March/April 2008

Mining Lore

Canada’s first gold fraud

By D. Zlotnikov

Gold has been a precious, sought-after element for as long as humans were interested in decorating themselves. Colourful, comparatively rare, malleable and easily shaped, gold was an excellent candidate for jewelry and, as monetary systems replaced barter, for money.

It is hardly surprising that with an almost limitless demand for the precious metal, gold prospectors were eager to explore the new world. Canada, long before being given that name, was home to a number of gold rushes and remains a gold-producing country to this day.

The first such gold rush, however, fell far short of the expectations of all those involved. To this day, no one knows the entire truth behind what was the New World’s first gold fraud.

The tale began in the summer of 1576, when Martin Frobisher returned from an expedition to Arctic Canada. The expedition’s original goal was to find a northern passage to China. Instead, Frobisher came across the Inuit of Baffin Island and, after some trading, returned to London with little to show for his expedition beyond a piece of black ore. But when two separate assayers examined the sample and declared it to contain significant amounts of gold, the gold rush was on.

Once word of the potential riches got out, investors flocked to Frobisher’s enterprise. The backers of Frobisher’s original expedition were joined by others,  including Queen Elizabeth herself, and the Company of Cathay was formed.

Under Frobisher’s command, the second expedition set sail on May 31, 1577. The first landing site was abandoned after a series of run-ins with the Inuit tribes, but the expedition soon relocated to the northern shore of Frobisher Bay, where they found a small island with an abundance of the very same black ore.

By late August the expedition had collected 200 tonnes of ore and, triumphant, returned to England. There, another series of assays were performed on the ore samples, but the results differed wildly between the various estimates. The Cathay Company chose to accept the most optimistic of results and began preparations for the largest Arctic expedition yet.

The third expedition sailed exactly a year later and numbered 15 ships and over 400 men. The party landed on the same island the previous expedition mined — now named The Countess of Warwick’s Island — and began quarrying and loading the “black ore.”

During August 1578, the mining crews loaded 1,100 tonnes of rock from numerous mines and set sail for England.

Almost the entire 1,100 tonnes made it to safety. The largest portion of the ore went to the new smelting facility at Dartford, not far from London. The Dartford smelter was the largest refining facility constructed in England to date, purpose-built to process Frobisher’s “black ore.” Jonas Schutz, one of the assayers who evaluated the first expedition’s finds, was responsible for the design and construction and thus was blamed when the Dartford furnaces failed to extract the expected quantity of precious metal. Despite continued attempts to both identify the flaw in the design and to extract the gold, it was rapidly becoming clear that the fabled black ore was, in fact, worthless.

By 1586, the Dartford works had been sold by the Queen and Cathay Company investors, in an attempt to recoup some of their losses. Frobisher was in disgrace and the black ore was dumped as worthless, wherever it happened to be at the time. The last of the black ore can still be found in the remains of boundary walls surrounding the Dartford manor house site.

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