California’s Mother Lode region is among the most famous gold mining areas in the world. Since gold was discovered there on the American River in 1848, well over a hundred lode mines have yield many extraordinarily beautiful specimens of crystallized gold.


Next to the American civil war, probably more books have been written about the California gold rush period than any other period in American history. Cowan’s Bibliography of the History of California lists thousands of entries dealing with this! period; and, although a standard reference on the subject, Cowan is by no means complete in listing the books, magazines and articles written on this colorful era. Hubert Howe Bancroft, in his epic 39- volume work on the history of the West, devotes three of the seven volumes on California to the gold rush period alone, highlighting the people, places and events which shaped the history of not only California but the history of the adjacent states of Arizona, Oregon, Washington, Utah and Nevada. No less than 200 books have been written about the man who has been given credit for having started the California Gold Rush, James Marshall.

The development of the state of California is so closely linked to the discovery of gold on the American River in the winter of 1848 that it is virtually impossible to assess what the state would be like today without those millions of dollars in revenue pumped into the Western economy. Men like Levi Strauss, Clement Studebaker, Charles Crocker and Leland Stanford, to name a few, got their start in the gold camps of early California. Although only a small percentage of mines in California have produced crystallized gold, the Mother Lode region of California has the distinction of having produced what are arguably the finest gold specimens in the world.

Figure 1: Arborescent to octahedral gold from the Michigan Bluff district, Placer County: 8.3 cm.  Wayne and Dona Leicht Collection; Photo by Harold and Erica Van Pelt
Figure 1: Arborescent to octahedral gold from the Michigan Bluff district, Placer County: 8.3 cm. Wayne and Dona Leicht Collection; Photo by Harold and Erica Van Pelt

In the first Gold Issue of the Mineralogical Record (vol. 13, no. 6) many of the important California specimen gold localities and collections were covered in detail. Though some attention was given to the historical aspect of gold localities, it was not the primary thrust of that issue. As most advanced mineral collectors have discovered, the history of where a specimen was found, who found it and what was happening at the time, can add a new dimension to a collection and enrich one’s overall enjoyment of collecting. Indeed, a relatively poor specimen with interesting or important historical data can easily be just as desirable in its own way as a fine specimen with little or no historical importance. However, one must always remember that the freshly mined specimens of today may become the classic specimens of tomorrow. Thus, even though it may not seem important at the time, it is nevertheless’ critical that specimens, gold or otherwise, be labeled with complete and accurate data. Collectors who are perceptive enough to recognize which specimens today will become the classics of tomorrow have a rare gift indeed. If, for example, the miners at the famous silver mines of Kongsberg, Norway, had known how sought after the specimens from their area would be today, more specimens would no doubt have been saved. Similarly, had the early gold miners in known how highly valued crystallized gold would be among collectors today, there would probably have been more fine golds preserved.


Like today’s miners, the miners of past years also had difficulty in differentiating matrix to beautiful, free-standing leaves of crystallized gold similar to those found at the Red Ledge mine in Nevada County, California. Gold specimens described as having flat faces and planes may have been just lumps of gold with impressions of other crystals such as calcite or quartz, or they may have been true crystallized gold.

Figure 2.  Leaves and octahedral crystals from the Coe mine, Nevada County; 12 cm.  Wayne and Dona Leicht Collection, Photo by B.C. Space
Figure 2. Leaves and octahedral crystals from the Coe mine, Nevada County; 12 cm. Wayne and Dona Leicht Collection, Photo by B.C. Space
Figure 3. Bright Leaves and equally bright wire (very rare) from the Magenta mine, Nevada County; 7.6 cm.  Wayne and Dona Leicht collection; photo by B.C. Space
Figure 3. Bright Leaves and equally bright wire (very rare) from the Magenta mine, Nevada County; 7.6 cm. Wayne and Dona Leicht collection; photo by B.C. Space

Generally speaking the descriptive errors in early literature were not deliberate, and as such are not as frustrating as trying to determine which mine a deliberately mislabeled specimen came from. To illustrate: If Miner Joe works at the XYZ mine and breaks into a pocket of crystallized gold which just happens to fall into his lunch bucket, Miner Joe certainly does not tell the mine owner, the refiner or the collector to whom he sells the specimens that the gold came from the XYZ mine; instead he will attribute it to another mine, probably not even in the same county or state. This was the case some years ago when a shift boss was convicted of ‘high- grading’ crystallized gold from a mine in Sierra County. He sold the specimens with the indication that they came from a mine in another county in which he had an interest. Sometimes, even when the correct locality information is initially known, it is subsequently lost on older specimens as the specimen is handed down from one collector to another.

