The Portis Goldmine

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Map from 1910 book, Portis, the interesting story of a southern gold mine, by Henry Clay Palmer and Maurice Brooke, used to promote and obtain investors to renew mining operations.

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Old historical marker at the site. Only evidence of a some building foundations remain.

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New historical marker, updated to reflect research by Archie Portis, Jr.

The historical records are not consistent on the discovery and history of this gold mine. The old NC historical marker at the site said that Isaac Portis discovered the gold on his farm. Several other articles also say that gold was first discovered on the farm of Isaac Portis. However there are no census records for an Isaac until the 1880 Franklin Co US Census in which an Isaac Potice (black, widowed, aged 84) appears. Isaac Portis is also named in an 1866 lawsuit concerning the goldmine that went to the NC Supreme Court.

Other sources indicate that John Portis owned the land – the most definitive source being his estate papers (located in the NC Archives). John, Ira Davis, Jeremiah and George William (sons of John Floyd Abias Portis (1740–1794)) were all located in this area in the late 1700s. All/most had slaves on their farms and it is possible that Isaac was a slave on land owned by John at the time of discovery of gold.

The date of discovery is also not consistent, with some articles stating that the gold was discovered as late as 1842. The true date was in 1831, based on a newspaper article in the Halifax Roanake Advocate of Nov 17, 1831:

A new source of gold on the land of Mr. Portis in the vicinity of Ransom’s Bridge Postoffice and near the place where the counties of Nash, Franklin, Halifax and Warren join each other, a very rich deposit of gold has been discovered. One piece weighing several pennyweights has been found and smaller pieces in great number. It is said to be quite common to make five dollars to the land a day and there are nearly twenty different places where the precious metal can be obtained in sufficient quantity to reward the searcher for it.

John Portis died in 1850.

A somewhat fanciful history of the mine according to excerpts from a recent article:

Published Mar 9, 2011 Wake Forest Gazette

We keep forgetting that North Carolina once led the nation in gold production. From 1804 to 1828 all domestic gold coined by the United States Mint came from the Tar Heel state, and a branch of the mint was built in Charlotte.

Conrad Reed, a farmer’s son, was playing with his siblings in Little Meadow Creek in Cabarrus County in 1799 and where he found a heavy shining yellow rock. When his father, John Reed, took the rock to a silversmith in Concord the following week the man told him it was worthless, so the 17- pound rock became a doorstop for three years. Reed took it with him on a trip to Fayetteville, where a jeweler recognized it was pure gold and gave Reed $3.50 for it. Reed was eventually better compensated by the jeweler – and richly compensated when he went back to Little Meadow Creek and found many more of those heavy yellow rocks. That was the beginning of America’s first gold rush.

None of that excitement reached Franklin County until 1835 on the Isaac Portis farm up in the northeast corner of the county almost into Nash. Portis offered bed and breakfast to travelers on the two roads near his home, and one morning one guest saw glints of gold in the mud chinking for the cabin or, another version, in the freshly-plowed field outside. Portis, no fool, sent samples off to Richmond and Raleigh and received confirmation that his farm was a gold mine.

According to the late T.H. Pearce’s history of Franklin County, mining camps sprang up on the Portis property, and Portis charged each prospector a portion of his find. He also hired others to work his placer mines. He fiercely defended his property with a large pistol, and he was a wealthy man by the time the Civil War put an end to the mining.

The area around the farm in the Ransome Bridge area soon became as wild and brawling as any frontier. There were gunfights and shoot-outs. The most famous, at least in legend, happened one Saturday night in a saloon, leaving 14 men dead. The story is probably remembered because each one came from a different state and they were buried in the shape of the Union.

If there was gold on the Portis farm, then it might be elsewhere, and soon finds were reported in Nash, Halifax and Warren counties. Portis gold was mined by hydraulic methods but some of those in Nash and other counties were underground. The Arrington family was heavily represented with at least three mines given that name.

After the Civil War, Union Colonel William Sturges purchased the Portis property and operated the mine successfully until his death in 1894. One of his sons, Phil, continued to operate the mine until he sold it in 1935 to the Norlina Company out of Lansing, Michigan. That company brought in a lot of heavy equipment but never was able to find the mother lode. The company abandoned the attempt in 1936.

Pearce wrote there was a final attempt to mine the Portis gold. “In February of 1938 a gold extracting plant was set up in the J.S. Howell building on South Main Street in Louisburg. R. W. Stoddard, described as an expert mining engineer, in connection with the state geologist, Dr. Herman J. Bryson, who installed the plant, said that they were satisfied there was a lot of gold in the county and preliminary tests run on clay brought from the Portis mine property showed an assay value of $15 per ton. They did find gold but it was reported that it cost them $3 to extract $2 worth of gold so the gold extracting plant soon closed its doors.”

Note: The Norlina Mining Company issued stock and the president was RE Olds (Olds Motor Works and designer of the Oldsmobile, the first mass-produced auto).

22 Dec 1866 — An Act to Incorporate the Sturgis Gold Mining Co in Franklin NC was passed as a Public Law in NC — listed were Thomas K Thomas, SG Sturgis, James H Platt, Dr Ellis Malone and Charles H Thomas.

1 Sept 1868 — the Portis Gold Mine Company of Franklin County was conveyed to Stephen G Stirgus and William E Stirges of Newark, Essex Co, NJ for $17,950 — 900 acres beginning at Shocco Creek at its junction with Fishing Creek, and being the land conveyed to the company by Thomas K Thomas, April 13, 1866 — recorded in Franklin Co D.B. 33, pg 153. The Stirgis/Sturgis family operated the mine well up to the early 1900s.

24 Feb 1870 – An Act to Incorportate the Portis Gold Mine and Sandy Creek Water Co. in Franklin Co. was ratified; $50,000 in stock authorized. William E Sturgess, John Wardell, Thomas R Thomas, Joseph J Davis and Charles H Thomas are named.