Prospecting for gold in the 1860's

by Anthony G. Flude ©2001.

digger White settlers in New Zealand had found small traces of alluvial [surface] gold in the beds of streams and rivers of both islands since their first arrival in the 1840's. Little official attention had been paid to these finds, until the gold rushes of California and Australia in 1852 produced an awareness that the mineral might be in New Zealand in payable quantities.

Prospectors, returning to New Zealand from the goldfields overseas in the late 1850's,  now used their experience to begin searching the rivers and streams of their own country, scooping up the silt, pebbles and sand from the riverbeds with their gold pan, while eagerly  looking for the speck of bright gold at the bottom.  It was a shepherd who first found gold in 1850 in the Cromwell Gorge on the South Island of New Zealand while looking for grazing for his sheep, who's wanderings took them into unexplored valleys, rivers, streams and gully's many miles from the nearest settlement. His lucky find caused little excitement in the district at that time.
Gold Map
Many miners and prospectors had left from the Port of Auckland for the Australian Goldfields at Bendigo in 1852, however, the Auckland Provincial Council set up a general gold reward committee to find workable gold on the North Island of New Zealand. This was first found at Driving Creek on the Coromandel Peninsula and reported by the brothers  C & F Ring who had come back to Auckland from the Californian Goldfields on the 23rd September, 1852.

Members of the committee were dispatched from Auckland aboard the schooner UNDINE and arrived at McGregors Bay where they all put ashore. Proceeding up the creek for about 3 miles, they found Ring's party at work among the immense blocks of quartz which lay along the stream bed. The committee members panned for samples at various points, a number of large scales of gold were found, a second sample, taken before nightfall, produced an ever larger amount. They were satisfied, although not yet fully convinced of the quantities likely to be recovered.

Similarly, in the year 1856, a group of merchants in Nelson, at the top of the South Island, offered a reward of £500 to the prospector who found a payable goldfield. In May, some 300 miners and prospectors tried their luck at Pig Valley, Motueka and made some excellent finds and returns for their efforts. Searching further afield, William Travers found some large nuggets of gold which he recovered from the upper Takaka Stream.

In 1857, prospectors McGregor and Lightband had pushed into Aorere, where they also reported some good finds of gold. The local population, being the first to hear of the strike,  made their way to the area where it was estimated that in April, 1857, there were some 500 prospectors on the diggings. By May, the numbers had doubled as word spread and this figure rose steadily to nearly 1500 men working in the district.
In these areas, it had been found that washing and panning was of limited use and the miners had found it necessary to use sluice-boxes and install water-races as well as sinking deep shafts to recover the gold.

Some prospectors moved on to Slate River, where some good strikes were made, while at Appo's Flat, nearly £5000 in coarse gold was recovered from one square acre of land. Rocky River produced mainly small nuggets of gold worth about £20 each.
Miners Licence The National Provincial Council introduced mining licences at £1 each. The fields at Collingwood on the Anatoki River opened up in 1857 and with it the beginnings of a new town. By May, 1858, the banks in Nelson had received over £70,000 worth of gold recovered from the fields at Takaka and Aorere.
James Lovell had set up in business in butchery and bakery at Collingwood.
His store comprised a large tent and galvanised iron shed. He was also to become the towns first banker when he was paid in gold by the miners for his goods. Worried about being robbed of his takings, James got his wife to take the gold, carefully sewn into the hems of her skirts, into Nelson to bank each week, Fortunately, an armed escorted gold shipment service was introduced by the Nelson banks within a few months.

The Nelson fields were always found to be payable, the official count for the area placing a value of £150,000 worth of gold recovered until 1861, when the main rush was over. The Nelson goldfields  were never able to produce the large amounts of gold that the West Coast and Otago goldfields did.
Miner At the peak of the Nelson goldfields prospectors had moved eastwards over the Pelorus River towards Picton and Marlborough. None of them found gold until April, 1864, when four prospectors, Wilson, Harris and the two brothers Rutland, made a rich strike on the Wakamarina River.
A gold rush set in as there was a temporary decline in the Otago Fields. Diggers swarmed northwards over land and by sea. By the 14th May, some 3000 came through Picton and another 1000 through the Port of Nelson, over 32 miles across country from the diggings.

