17th Century “Ghost Mines” of the Appalachians

PHOTO: Old Mine Site in Hamblen County, Tennessee Remnant of a shaft (with tree growing out of it) is in the middle of the picture. Photo submitted by Author
PHOTO: Old Mine Site in Hamblen County, Tennessee Remnant of a shaft (with tree growing out of it) is in the middle of the picture. Photo submitted by Author

Article Written by F. Andrew Dowdy
Dowdy has enjoyed careers as a geological engineer and as a U.S. Foreign Service officer.  He currently dabbles in historical research, among other activities.  His first book, “Wanderer on the American Frontier: The Travels of John Maley, 1808-1813,” will be published in the fall of 2018 by Oklahoma University Press.

A Spanish Silver Mine in East Tennessee
I was skeptical the first time I heard about the Spanish silver mine in east Tennessee.  My uncle Jim was a master storyteller, and had entertained us as kids with any number of tall tales.  When he told me about the mine, however, I was no longer a kid, and it was clear that this was no tall tale, but a bit of family history he could recite by heart.  Nevertheless, I’d never read anything about a Spanish presence in east Tennessee, and the whole story seemed a bit farfetched.

Jim told me that when the first settlers came to Hamblen County, they found a pile of “tailings” from an old mine site east of present day Morristown.  There were mature trees growing in the tailings, indicating the mine had been worked before 1700.  There were no obvious signs of minerals, and the find was largely forgotten.  Sometime before WWI, an elderly resident of the county emerged with a story that generated new interest.  According to his account, when he was a boy, an old Spaniard living with his family told him that the site had been a Spanish silver mine.  The Spaniard had discovered an account of the mine in archives in Spain, and had come to Tennessee to try to reopen it. Before he could do so, however, he lost his savings in the Civil War, and had never again been in  position to buy the site.  The boy the Spaniard confided in grew to be a man, but he ultimately realized that he, too, would never have the money to open the mine.  He therefore  revealed the story to my grandfather in the hope that he might be able to do something with it.

My grandfather, A.H. Dougherty, was excited by the prospect.  At the time, he and his brother were successful entrepreneurs in the furniture business; he had prospected for zinc in east Tennessee and searched for the legendary Swift and Munday silver mine in southwest Virginia.  He quickly gathered together a small group of investors, made a deal with the land owner, and hired some men to excavate the old mine. After clearing away the tailings, they found a vertical shaft and, at the bottom, a tunnel framed with walnut timbers.  Before proceeding further, however, the workers claimed they heard “haints” (ghosts) in the mine.  They climbed out of the shaft and my grandfather could not persuade them or anyone else to re-enter it.  A mining engineer who later  looked at the site concluded that it would cost a fortune to re-open the mine, and my grandfather reluctantly abandoned the venture.

I was intrigued by the story, but it wasn’t until many years later that I had the time to research the old mine.  I contacted the landowner in 2015.  He had heard about the mining effort from the previous owner, and had no further details, but was kind enough to show me the site. It’s a bit underwhelming; there are no ruins of buildings or Spanish swords or other artifacts lying about.  There is a hole, however, mostly filled in, that appears to be the remnant of mine shaft.  There are also various mounds of rock and dirt that reflect someone’s excavation efforts, but it is not clear whether they were made by the Spanish or my grandfather.  Despite the obvious activity, I found no sign of “color” or other mineralization in the rocks there, and we found no traces of silver or other metals in soil samples we collected and sent off to a lab.

While nothing I found confirmed that the site had been a Spanish mine, it piqued my interest.  As I researched the subject further, I found that my mine was only one of several in the Appalachians found by early settlers.  The most striking evidence was in Cherokee County, North Carolina, where beginning in the 19th century, as many as eleven old mine shafts were uncovered along the Valley River.   Trees growing at the mouth of the shafts indicated that they had been worked no later than the 1650’s, and various artifacts were recovered from the shafts, including a windlass, axes, a pick and a pistol with a Spanish coat of arms.  The Cherokee County Historical Museum, in Murphy, displays a 16th century halberd that was recovered from the area.

Old mine shafts have also been recorded in other parts of North Carolina.  In 1875, workers who were developing a mica mine northwest of Franklin broke through into an old shaft that contained wrought iron tools that appeared to be Spanish in origin. Early settlers near Little Switzerland also found a mysterious shaft, which they called the “Horse Stomp Mine.” It extended at least 70-80 feet deep, and was intercepted by a 700-foot long tunnel, dug in from the side of the mountain.