Figure 4: Octahedrons of Gold covering a gold leaf, 3.8 cm, from the Eureka & Grizzly mine (Harper Brothers mine).  Wayne and Dona Leicht Collection; photo by Harold and Erica Van Pelt
Figure 4: Octahedrons of Gold covering a gold leaf, 3.8 cm, from the Eureka & Grizzly mine (Harper Brothers mine). Wayne and Dona Leicht Collection; photo by Harold and Erica Van Pelt

Another frustrating problem is the renaming of a mine or the consolidation of many small mines into one larger mine. For example, the original 16 to 1 mine in Sierra County was not known to have produce well crystallized gold specimens; however, the 16 to 1 mine today is a consolidation of the old Tightner, Orphir, Red Star, Twenty One, South Fork, Osceola and Rainbow mines. Both the Rainbow and the Red Star have produced fine, chunky, well crystallized gold commonly associated with dear quartz crystals. There is a chance that the consolidated 16 to 1 mine win produce some new specimen gold since it is currently in operation once again (see What’s New in Gold? elsewhere in this issue). The renaming of a mine presents some other obvious problems. For example, the blobs of gold in quartz from true crystals of gold. Most of the people who made an attempt to document early gold finds had little scientific training in any of the natural sciences. Therefore, in surveying the literature it is useful to understand some of the terminology commonly used by these untrained writers. Although there are many exceptions, “specimen gold” usually refers to free gold in matrix (usually quartz), not necessarily crystallized. “Jewelry gold” usually refers to gold in solid white quartz which, even as early as 1850, was being polished and fashioned into jewelry. Often the terms specimen gold and jewelry gold were used interchangably but, to add to the confusion, the early miners sometimes wrote of specimen gold in reference to crystallized gold, and used the term “jewelry pocket” to describe crystallized gold pockets. “Ribbon gold” ran mean anything from uncrystallized seams of gold in Harper Brothers mine in Tuolumne County produced some of the finest gold specimens ever found in California in the 1940s but it appears on early claim maps as the Grizzly and/or Eureka claim. Either the Harper Brothers acquired these and operated them under their own name or they simply chose not to use the name filed with the mining district or County. Inadequate information associated with a specimen also creates problems. The Harvard University gold collection has at least two fine leaf gold specimens with raised triangular octahedron faces. These specimens are simply labeled “Alaska,* and were thought to be from the state of Alaska even though very little crystallized gold has been found in that State. These are more likely from the Alaska mine. Sierra County, California, because no other comparable specimen can be found from any mine in Alaska, and the gold is almost identical to specimens found at the Alaska mine and represented in several other Institutional collections. Other problems in locality labeling arc mine names without the county or state indicated. Is a specimen simply labeled Nevada mine, California, from the Nevada mine, Nevada County, or from the Nevada mine, Sierra County? There is it Red Ledge mine In both Nevada County and Sierra County and a Bald Mountain (famous for specimen gold) in at least three counties.

In spite of the aforementioned problems, the verification of the locality data can be done with a fairly high degree of certainty if one can correlate several pieces of information from different sources without any one piece appearing out of place. For example, if you have a specimen of bright, shiny leaf gold labeled Red Ledge mine, Nevada County, California, it is most likely labeled correctly. However, if the specimen has large, chunky, octahedral crystals, is dull or has a low gold content it is most likely mislabeled because almost all the gold from the Red Ledge mine is leafy, bright and has a high purity.


