I think gold was discovered in White County around Sautee and Nacoochee before Dahlonega."
Villa Rica Mayor J. Allen Collins said Thursday he’s not trying to steal credit from Dahlonega.
"We don’t want to take anything away from Dahlonega and its rich heritage with gold history. We just want to show those who are interested that Villa Rica is the ‘forgotten’ gold rush," Collins said. "We’re not trying to get legislators to do anything to name us as something. It’s a low-key way for people to come out and see what we have in our history."
Gold was discovered in North Carolina in 1799, but the exact discovery date in Georgia remains unclear. Some tales point to the Chestatee River near Dahlonega in 1815 and McDuffie County in 1826. Lucian Lamar Knight, Georgia’s first state historian, named a discovery in Carroll County in 1826, according to the Pine Mountain Museum in Villa Rica.
A law in 1825 gave mineral rights to the state for Carroll County, and gold mining remained a secret until 1829 when the law was repealed, which is why Villa Rica claims to be the "forgotten" gold rush. Plus, the type of gold was just different, Collins said.
"Dahlonega had gold nuggets and we had gold powder, so theirs overshadowed ours," he said. "Big strikes didn’t happen here, but we do have documentation that ours predates that of Dahlonega."
Local historian Doug Mabry pieced together information from maps in the state’s archives.
"He did good, old fashioned, nose-in-the-book research, and we decided to get together to build a museum," Collins said. "The gold mine has been very successful, more so than I anticipated."
The year-old Pine Mountain Gold Museum features maps, a documentary of the city, photographs, an operational stamp mill and areas to pan for gold. The National Register of Historic Places declared last August that "only a handful of scholars accept the 1826 start date as factual" for the area’s gold discovery.
The major gold boom in Georgia started in 1828, and the federal government established a gold coin mint in Dahlonega in 1837. The Dahlonega Gold Museum features one of three complete sets of minted coins between 1838 and 1861. The set is on permanent loan from North Georgia College & State University, and the other sets are at a Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. and the Federal Reserve Bank in Atlanta.
"We have various forms of Georgia gold all the way from a large nugget that weighs 5.6 ounces to dust and processed gold," said Linda Bryan, an exhibit guide, is reassured the economy isn’t affecting business. "There are a lot of local folks coming in but also a lot of guests from other states who like to come and stay in the mountains."
Gold was just the first step in Dahlonega tourism, Cordle said.
"It began in the 1960s under the Chamber of Commerce and just grew from there. Given the hotel and motel tax revenues, tourism has held steady and even gone up. The rush is still going on," he said. "We have a downtown that’s great for shopping and dining and natural resources like rivers for canoeing and kayaking, but it’s no doubt tens of thousands of speculators descended here for gold and formed a community."
Business is the same, if not better, at Crisson Gold Mine in Dahlonega, but the owners don’t find stock in Villa Rica’s claims.
"With the price of gold being up, I think families are deciding to pan and try to take some home as a souvenir," said co-owner Tammy Ray. "But we’ll always be the first major gold rush. It’s been in the history books forever, and too many documents prove it. It’s bad that they have to make up something to draw people there."
However, Collins continues to remain relaxed about the claims.
"I enjoy going to Dahlonega, and no one can discredit the gold rush they had and the amount of gold that came through," he said. "We thought our pieces of information were interesting and just invite people to learn a little about Georgia history."