What's with that yellow metal, and why do we like it so much?

“There’s gold in them thar hills!”

 
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That phrase has been repeated a hundred million times to express that there is a great amount of money to be made from an investment, business or other venture, or even a location. It was also famously believed to be exclaimed around the time of the Gold Rush But where did the quote come from, who said it, and why?

It is not widely known that a gold rush happened in the State of Georgia, years before the California Gold Rush. In 1828, gold was discovered in the hills surrounding a town called Dahlonega, GA. Over the next 20 years miners arrived by the thousands to prospect their fortunes. By 1849 the rush in Georgia had begun to slow and prospectors began heading west where gold had been discovered in California the year prior at Sutter’s Mill, sparking the great California Gold Rush, which brought over 300,000 to California. That influx encouraged the formation of our 31st State in 1950.

In order to stop prospectors from leaving, an assayer named Matthew Fleming Stevenson, attempted to convince others there was still gold in the area. He stood on the courthouse steps and declared. “Why go to California? In that ridge lies more gold than man ever dreamt of. There’s millions in it.”

Later, after hearing that quote repeated by miners that were, indeed, heading to California, Mark Twain remembered it as, “There’s gold in them thar hills!” And that phrase stuck, and has stuck until today.

OK, great. But what is it about gold that caused people to go so crazy ga-ga over a soft, yellow-ish metal? We all love it, we hold it as valuable, way valuable, more valuable than money, more valuable than just about anything. Why?

 
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Gold has been used and valued by humanity since before written history. It has been heralded as the stuff of kings and queens and as a symbol of wealth the world over, in just about every culture and any time period of which we have record.

The first recorded use of gold was by the ancient Egyptians, around 3000 B.C. It was prized by the pharaohs and the priests. The Egyptians were the first to use gold to establish a currency exchange ratio, as well as the first to establish that gold was more valuable than silver. They created maps that showed where the gold deposits were and how to get to them. Some of those maps still exist today.

 

The Turin Papyrus circa 1150 B.C., the world’s oldest geological map.

 
 

However, the Egyptians did not use gold as a means of bartering, using barley and other agricultural products. The first culture to use gold as a form of currency was the Kingdom of Lydia, an ancient civilization in what is now western Turkey.

The ancient Greeks used gold to as a show of wealth and prosperity and considered gold items as a form of glory to the immortals. The ancient Incans, Aztecs, and Mayans used gold in their religious ceremonies. Even the Old Testament mentions gold numerous times as a substance of great value to humanity.

There are some properties gold has that set it apart from other metals. One, it is soft. It is easy to work with, to shape, to turn into other things (such as jewelry). Second, it is pretty. Its color and tone and texture are pleasing to the eye and to the touch. It doesn’t tarnish, rust, or corrode like other metals, including silver. For most people, it doesn’t irritate the skin like other metals can and it can be used again and again and again for different purposes. Take a necklace, turn it into a coin. Take a few coins, turn them into a little statue. Take the statue, make it into a necklace and some rings. Useful, easy to use, and beautiful.

On our next post we’ll go over what the different types, or purities, of gold we typically see.

 

Incan idol statuette.

Gold coins from ancient Greece.

Aztec mask.