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The California Gold Rush of 1849 is a universal topic of study in courses surveying U.S. history, but what is commonly known about gold mining practices in nineteenth-century Virginia? Two chancery causes found during the reprocessing of Albemarle County chancery court records shed some light on Virginia gold mining practices during the 1850s and 1860s and the conflict that arose surrounding a specific gold mine in southwestern Albemarle County.

According to the Virginia Department of Energy, gold mining and production began in Virginia in the early 1800s.1 At the outset, gold was found in shallow saprolites, or “deeply weathered near surface lode deposits,” veins, and placer deposits.2 Broadly, lode and vein deposits tend to be located underground, while placer deposits “are a type of mineral deposit in which grains of a valuable mineral like gold…are mixed with sand deposited by a river or glacier.”3 After depleting surface-level deposits, miners then searched for and mined gold from lode or vein deposits further beneath the ground, a more labor-intensive process that utilized machinery to raise and crush ore (e.g., a rock or mineral deposit from which gold can be extracted).4

Virginia counties in which gold was mined include Buckingham, Spotsylvania, Orange, Goochland, Fauquier, Louisa, and Fluvanna counties, among others.5 These counties fall along or near the Virginia Piedmont gold-pyrite belt, “a nine-mile to sixteen-mile-wide, nearly 140-mile-long northeast rending volcanic plutonic belt that extends from Fairfax County to southwestern Buckingham County,” where most gold mining occurred.6 In Virginia and elsewhere, gold was used in the creation of currency, jewelry, decorative objects, and art; it likely also was used in dentistry to fashion teeth, fillings, and wiring.7  Mine owners and overseers in western North Carolina utilized enslaved labor when mining for gold, and it can be assumed that enslaved Black and multiracial individuals were similarly employed in Virginia gold mines.8 In North Carolina mines, they often made up 25 to 50 percent of the workforce.9

The inception of the California Gold Rush saw laborers strike out west in search of fortune, which led to a decrease in Virginia gold mining. Gold mining and production in Virginia continued into the 1940s, though it petered out after World War II.10 Gold has not been produced in Virginia since 1947, though interest in gold exploration and mining persists in some areas.11 In 2021, a Canadian company’s efforts to locate gold in Buckingham County prompted an investigation of gold mining regulations in Virginia; a subsequent 2022 National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine report determined that existing regulations are inadequate and need to better address the impact of gold mining on the environment.12 In terms of historical interpretation, Fauquier County is home to the Gold Mining Camp Museum, located in Monroe Park in Goldvein, Virginia, which, according to the organization’s website, is the Commonwealth of Virginia’s official gold mining interpretive center.13 The museum surveys the history of gold mining in Virginia and Fauquier County and operates a sluice for gold panning and gem mining.14 Lake Anna State Park in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, is located in the same area as the former Goodwin Gold Mine. Guided tours of the gold mine are provided for park visitors.15

While most gold mining in Virginia was concentrated outside of Albemarle County, two chancery suits demonstrate that some gold mining did occur within its boundaries. In Lafayette K. Saylor vs. John M. Norvell & wife, etc., Saylor sought to purchase from John M. Norvell a tract of land – alternatively referred to as the Norvell Farm and Gold property and the Norvell Gold Mine – reported to contain gold and other valuable mineral veins. The property was comprised of 519 ¾ acres of land supposedly located in both Albemarle and Nelson counties, according to George W. Fisher, who rented the land from Norvell before it was placed on the market.16 However, a plat of the property pictured below (see Figure 2) does not explicitly place any part of the property in Nelson County. According to a book titled Albemarle County in Virginia, published 1901, “gold is found in the southwest corner” of Albemarle County, which may refer to the Norvell property.17

This is further supported by the land’s proximity to Howardsville, which is in the southwestern corner of Albemarle County near Nelson County, and the inclusion of several gold mines located near the border of Nelson and Albemarle counties in the Virginia gold-pyrite belt image (see Figure 1).18 This is not completely substantiated, however.

After inspecting the property, Saylor offered to pay Norvell about $50,000, or $2,000,000 today, for the land in question. Referencing some experiments that tested ore from the property, Saylor stated, “if [the ore] shall really turn out to be worth per bushel the one half or even the one fourth part as much as these experiments would seem to indicate – there is no telling the amount of gold which with the use of improved machinery may be obtained from the land.”19 Following the execution of the contract with Norvell, Saylor refused to pay for the land until Norvell perfected the title to the land; prior to this, Saylor had already defaulted on an initial payment due Norvell.