Other sites contain evidence of “placer mining” operations.  In the 1740’s, the first settlers in Lincolnton, North Carolina, found a dam made of “well-cut stone” and the remains of a wooden trough, apparently built to wash gold from stream sediments.  Similarly, in 1834, at the height of the Georgia gold rush, operators digging a canal for a placer mining operation discovered a number of short log walls buried in the sediments of Duke’s Creek.  The logs had been hewn by sharp metal tools, and the trees growing in the sediment above them were more than 200 years old.  The discoverers thought the walls might have been the foundations of a subterranean village.  It seems more plausible that they were supports for a flume for washing gravel – evidence, perhaps, that the 19th century operators were not the first folks to seek gold at the site.

There are various other rumors and legends of mines that are less well documented.  The first settlers in Webster, North Carolina reportedly found tunnels under the town, and were informed by native tribes that they were made by white men many years earlier.  There are rumors of a silver mine near Hot Springs, North Carolina, and of a Spanish silver mine on Coronaka Creek, northeast of Greenwood, South Carolina, neither of which have been located.  There’s even a 1858 newspaper report that an old silver mine had been re-opened in Hancock County, Alabama, but no further evidence that such a mine actually existed.

The mysterious white men in the mountains 
In addition to the physical evidence, the historical record contains a number of reports of mysterious white men in the mountains.  Spanish authorities in St. Augustine received a number of them from their Indian contacts between 1597-1628.  In 1602, the Spanish governor sent a soldier into the interior to investigate and, in 1604, even requested that the king send him 100 “arquebusiers” for an expedition to contact mysterious “civilized” people living west of the mountains.  Between 1624 and 1628 the Spanish sent five small expeditions into the interior to investigate similar rumors.  None of these expeditions were able to proceed deep into the interior, but officials were convinced the intruders were English or Dutch explorers from the Jamestown colony.

While the Spanish suspected that the English were exploring in the Appalachians, the English assumed that they were Spanish.  In 1648, the Virginia governor received reports from native tribes of Spaniards on donkeys in the mountains.  In 1654, Francis Yeardly reported that a wealthy Spaniard was living with the Tuscaroras in North Carolina.  In 1670, the explorer John Lederer halted his expedition into western North Carolina after being told by Indian contacts that a powerful nation of bearded men lay two and half days’ to the southwest.  He assumed they were Spanish who would be hostile to his expedition.  In 1674, Abraham Wood conveyed reports from native Americans of bearded white people apparently living on the Tennessee River. In his 1690 exploration into the mountains, James Moore reportedly reached a point where he was within twenty miles of Spaniards engaged in mining and smelting with bellows and furnaces.

Who were these guys, and what happened to them? 
While it is possible that unknown English, or even French miners were active in the Appalachians, it seems more likely that these guys were Spanish.  The 1566-68 Juan Pardo expeditions generated intense interest in precious metals and gems in the mountains, and a number of veterans of the expeditions remained in Florida for decades afterwards.  Pardo also left approximately 80 men stationed at 4 small forts in the interior, and it is possible that some survived the destruction of those outposts by native tribes.  Of course, the obvious question is, if the miners were Spanish, why weren’t authorities in St. Augustine aware of their actions?  Governance of New Spain was famously compartmentalized, and one possibility is that they were being supported by officials elsewhere.  Alternatively, these may have been rogue operations, carried out in secrecy to avoid paying the “quinto real,” the 20% royalty on precious metals reserved for the king.

Whoever the miners were, they apparently came into conflict with tribes in the region.  According to native traditions, the Spaniards who worked the mines along the Valley River were killed by the Indians due to concerns that their success might lead more white men to the region. Interestingly, during the 1900 gold rush in the area, operators recovered a half-bushel of lead bullets from their sluice boxes, conceivably evidence of such a battle.  Similarly, at the Lincolnton site, the Cherokee Chief Atakullakulla informed an early settler that “1000 moons” previously there had been a battle there between his ancestors and the white men, and that the fallen from both sides were buried along nearby Clarke’s Creek.

Ultimately, mining operations appeared to cease by the end of the 17th century.  If the miners were Spanish, this was probably due to the growing influence of English traders who began operating out of Charleston, South Carolina, after that city’s founding in 1670.  These traders quickly established alliances with southeastern tribes, and by the 1680’s, the Spanish missions in Florida were coming under attack by tribes affiliated with the English.  St. Augustine, itself, was burned by South Carolinians led by James Moore in 1702.

Much of the evidence of these activities is anecdotal, and we may never know the full story of the mines and the men who worked them.  Someday, perhaps, in a dusty archive somewhere, a previously unknown manuscript will yield up more information.  Also, archeologists, armed with modern tools,  may be able to decipher some details from the evidence they left behind.  Furthermore, there’s no reason to believe that the sites identified so far are the only remnants these miners left behind.  Someday, in an isolated cove or on a leaf-covered hillside, a hunter or hiker may literally stumble across another clue.  Finally, as I learned from my uncle Jim, we shouldn’t discount the tales told to us by our ancestors.  Further clues to these ghost mines and miners may lie in the oral traditions of other Appalachian families.

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