Unquestionably the first reference to crystallized gold from California appeared in the American Journal of ,Science and Arts, Second Series, Volume 10,1850. In an article written by Francis Alger of Boston, Massachusetts, entitled “Crystallized gold from California,” octahedral crystals of gold recently brought from California by Mr. George E. Tyler of Boston and Mr. H. B. Platt of New York are described. Alger’s paper was read, in part, before the Boston Society of Natural History in April, 1850, a little over two years after the initial discovery of gold on the American River at Coloma. This does not seem remarkable until one remembers that the trip to and from California from the East Coast could take anywhere from three months to a year depending upon which route the traveler chose.

Figure 5. Frontispiece (showing gold specimens) from the 1886 Dohrmann collection auction catalog.  Richard Hauck collection; photo by Ron Bently
Figure 5. Frontispiece (showing gold specimens) from the 1886 Dohrmann collection auction catalog. Richard Hauck collection; photo by Ron Bently

Alger characterizes the crystals as both simple and modified, slightly disfigured by attrition (waterworn) and of great size. All three crystals illustrated in his report were hoppered octahedrons with prominent ridges at the edges and depressed central faces. Alger indicates that these must have weathered out of some soft matrix, probably not quartz. He also touches briefly on the old argument that crystals of gold are pseudomorphs of gold after iron pyrite but he goes on to state that he does not subscribe to this theory, and believed that these are true crystals of gold and not pseudomorphs. Apparently Platt, the collector who provided Alger with the gold described in his paper, resided in San Francisco for two years during the height of the gold rush. During that period he accumulated a fine collection of crystallized gold described as having a “great variety of ramified, arborescent, dendritic and other imitative forms, here and there showing crystalline faces, all of them being sometimes most fantastically joined together in the same specimen.” In accumulating the collection Mr. Platt indicated that he examined more than four million dollars in gold (this would be equivalent to about 250,000 troy ounces of gold at $16 per troy ounce) to find the few specimens he had in his collection. Platt’s specimens no doubt comprised the first organized collection of California specimen gold.

For the next 35 years little was written about crystallized gold from California, even though mining reports from the Mother Lode appeared almost daily in newspapers throughout the world. The lack of recorded data is even more surprising in light of the fact that during this period Professors Silliman and Shepard of Yale both visited the area. The oversight is unfortunate, because this was probably the most productive period for crystallized gold in California. Due to the lack of scientific recognition of the importance of crystallized gold, and to the absence of local collectors, few specimens were saved beyond the occasional “curiosities” put aside by miners.

A few early reports written by William Blake in The American Journal of Science and Arts are an exception. He describes not only individual gold specimens but indicates the specific mines which produced them. Mention of mines producing crystallized gold also appears in a series of annual government reports from 1867 to 1876 written by J. Ross Browne, James W. Taylor and R. W. Raymond (under various titles including Mineral Resources of the States and Territories West of the Rocky Mountains and, in later years, simply Mineral Resources of the United States). These reports contain a wealth of information on mining in the West; the earlier reports were dominated by mining activities in California. The reports contain some of the first good locality data on crystallized gold to be published. The following mines are indicated as having produced ‘ .crystallized gold:

Irish Creek, Placer County (1867): Arborescent-octahedral masses Deidesheimer claim

Placer County (1867): Flatten and distorted octahedrons Mameluke Hill

El Dorado County (1867): Ragged crystalline masses Spanish Dry Diggins

El Dorado County (1867): Large dendritic crystal masses Whiskey Hill mine

Tuolumne County (1867): Flatten distorted octahedrons Princeton mine

Mariposa County (1867): Brilliant octahedrons in bunches Doctor Hill

Calavaras County (1867): Spongy crystals up to ¼ inch Rocky Bar

Nevada County (1868): Beautiful crystallized masses Scadden Flat

Nevada County (1868): Beautiful crystallized masses

Recently an old (1886) auction catalog of the mineral collection belonging to Mr. A. Dohrmann, Esq., of San Francisco, California has come to light. Dohrmann’s collection had a relatively large suite of golds from California but, unlike other auction catalogs of that period, this one has photographs of most of the important specimens and a listing with relatively good locality data. From that catalog two new localities can now be added to the list. They are:

  • Seaton mine, Amador County: Elongated crystals on matrix Byrd’s Valley
  • Placer County: Granular crystals on matrix

Several specimens in the Dohrmann catalog are now part of the Harvard gold collection, as well as other private collections. One specimen which was pictured in Bancroft’s Gem & Crystal Treasures as having come from the Red Ledge mine is listed in the catalog as having come from the Grit mine, Spanish Dry Diggins, El Dorado County, California.* The specimen was listed in this auction catalog at least 25 years before the famous Red Ledge mine was located!

