August 2011

Gold in our backyard

Local labourers and Nova Scotia’s gold rush

By Correy Baldwin

Nova Scotia is known for its coal, but its eastern shore has been a source of gold ever since a “rush” invigorated the province in the 1860s. The initial discoveries were made humbly enough, often by local farmers, some who had picked up the idea of prospecting from the California Gold Rush.

One of these men was John Pulsifer, a farmer and amateur prospector from the town of Musquodoboit. Pulsifer suspected that there was gold along the Tangier River and in 1860, he explored the area, enlisting a Mi’kmaq guide named Joe Paul.

Joe Paul had been to the area two years earlier in the company of Captain Champagne L’Estrange of the British Army, who was on a moose-hunting trip. Whether or not the captain got a moose is unknown, but he did claim to have found gold – his discovery was not taken seriously and was all but forgotten by the time Pulsifer explored the area. On his expedition, the farmer found what he was looking for – gold-bearing quartz.

Pulsifer staked a claim, although at first he, too, had trouble convincing not only local officials but potential financial backers as well. Then, in October, a local fisherman and farmer named Peter Mason came across gold on his own land near the Tangier Harbour. He was on the lookout for such a find, intrigued by the rumours of gold further up river. There was no denying this second discovery. The gold rush was on.

Discoveries were not limited to Tangier. There was a flurry of discoveries across the eastern shore of Nova Scotia in 1861.

When news of the Tangier gold reached Lawrencetown, just east of John-Halifax, a man named William Crook knew where he could find his own gold. Years earlier, as a young boy, he had found what he believed to be gold on his father’s land. He had shown it to his father, but the older man just scoffed at him and told him to pitch the rubbish away and get back to work. Now, Crook returned to the field where he had obeyed his father, and there indeed found gold.

Not long after and further up the coast at Goldenville, near Sherbrooke, a farmer named Nelson Nickerson discovered gold on his land while making hay. He had visited Tangier earlier that summer and had learned to identify quartz. He returned to break open every intriguing rock he came across while working his land.

The Nickerson family kept their discovery quiet and began to secretly break down the quartz. With so much excitement in the air about gold, however, they could hardly keep the secret for long. Neighbours became suspicious and took to closely watching them. By October, the sound of Nickerson’s hammer had given him away, and Goldenville was enveloped in the gold rush.

Unlike other gold rushes across North America, Nova Scotia’s discoveries were in an area that had long been settled. When the rush hit, local farmers, fishermen and other labourers picked up many of the claims. At one point, so many farmers had left their fields that the general public became concerned about the loss of agricultural productivity.

All of this led to a large number of small operations, spreading financial backing thin. As well, a general lack of experience in mining led to inefficient and wasteful operations. Gold extraction was often done simply by hand, with picks and shovels. When the surface gold ran out, men lacked the capital to invest in larger scale mining, and many operations were abandoned.

At the Ovens, near Lunenburg, for example, gold was found in the beach sand where it fell from the eroding cliffs above. But few could afford to mine the veins themselves and merely panned the beaches by hand until this easy gold ran out.

By 1874, gold fever had ebbed. Thankfully this was not the end of Nova Scotia’s history with gold. It was not long before more experienced and better trained men reopened the gold mines, equipped with better machinery and methods, and more capital. Gold would continue to feed Nova Scotia’s economy throughout the next century.

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