Norvell inherited part of the property from the estate of his father, James Norvell. The property was initially distributed among James Norvell’s heirs, but John Norvell incrementally purchased the other heirs’ allotted shares of the land. Another chancery suit, Executors of James Norvell vs. Elizabeth Norvell, etc., pending in the chancery court of Albemarle when Saylor filed his bill, sought to settle and divide the estate; included in the suit is a plat that depicts the land in question (see Figure 2). Due to this suit, Saylor argued that there was some controversy surrounding Norvell’s legal ownership of the land because no deed for the entirety of the land had been transferred to Norvell; Saylor also claimed that none of the infant heirs to the land had officially conveyed their share of the land to Norvell, and therefore Norvell was not the legal owner of the property.

After Saylor declined to pay for the property, Norvell then attempted to sell it to Patrick H. Cowen, a man who claimed some gold mining expertise, “having pursued [gold] for some time in California” during the California gold rush.20 After the sale with Cowen fell through, Norvell then sold the land to Roger Flood, D. Thomas Vail, Platt Potter, and Enoch H. Rosekrans for the sum of $20,000. Norvell stated in his answer to Saylor’s bill that the “property was exiting a good deal of interest among gold explorers and speculators.”21 He thereby sought to enforce timely execution of contracts with potential buyers to avoid speculators who might “purchase” the land and never pay for it. He accused Saylor of being “a mere adventurer” who “never designed to comply with his agreement, and only sought and entered into it, with the design of speculating upon it.”22

Figure 2. Plat depicts the land which Saylor hoped to purchase from Norvell. It does not specify the location of the gold mine.

Albemarle County (Va.) Chancery Causes, 1860. Executors of James Norvell vs. Elizabeth Norvell, etc., 1860-053. Local government records collection, Albemarle County Court Records. The Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.

According to Saylor, the land was not worth much beyond its mining potential (i.e., the agricultural value of the land was poor), which may be another reason Norvell did not want potential buyers mining for gold without having paid for the land.

As evidenced by the chancery suit, Saylor sued Norvell for non-performance of their contract and sought the chancery court’s assistance in forcing Norvell to sell the land to him as its original purchaser. Since Norvell had sold the land to other parties interested in mining for gold, Saylor hoped to stall any progress they might make so that the gold mine was not exhausted before the court entered a decree or order. Assumedly, Flood, Vail, Potter, and Rosekrans retained control of the mine, as there is no decree in this suit to indicate whether Saylor was successful in taking possession of the land.

A second set of suits, George W. Fisher vs. John Norvell, etc. and John Norvell vs. George W. Fisher, etc., reveal more details about the controversy between Saylor and Norvell and describe another disagreement surrounding the land and its sale. George W. Fisher, a self-described “practical miner” who had “been engaged for some 25 years in exploring, operating and selling gold mines,” rented the land in question from Norvell in 1858 before Norvell attempted to sell it.23 Fisher used machinery to raise and crush ore found on the property, implying that he encountered lode or vein deposits when mining for gold on Norvell’s land.

As part of his agreement with Norvell (see Figure 3), Fisher expected to split the profits of the land sale with Norvell – discounting the agricultural value of the land – assuming Fisher helped effect a sale of the property. According to Fisher, Norvell granted him power of attorney and authorized him to sell the land. Fisher traveled to New York and Pennsylvania in search of a buyer and carried specimens from the mine with him, which when examined in New York at the “essay [sic] office,” a place where gold could be tested, “gave the mine a great reputation with those to whom they were exhibited” because of their richness.24 These same experiments may have been what excited Saylor’s initial interest in the land.

Fisher accused Norvell of fraud because, as part of the agreement Norvell made with Cowen following Saylor’s refusal to pay the purchase money, Fisher surrendered his lease to the land. When Norvell deeded the land to Flood, Vail, Potter, and Rosekrans after the deal with Cowen fell through, Fisher could not claim any of the purchase money because the lease was no longer in effect. Under the lease, Fisher was entitled to a portion of the profits if the land was sold, as demonstrated in Figure 3. Fisher felt that Norvell had purposely defrauded him, so he did not have to share the profits of the land sale.