Other rich sources of information are the various reports of the California Division of Mines and Geology on the minerals of the. gold producing counties, the U.S. Department of Interior Reports on the Mineral Resources of California, and the U.S. Geological Survey Bulletins, Professional Papers, and Folios. The information from these as well as other reports, magazines, books and personal communications are summarized in Table 1 with the appropriate references.


Even in our oldest museums it is difficult to trace many specimens beyond the turn of the century. The Harvard gold collection, lavishly illustrated in the first Gold Issue and considered to be one the most important gold collections in the world, is somewhat lacking in exact locality data on many specimens. The foundations for that collection were the Burrage and Bouglise collections, both of which had rather vague data on many specimens. The gold collection at Yale, New Haven, Connecticut, though small, yielded some reliable information regarding early gold localities in California. Many of the specimens had small paper labels with the mine name and acquisition date permanently affixed to the specimen. From that collection the following mines were added to the list of crystallized gold localities:

  • Rocky Bar mine, (No County) (Specimen 37-1): Bright leaf in quartz Whiskey Hill
  • Tuolumne County: Bright leaf in quartz Grave Yard Hill
  • Tuolumne County (Specimen P-40): Thick leaf with octahedrons

Of course the Yale collection has many other interesting specimens with locality data from mines which were previously known to have produced crystallized gold. One remarkable specimen is pictured in Figure 5. At first it appears to be a large octahedron of gold attached to a stem of platy gold. But when the specimen is turned over one finds that the crystal is a completely hollow shell with a wall thickness of about 1 mm. Again, all the locality data from both the Harvard and Yale collections are included in Table 1.


Figure 6. Hollow octahedron with leaves, 6.4 cm, from Grave Yard hill, Tuolumine County.  Yale University collection, photo by Robert Jones.
Figure 6. Hollow octahedron with leaves, 6.4 cm, from Grave Yard hill, Tuolumine County. Yale University collection, photo by Robert Jones.

One of the most important sources of locality information has been the California Division of Mines Collection, some of which, with the exception of the famous Fricot “Nugget”, is now on display in Mariposa, California. The locality data on all the crystallized gold from that collection, as well as the collections of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC and the American Museum of Natural History in New York are also included in Table 1. Ironically, the older museums of Europe have provided very little information on California gold localities. More often than not a fine California gold will be labeled “Mother Lode,” “Grass Valley,” or simply “California.” Various private and company collections have been important sources of locality information. Unfortunately, for security reasons, many private collectors are reluctant to show their collection or to even let it be known that they collect gold. However, there are still old miners, mine owners and the descendants of same which will sell an occasional specimen with good, credible locality data. This is the case of the two specimens illustrated in Figures 2 and 3. Both of these specimens came from a family in the Mother Lode region which had a small but impressive collection of gold specimens.


Occasionally, as in the case of the Colorado Quartz mine in Mariposa County (Keller and Kampf, 1982) and the Michigan Bluff district in Placer County (D. Leicht, 1982), an old mine which has been known to have produced crystallized gold is reworked. The mines currently in operation and producing crystallized gold are discussed under “What’s New in Gold” (page 90).


I wish to thank Robert Jones and Ronald Bentley for their help in photographing various specimens and manuscripts; Richard Hauck, who brought the Dohrmann auction catalog to my attention and allowed me to reproduce it in detail; the curatorial staff at the Harvard Mineralogical Museum — Dr. Carl Francis and William Metropolis; and Ellen W. Faller, Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University, who graciously allowed me to examine both the specimens and the old records. Special thanks to Jean DeMouthe, California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco, for permitting me to examine the famous Fricot “Nugget” as well as other specimens in the collection. Thanks also to the late Eleanor Learned who, while at the California Division of Mines, San Francisco, provided me with information about the old mines in California from the Division’s library. And of course to my wife, Dona, for putting up with me and the mess in my office.


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