Importance of Gold Mining in America’s Founding

March 22nd, 2017 by

Most of our history books in the U.S. explain the colonization of North America primarily through the prism of religious freedom. There are good, compelling reasons why: The motivation to establish a society with protections of religious tolerance no doubt informs the country’s long-standing doctrines of pluralism and separation of Church & State. While it’s also true that many Puritans and other Christian sects fled persecution in Britain by coming to the New World, this hardly accounts for all of the European migration to the colonies in North America.

The narrative of America’s settlement and early development is enriched by giving weight to another, perhaps equally crucial, factor: free markets.

Entrepreneurs and a Book

Although it is sometimes overlooked, an entrepreneurial spirit and a kind of business initiative (the 17th-century equivalent thereof) drove many enterprising souls to emigrate to or invest in a particular colony. Like the notion of religious freedom, the growth of open, unfettered markets across the Atlantic played a key role in shaping America’s identity.

It might be anachronistic to call these activities capitalism, since it predates Adam Smith by over 100 years, but it’s fair to say we’re talking about the seeds of capitalism—a free-market system in embryonic form.

Among a variety of (mostly agricultural) enterprises, one of the primary goals of at least one group of original settlers in the American colonies was the pursuit of mining precious metals.

Historical records indicate that aboard the ships that brought the first settlers to the seaport of Portsmouth, New Hampshire—the sister settlement of Plymouth, Massachusetts—in the 1630s, there was only one book besides a lone King James Bible. It was a seminal work on mining precious metals and metallurgy.

© KCRA Channel 3, Sacramento, CA

© KCRA Channel 3, Sacramento, CA

The manuscript, De Re Metallica, was written by 16th-century German scientist George Bauer, sometimes considered the “father of geology,” under the Latin pseudonym Georgius Agricola. One of its defining features was its use of traditional engravings (woodcuts) to vividly illustrate the science and labor of mining for gold. According to Portsmouth historian J. Dennis Robinson, Agricola’s manual explained “how to find, identify and extract precious metals from the earth,” sharing “the secrets of smelting, digging mine shafts, prospecting, building powerful water wheels, and much more.” In short, Robinson concludes New Hampshire’s “first book was a get-rich-quick guide to precious metals.”

For all intents and purposes, this pocket of what we now generally call New England was a mining colony. It represents one of the earliest attempts at mineral extraction (especially of precious metals) by the English colonists. They had hoped for results in North America similar to those the Spanish enjoyed further south in the New World: an abundance of gold and silver. Though not much gold was ultimately found, it led them to start other successful ventures based on the area’s natural resources.

The story of Portsmouth and De Re Metallica is a reminder that the proto-capitalism pursued by American colonists was just as important to our founding (and current national identity) as the religious freedom aspect, though that tends to receive most of the emphasis.


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