Historical Map of Old Granville County (1931),
by John E. Buck, showing site of the Portis gold mine in Goldmine Township of Franklin County, courtesy of the
State Archives of North Carolina.
During the 1850s and 1860s, Thomas K. Thomas, a lawyer in Louisburg, tried his hand at mining gold at the site of the Portis gold mine and then sold most of his landholdings in the area to the Portis Gold Mining Company-a corporation he had helped to establish. Although Thomas made money as a miner (a census taker in 1860 recorded the value of his real and personal property at more than $75,000), the real estate transaction greatly enhanced his liquid assets.
According to an article by Franklin County historian Thilbert H. Pearce, which appeared in The State magazine in 1972, gold was discovered around 1835 on the property of John Portis, a shoemaker of limited means-a site located slightly southwest of the point where North Carolina Highway 561 crosses Big Shocco Creek and near Franklin County's border with Nash County. Geologist Jasper Leonidas Stuckey wrote in 1965 that the Portis operation was the most productive of perhaps fifteen surface mines located in the Eastern Carolina Belt of Franklin, Halifax, Nash, and Warren counties.
These mines were of secondary importance to those in North Carolina's western Piedmont. Discovery of the precious metal in Cabarrus County in 1799 led to further discoveries that made North Carolina the chief producer of gold in the United States until 1848, when it was discovered in California. North Carolina's gold rush led the federal government in 1835 to open a branch of the U.S. Mint in Charlotte. Mining operations in the state were facilitated by the use of slave labor.
John Portis, whose turn of fortune allowed him and his family to live lavishly by taking a fourth of the gold others mined on his property using very primitive techniques, died in 1850 or 1851. Acting on behalf of the heirs, on October 29, 1851, Thomas K. Thomas placed an ad in The Weekly Raleigh Register, and North Carolina Gazette, indicating that the mine would be offered for sale on December 20. He boasted that the agricultural value of the 1,300-acre tract was "eclipsed by its immense value as a mine." He continued: "These mines have been worked about 18 years and it is estimated that a million dollars have been dug out of them-and there are parts of them now as rich as the sands of the Sacramento." Thomas claimed that Portis had reserved the most valuable deposits, which he referred to as his "'pocket book.'" The property, which the heirs were willing to divide, included an ample water supply, Portis's substantial dwelling house, and a "large number of framed negro [slave] houses, almost new, together with every necessary out house."
Thomas himself purchased most of the property and mined it profitably, although, according to a newspaper account published in The Weekly North-Carolina Standard on October 24, 1866, he used primitive equipment-the pan, rocker, and sluice. Neither Thomas nor his predecessors ever excavated the property to a depth of more than twenty feet. An ad he placed in The Weekly Raleigh Register on September 30, 1857, stated that he wished to sell all or part of his 1,160-acre plantation, including "some 200 to 300 acres of rich mining land, that I believe to be inexhaustible, at least for many generations, which have never been worked, or only partially so, because of the want of water." Thomas said that he planned to rectify this situation by developing an artesian well. He also offered to sell his twenty to thirty slaves, some of whom were "accustomed to work in the mine" and thus were "good practical miners." Although only in his mid-forties, Thomas bragged that it would be pleasant to relax from "laborious efforts."
Instead of selling the property outright, Thomas in 1859 formed a partnership with James Sloan, Ellis Malone, James H. Yarbrough, and Charles Thomas to incorporate the Portis Gold Mining Company. The General Assembly incorporated the enterprise again in February 1866, this time with Thomas, Ellis Malone, Joseph J. Davis, Peyton J. Brown, and Charles H. Thomas as the incorporators. Just two months later, Thomas sold 900 acres of his property to the company for $60,000, a very large amount of money for that time.
Published in The Franklin Times on January 29, 2015.
Maury York is director of the Tar River Center for History and Culture at Louisburg College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.