The American Naturalist 15(1): 7-11 (Jan 1881)
The Discovery of Iron Implements in an Ancient Mine in North Carolina

IN Western North Carolina are found many evidences of prehistoric mining operations, such as open cuts, tunnels, shafts and dumps. The latter are covered with a forest growth of several hundred years, and in the excavations has accumulated the débris of centuries.

1 Report of the Geological Survey of N. C., Vol. 1, p. 301, 1875. For the Finding of Mica ornaments in mounds see Vol. 1, Smithsonian Contributions to knowledge. Monograph of Squier and Davis, p. 240; and Foster's Prehistoric Races of the U. S., p. 191.

About ten years ago a new industry was inaugurated in the State, that of mica mining, and strange to say, the best and most profitable mines have been those located upon the sites of the "old diggings." In clearing out the ancient works very few implements have been found which throw light upon the original miners. The opinion, now generally held, is, that they belonged to the Mound-builders, whose mounds are also found, but sparingly, in the river basins. That this is, for the most part, correct, I think has been clearly shown by Prof. Kerr in his Report on the Geology of North Carolina for 1875. He there states that he learned in a conversation with Col. Whittlesey, and subsequently from numerous publications on the subject of the mounds of the Northwest, that mica was of common occurrence in the tumuli of the Mound-builders, among the utensils and ornaments which such rude people are in the habit of inhuming with their dead owners. And upon further inquiry, he ascertained that cut forms, similar to those found in the mounds were occasionally discovered among the rubbish and refuse heaps about and in the old pits.1

2 Speeches and Writings of Hon. Thomas L. Clingman, p. 130.

When Prof. Kerr's attention was first called to these prehistoric excavations (1867), he was invited to visit some "old Spanish silver mines" which had been discovered a few miles south-west of Bakersville, in Mitchell county, showing that by some means the inhabitants had associated these works with the early explorers of our country. It seems probable that tradition may have given rise to this impression, for in a letter written by the Hon. T. L. Clingman, who is very familiar with Western Carolina, I find the following: "The old Cherokee Indians, living in some of the western counties, used to speak of a tradition coming down in their tribe, that long ago companies of white men came on mules from the south, worked during the summer and carried off a white metal with them."2

3 See Ib., p. 131.

The evidence of the former exploration of this region by white men—Europeans—in search of the precious metals, has not, until recently, been very strong, although in many instances the works indicated a considerable skill in mining, and in a few cases marks have been found as if made by some metallic instrument.3

4 Since the above was written Prof. Kerr has called my attention to the fact that an iron crank was discovered some years since in an ancient shaft in Cherokee county, on Valley river. See Rept. of Progress N. C. Geol. Surv., 1869, p. 56.

This summer, for the first time, I learned that some iron tools had been found in an old shaft in Macon county.4 Upon inquiry, I found them in the possession of Mr. Albert S. Bryson, a merchant in Franklin, the county seat of Macon. From him and others I ascertained the facts here stated.

In 1875 the Guyer mica mine was opened on the site of a "prehistoric working" on the mountains near Iola creek, northwest of the town. There was a basin-like depression some eighteen feet in diameter, at the bottom of which was a shaft apparently about eight feet deep. In carrying on the necessary mining operations this old shaft was cleaned out and found to be of considerable depth. In the rubbish which had accumulated within it, at distances varying from thirty-five to fifty feet below the surface, were found the iron implements figured in the accompanying plate. At the depth of forty feet an adit or tunnel was found opening on the mountain side, and at the bottom of the shaft (fifty feet), resting upon quartz, the charred remains of wood. It is thought that fire was here used for the purpose of breaking up the quartz; that after the rock was heated, water was poured upon it causing it to split into fragments. Now as to the implements. They are of wrought iron, and of such shapes and weights as to be easily carried. That they had been worn out and thrown away is not improbable. The axe (Fig. 1) is rather small, and has been considerably distorted by hard usage, as will be seen in Fig. 2. The eye is quite large, and the head is cracked completely through (Figs. 2 and 3). There is also a rupture near the blade as if the strain on the handle had been so great as to almost break away the side. On the blade is a brand (Fig. 1) which has been so effaced by erosion as to be no longer intelligible. The shape of this axe and its light weight are in contrast with those in use-being of an old pattern which is now rarely met with. The blade and head are each about three and three-quarter inches in width, while between them the width diminishes to two and three-quarter inches.

The implements represented in Figs. 4 and 5 are evidently a pair of gudgeons—parts of a windlass. They are pointed at their extremities that they may be driven into a wooden roller or axis. The lower part of the shank is squared so as to prevent its turning in the wood, while the upper part is cylindrical, forming an axle for the support of the roller. Into their bifurcated heads were undoubtedly inserted levers for turning a windlass. As these irons have a length of but sixteen or seventeen inches, they could be easily carried from place to place, and the machine of which they form a part, could be readily extemporized from the trunk and branches of a small tree. Fig. 6 is theoretical, showing their probable use.

A wedge three and three-quarter inches long and one and a-half inches wide, was also found (Fig. 7). Its head was somewhat battered.

1 One of the most remarkable of these is a timbered shaft 100 feet deep on Valley river. See Rept. of Progress Geol. Survey N. C., 1869, p. 56.
2 History of the United States. Bancroft. 13th edition. Vol. 1, pp. 47-48.

The inference to be drawn from the discovery of these iron relics, is, that some of the "old diggings" are the work of Europeans, as the use of iron was unknown to the native American races. Is it not possible that there is a basis of truth in the old Cherokee tradition? That a party of Spanish explorers—and perhaps more than one—penetrated Western Carolina in search of gold, silver and other minerals, and, in some instances, finding the old mines of the Mound-builders, caused preliminary investigations of their value, does not seem improbable. In Cherokee county are found "prospect holes" excavated with far greater skill than that of savage or barbaric miners.1 To what expedition these Europeans belonged, is a mystery. That of De Soto, according to the course traced out by Bancroft, passed within a comparatively short distance of North Carolina—especially the south-western corner—as it crossed from the head waters of the Savannah or Chattahouchee to those of the Coosa. From it an exploring party was sent to the north, which returned disheartened—without the precious gold—reporting the mountains impassable.2 Could the work have been done by stragglers from this or other parties, or have there been special expeditions to this region of which the historian has lost sight?

Plate 1

Iron Implements in an Ancient Mine in North Carolina