Friday, January 13, 2012

Gold and Greed - A Family Story

Shelby Warner is a Reference Librarian at the Morrill Memorial Library. Read her column in the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin. 

From the Morrill Memorial Library - Gold and Greed: A Family Story by Written and read by Shelby Warner

My great-great grandfather discovered gold in Georgia twenty years before the more famous discovery in California. Benjamin Parks, himself, tells of how he crossed the Chestatee River up in northeast Georgia and stubbed his toe on a rock which, when examined more closely, revealed a nugget of gold. 

Unfortunately for him, Benjamin did not own the land where the discovery was made. Even though he managed to obtain a 40 year lease from the pastor who owned it, he did not enjoy any of the riches which others were able to amass. Pastor Obar laughed at Benjamin when he asked for the lease, not believing it possible that gold was on the land. He was not laughing, when later, the area was invaded by people from all over the young country looking for wealth and riches. While in his nineties, Benjamin Parks recalled the scene in an article in the Atlanta Constitution, July 15, 1894: 

 "The news got abroad, and such excitement you never saw. It seemed within a few days as if the whole world must have heard of it, for men came from every state I had ever heard of. They came afoot, on horseback and in wagons, acting more like crazy men than anything else. All the way from where Dahlonega now stands to Nuckollsville [Auraria] there were men panning out of the branches and making holes in the hillsides." 

Obar and his family attempted to reclaim the land but the Parks claim held up in court. Benjamin eventually sold the rights to Senator John Calhoun who later became Vice President of the United States. The Calhoun Gold Mine became "one of the highest producing gold mines in the region.” 

This region of North Georgia was known as the Cherokee Nation and the people who lived there for centuries thought the gold belonged to them. The white men had other ideas and it wasn’t long before the Cherokees were forced onto “The Trail of Tears” and moved further West. Many accounts of their cruel treatment exist in books you can find in the library. To Benjamin’s credit, he was against the rulings that led to the displacement of the Indians. Legend has it that he loved a maiden who was daughter of a Cherokee chief. He even thought of marrying her, a match which he said the Indians would approve but "his family would not have accepted. Our children would have had no nation, so I did not marry her, but, dear me, how beautiful she was!" 

Later, would-be historians have debunked the story of Benjamin stubbing his toe. One such writer said the tale only exists because Benny persisted in telling it for 70 years. But, like many other tales which have grown up around the history of this country, it lives on in oral history and family memories. Some of these stories are embroidered around a grain of truth and others are figments of the imagination. On the other hand, a lot of them depend on the perspective of the person telling the story. How often we hear of the rewriting of history to fit the opinion and beliefs of the author. Textbooks used in a particular area of the country reflect the prejudices of the locals - often a very parochial view of what has actually taken place. Author Phillip Williams, in writing about my hometown of Madison, Georgia, states ..."its love of history is ever present, and that love has occasionally been at the expense of truth." He is alluding to the account of why Madison was not burned when Sherman’s troops marched to Savannah during the Civil War but that is another story for another day. 

There are many interesting books on the subject of writing history including "Historical Knowledge, Historical Error" by Allan Megill, "The Purpose of the Past: Reflections on the Uses of History" by Gordon S. Wood, "That’s Not in My American History Book" by Thomas Ayres, and on a more personal level, "Tell Me Your Story: How to Collect and Preserve the Life Stories of Your Family and Friends by Cynthia Hart and Lisa E. Samson. These books and others can be found at Morrill Memorial Library or through the Minuteman Library Network. 

We know legends which have existed for decades can suddenly be declared untrue but somehow they live on in the hearts of people who have a connection to them. My great-great grandfather’s story, along with pictures and documentation, lives on in the Gold Museum in Dahlonega, Georgia. I wear a pair of gold earrings purchased there and each time I put them on, I think of Benjamin and his story – legend or reality, who can be sure?