The court ultimately dismissed Fisher’s bill, stating that his claim against Norvell and the purchasers had no basis and the “remedy” for his claim against Norvell “would be complete and adequate at law.”25

The phrase “at law” is notable in this instance because the suit was tried in a chancery court, which heard cases of equity rather than those that could be adjudicated according to existing laws. Whether Fisher was eventually awarded any profits from the land sale is unknown, as no information to that effect exists in the suit. What happened to the land after Flood, Vail, Potter, and Rosekrans mined for gold is also unknown, though further research might illuminate the fate of the mine and property.

As demonstrated above, gold mining – both past and present – can be a profitable, though contentious, undertaking. While gold mining and production in the U.S. is sometimes romanticized, it can be an exploitative and cut-throat industry. In California, for example, for those who profited from gold mining, there were also individuals who never struck it rich; those forced to labor against their will; Indigenous communities who were massacred and forced off their land by gold seekers; and Chinese miners who were subjected to unfair taxation and violence.26 Environmental contamination and destruction is another drawback of gold mining. According to the Piedmont Environmental Council of Virginia, a failure to enforce reclamation (i.e., the closure and decontamination of gold mines) in several historic Orange County gold mines may have led to the contamination of the surrounding land and water sources; chemicals, such as mercury, arsenic, and lead, can be byproducts of the gold mining process.27

Gold mining and production practices, as taught in classrooms, can garner modern interest, especially when paired with the interactive activity of panning for gold or gems at a museum or other similar institution. Though one might labor in “vein” to find anything really valuable when panning for gold or gems today, it can be an enjoyable reminder of the past. However, it is also important to be aware of the environmental destruction and social discord that often accompanied historic gold mining and production.


[1] Palmer Sweet, Gold, (Virginia: Geology and Mineral Resources Program, Virginia Department of Energy, last modified April 2007), page 1,

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Lode vs. Place Mining,” Wells Historical Society and Museum, accessed May 17, 2023,

“EarthWord – Placer,” United States Geological Survey, April 25, 2017,

[4] Hilary Costa et al., “Ore,” National Geographic Society, last modified July 28, 2022,

[5] “Gold,” Virginia Department of Energy, accessed May 10, 2023,,industry%2C%20and%20production%20declined%20rapidly.

[6] Ibid.

[7] J. A. Donaldson, “The use of gold in dentistry,” Gold Bulletin 13, no. 3 (1980): 117-124,

[8] Jeff Forret, “Slave Labor in North Carolina’s Antebellum Gold Mines,” The North Carolina Historical Review 76, no. 2 (1999): 135-162,

[9] Ibid, 143.

[10] Sweet, Gold, page 2.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Sarah Vogelsong, “National Academies report says Virginia gold mining regulations are inadequate,” Virginia Mercury, November 1, 2022,; Jessica Sims, “Gold mining in Virginia has the makings of an environmental disaster,” Richmond Times Dispatch, January 7, 2023,

[13] “Gold Mining Camp Museum,” Fauquier County, Virginia, Government, accessed May 10, 2023,

[14] Ibid.

[15] Amanda Ellis, “Oh Virginia!”, Gold Prospectors, Gold Prospectors Association of America, July/August 2018,

[16] Albemarle County (Va.) Chancery Causes, 1869. George W. Fisher vs. John M. Norvell, etc., John M. Norvell vs. George W. Fisher, etc., 1869-018. Local government records collection, Albemarle County Court Records. The Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.

[17] Edgar Woods, Albemarle County in Virginia (Charlottesville: The Michie Company, 1901),

[18] Albemarle County (Va.) Chancery Causes, 1869. George W. Fisher vs. John M. Norvell, etc., John M. Norvell vs. George W. Fisher, etc., 1869-018. Local government records collection, Albemarle County Court Records. The Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.

[19] Albemarle County (Va.) Chancery Causes, 1861. Lafayette K. Saylor vs. John M. Norvell & wife, etc., 1861-002. Local government records collection, Albemarle County Court Records. The Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Albemarle County (Va.) Chancery Causes, 1869. George W. Fisher vs. John M. Norvell, etc., John M. Norvell vs. George W. Fisher, etc., 1869-018. Local government records collection, Albemarle County Court Records. The Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Stuart Thornton, “After the Gold Rush,” National Geographic Society, last modified May 20, 2022,

[27] Dan Holmes, “Shocking news about historic gold mining contamination,” Piedmont Environmental Council (blog), January 6, 2022,

Caroline Collins

Local Records Archivist


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