GOLD DIGGERS IN JEFFERSON COUNTY, OHIO

Picture in the public domain at the Library of Congress (ppmsc 01699 //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsc.01699).

#OhioHistory #GoldMining

When I began going through census records of Cross Creek Township, Jefferson County, Ohio, using the FAN method (Family/Friends, Associates, Neighbors) to find more information about my ancestor George Lewis, I came across three men whose occupation was given as “Gold Digger”.  I had no idea that there was gold in Ohio.  Coal, yes.  But gold?

1850 U.S. census, Jefferson County, Ohio, population schedule, Cross Creek Township, p. 110 (stamped), dwelling 1577, family 1651, entry for David Foster; database with images, FamilySearch (https://www.familysearch.org/ark:/61903/1:1:MX39-TDC : accessed 23 September 2021), citing National Archives microfilm publication M432, Roll 699.

Shortly after this, I was reading an old county history of Jefferson County, Ohio, written in 1910.  This book was published during an era of flowery, sentimental language with an emphasis on appealing to the reader’s emotions.  Writers sought to persuade their audience that their opinion was the correct one.  Thus, we find the following interesting paragraph (emphasis mine):

Jefferson County has been specially favored as regards mineral resources, of which those interested have not been slow to take advantage. It is scarcely necessary to add, however, that there are no lead, silver or gold mines in Jefferson County, never have been and never will be, as the geological formation is absolutely prohibitory. There have been reports of that kind occasionally, some of them based on old Indian tales. They are delusions or frauds, not deserving of the slightest consideration.[1]

The author of the book, Joseph B. Doyle, seems to take these gold diggers and their occupation personally!  He definitely wants us to know not to take the reports of gold being found in Jefferson County seriously and perhaps use our working hours for wiser pursuits.  Since there were three gold diggers in just one township in Jefferson County, Ohio, there were probably more in the county as a whole, enough that 60 years later the author of the county history felt he needed to reiterate the point that gold-digging in Jefferson County was a waste of time.

If there was no gold to be found in Jefferson County, why were there so many men looking for it?  I sensed a story here and did some research on this metal in Ohio.  My search brought me to a 1995 Division of Geological Survey GeoFact pamphlet by Michael C. Hansen.[2]

Michael Hansen mentions that there has been interest in finding gold in Ohio since the 19th century. The theory is that the gold that has been found in Ohio has come down from Canada during one of the ice ages as it is associated with glacial deposits.  He also says that gold is found in the glaciated areas of Ohio but there has never been enough to make commercial mining of gold financially lucrative.  Interestingly, Jefferson County is in a non-glaciated area of Ohio.

Hobbyists find gold in Ohio today and there were several online resources for information about this when I did searches for it.  I was curious to know more about the gold diggers in the mid-19th century in Jefferson County so I turned to old newspapers to see if there were any articles of note.

In a 1905 article in the Cleveland Plain Dealer (just 5 years before Joseph Doyle’s diatribe against gold-digging was published in the county history), a splashy headline reads: “Ohio Gold Field Rich in Legend:  Indians Knew and Jealously Guarded Secret of Wayne County Treasures – Stores of Spectral Guardians Current to the Present Day.”[3]

The article, clearly written in the prejudicial tone current at that time (I mean, why WOULD the Native Americans just spill out the source of their gold to the people conquering their land?) talks about gold being found on some farms in Mt. Eaton, Wayne County (northwest of Jefferson County) and people recounting the old superstitions about ancient gold.  There was an old trail between Steubenville (in Jefferson County) and Sandusky and gold and other metals had been traded on that passageway.  White settlers had apparently sent out spies to find out the source of the gold but were never able to find it.  An old gold digger named Joseph Grant was being interviewed to find out more about the Wayne County find.  An old stage road ran near a place called Rocky Dale and, along with stage robbers, the travelers were often frightened by the haunting sound of chains coming from some subterranean cavern nearby.

The end of the article says that nobody in Mt. Eaton is coming forth with the location of the newly found gold.  Supposedly, there is a secret map in someone’s possession but no one is talking.

This was not the only report of people finding gold on their property and trying to keep it a secret.  Gold was supposedly found in Morrow County in 1921.[4] Most of the articles that I found concerned gold discovered in other areas of the country such as California and Alaska.  I was entertained by harrowing adventures of survival and ghostly legends of haunted treasure.

Very little of this led me to an understanding of the livelihood of the Jefferson County gold diggers.  Were they making enough to earn a living? I have my doubts.  A search for the 1860 census does not show anyone with the specific job title of “gold digger” but there are plenty of laborers.  The three individuals who were looking for gold in 1850 are no longer living in the county.  I did find one man whose occupation was listed as “hermit”.  A blog post for another day!


[1] Joseph B. Doyle, 20th Century History of Steubenville and Jefferson County, Ohio and Representative Citizens, (Chicago: Richmond-Arnold Publishing Co., 1910), 275.

[2] Michael C. Hansen, “Gold in Ohio”, GeoFacts No. 9 (Ohio Department of Natural Resources, November 1995); digital image at https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/fsm9_005733.pdf, accessed 23 September 2021.

[3] “Ohio Gold Field Rich in Legend”, Cleveland (Ohio) Plain Dealer, 14 March 1905, p. 6, col. 5; image copy, GenealogyBank (https://www.GenealogyBank.com : accessed 23 September 2021).

[4] “Search for Gold in Morrow County”, Cleveland (Ohio) Plain Dealer, 21 August 1921, p. 16A, col. 1; image copy, GenealogyBank (https://www.GenealogyBank.com : accessed 23 September 2021).

2 thoughts on “GOLD DIGGERS IN JEFFERSON COUNTY, OHIO

  1. That’s a fascinating bit of Ohio history. I have a couple relatives who were living in Missouri and listed as gold digger in the 1850 census. They had actually gone to California in 1849 where they did their gold digging. They returned to Missouri to put their affairs in order (apparently a third brother went out to work their claim while they were gone). Then the two returned to California to live permanently.

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  2. I had not considered that the men who called themselves gold diggers might have come from California. As none of them were my relatives, I haven’t done any genealogical research on them. Since the author if the county history was so emphatic in his spiel about gold, I don’t doubt that there were individuals looking for gold in the county, though it might not have been those three men.

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