Before long, the Wakamarina field was covered by 6000 men, a long line of canvas shelters and tents springing up beside the mud flats. The field produced some rich pockets of gold. In the first rush over 25,000 ounces were won,  but it was nearly all gone by 1866 when only 469 ounces were recovered. In 1889 after all the surface gold was exhausted, the Wairu quartz goldfield was discovered.

Further south  on the mainland,  the exodus of prospectors and would-be miners from the township of Dunedin began slowly in the year 1861 when the Tuapeka goldfields opened. All manner of people quit their occupations to seek their fortune's, blacksmiths, carpenters, shepherds, sailors and lawyers, businessmen and clerks worked shoulder to shoulder washing the dirt to find their share of gold.
Gabrielle Read had found flakes of gold in a shaft 2ft deep in a gully east of the township which was later named after him, Gabrielle's Gully. Read was given the reward money of £1000 offered by the business community of Dunedin for his find.

By August there were more than 2000 diggers turning over the soil. By mid September, the green grassy slopes of the gully had been transformed into a sea of mud and rubble which extended for almost a mile.
Australian shipping crowded the harbour as news spread across the Tasman. Miners from Victoria paid the £16 fare to New Zealand, others not so wealthy, paid £2 to gain a place in the hold among the sheep and other cattle for the 10 day passage. They came ashore with their meagre belongings on their back to prospect for gold, swelling the population of the Otago Province to over 30,000 persons.

The first canvas town of miners strang up at Lawrence. Further up the Tuapeka River, the mining town of Weatherston boasted 5 stores, a restuarant and a grog shop owned by Mrs.Battarah in 1861. 
Chinese miner
The first Chinese miners arrived at the small settlements of Lawrence and Waitahuna from the Chinese Kwantung Provinces in 1866. They were mostly labourers and wanted only to recover enough gold to return to China and their families as none of the miners brought their wives with them.
They could survive on very little and often tucked themselves into small caves or rocky overhangs, living on flour dampers, wild pork or native parrots or pigeon they shot.
By 1867 the number of Chinese working in the goldfields was some 1200, but this figure gradually rose in subsequent years as they began arriving in larger numbers direct from Canton as other prospectors found gold deposits along the Clutha River and up the Arrow River at Arrowtown.

The Cromwell Gorge is a steep sided valley along a stretch of the Clutha River in central Otago. It is a place of rugged bluffs of rock,  little winter sun, bleak hillsides covered in scrub and subject to extremes of very hot summers and very cold winters. In the early days, many small settlements in the district were subject to name change, one name given by the miners and another by officialdom. Thus the Clyde in the gold rush days was named Dunstan, then Hartley Town, Beef Town and finally to its present official name, Clyde. Even the river changed its name from Molyneux to become the Clutha.
Cromwell Gorge In the bitter cold winter of 1862, two prospectors, an American named Hartley and an Irishman named Reilly, began working up the sides of the Molyneux River in the Cromwell Gorge. The river levels had fallen drastically due to the ice and snow above. Near the junction of the Kawerau River they filled their sluice box with sand and shingle.
At the bottom, when the sand and shingle had been washed out, they found a good quantity of dull yellow gold. By the 19th of August, after they had kept their cradle going by day and night, they had recovered the enormous amount of "87 pounds weight of gold" from the riverbed which was deposited in the Dunedin Bank. From the businessmen's reward money they received their £2000 and the GOLD RUSH was on.

swags Men laden with heavy swags on their backs set off along the tracks to the gorge, while wagons and carts lurched towards the rapidly growing canvas tent-towns of Upper Dunstan or Lower Dunstan. Hotels and stores sprang up, dancing saloons of dubious reputation, flourished alongside the 'sly' grog shops, who were producing their own particular brew of alcohol.
With gold or money in their pockets, the happy miners celebrated Christmas and New year 1862 among their fellow prospectors and miners in the goldfield hotels.
Joining the miners who were staking out their claims along the creeks and stretches of the river came the Chinese miners who were quite content to work the ground left abandoned where only small returns were found and other prospectors had moved on in search of better finds. Some of the Chinese had some rich finds and most found that they could recover enough gold for their needs.
In 1864, as the rough cart tracks became roads, hotels were built at points along the way between the towns of Clyde and Cromwell. A small shanty town called Muttontown opened up during these times but closed when all the miners moved on. In the gorge, the first respectable hotel, named the "Halfway House" was built of stone and later expanded to a wooden larger building, catering for the wagoners and the coach service from Clyde to Queenstown, run three times a week.

The river rose fast in the spring of 1863, moving the miners into the Carrick Ranges and up the Nevis Valley towards Arrow Town and the Arrow River, some 20 miles from Queenstown. Gold had been discovered in this river by Jack Tewa, [Maori Jack] during 1862 when he was employed as a farm-hand on the Rees Station. At Arthur's Point on the Shotover, a party headed by an American named West, began to explore the area found by Maori Jack. They soon located the gold and decided to keep this a secret while they worked the diggings. In four weeks McGregor had recovered some 82lb of gold and West 110lb at the Arrow Rivers junction with the Kawerau River. The other member of the party, named Fox, took some of his gold dust to Dunstan to buy provisions and was followed back to the site.

Thus the gold strike had been discovered and over a thousand men entered the gorge's via the Arrow River and the Shotover. Many camped at Dunstan or at the Rees Station, while they staked their claims in Braken's Gully. The population of Arrowtown rose to 3000 in January and shortly after in April, 1863, Arrowtown had a visit from the notorious Captain "Bully" Hayes who had heard of the gold strikes and wanted a share in the profits to be earned from the gold and cash in the miners pockets.[See Hayes visit to NZ] Bully Hayes

The Shotover River was to produce some of the highest yeilds of gold, where over four claims they recovered some 127lb of gold in one day. Skippers Creek gave the greatest return of all, where each square foot carried one ounce of gold weight. In 1863 the miners shanty-town of tents stretched along the Molyneux River from Skippers Creek all the way to Miller's Flat and the area was still being worked by the Chinese miners who arrived in the settlement in 1866.

On the North Island of New Zealand the Coromandel goldfields had been deserted until 1857 when further interest developed in the mining of gold bearing quartz from the district. Little occurred until 1862 when the area was again the subject of a gold rush. Over 100 miners rushed the Driving Creek area but found the alluvial gold was almost exhausted.
A reef of gold bearing quartz was discovered by Thomas Keven close to the Kapanga River. Machinery was brought in and as other miners left the area, Keven and his partners began crushing. The returns were poor and the company went into liquidation. Robert Kelly's mine at Kapanga was the most successful and produced over £7000 in gold by May 1864. Five months later several other small company's formed together into the Kapanga Goldmine Company.

When prospecting was opened up over the whole area of Thames to the Coromandel in 1867, many new company's set up large mines with battery stamping machinery capable of crushing huge quantities of the gold bearing quartz.
The days of the prospector finding surface alluvial gold were drawing to a close. Mining had became a mechanised business of battery stampers and overhead rows of buckets filled with quartz dug from the mines. Steam driven dredges scooped the riverbeds and creeks on the South Island, searching for the remaining gold which the diggers had been unable to reach.

Packing their belongings the prospectors and miners gradually left the shores of New Zealand for their homes and families.  Some had made it rich, others left with little more than what they had brought with them, while the goldfields now lay deserted and nature set about the task of restoring the natural bush and habitat that once it had been.