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Gold And Silver

( Originally Published 1918 )

The twin metals. Gold and silver have been mentioned together for many ages as the precious metals ; and although there are now a number of more costly ones, these two are still commonly linked one with the other. Both have been used for ornament and both for money. They are still employed for this latter purpose in civilized countries, although for most such countries gold is the standard of value and silver a common coin used for making change.


Nature of gold. This is a widely distributed metal, being found in almost all countries of the world; as well as in the waters of the sea ; it is common in volcanic districts. It occurs in various forms as veins in quartz, as nuggets, and in so-called " placer deposits " (that is, in small particles, or dust, mixed in with gravel or sand). What called attention to gold was doubtless its attractiveness to the eye of the childlike savage ; and it has remained alluring to the discriminating eye of the civilized man. It is also durable, neither rusting away nor otherwise wasting by chemical change. It is said, doubtless with some exaggeration, that all the gold that has ever been mined is now, unconsumed, in the possession of the race, with the exception of that which has, by shipwreck or otherwise, been lost. The metal is also easy to work, being soft and ductile, and was for this reason a favorite of the savage peoples, who had difficulty with the harder metals.

Gold coinage. Gold is a metal which, because of its softness, suffers much from abrasion ; it is therefore ordinarily alloyed with copper or some other harder metal, the grade of fineness of the compound being expressed in carats. For the same reason gold has to be alloyed in coins ; and it is, indeed, under modern conditions, not very well suited to form a circulating medium. The coins, unless of high value, are too small and are usually a nuisance to carry about, as they are often mistaken, in a poor light, for coins of about the same size but of much inferior value. The gold certificate circulates much more freely and satisfactorily than the gold coin, while for small values silver, nickel, and copper are more convenient.

Indian gold. The Indians knew gold very well and employed it in making trinkets of a more or less crude order, although some of the more advanced tribes had learned to form it into images and artistic shapes. The natives of Mexico and Peru had great quantities of the metal which were looted by ruffian conquerors like Pizarro ; the ransom of the Inca is reported to have been a roomful of gold articles with a total value of some $15,000,000. The Spanish " Silver Fleet " sailed regularly from the Isthmus to Spain with cargoes of precious metals. In fact, it was the consuming desire for the precious metals, joined to the hunger for gain from the spice trade, that led to the voyages of discovery, culminating in those of Da Gama and Columbus. And the Spanish, intent upon such ends, neglected, as we have said, the areas we now call the United States because they afforded no promise in this direction.

Increase of the stock of gold. Although gold has been known so long the amount mined previous to the middle of the nineteenth century was comparatively small ; the in-crease at that time was due to the opening up of the mines of was another increase between 1900 and 1909, but since then the production has been fairly constant. From the standpoint of actual value as compared with other sources of earthly wealth the annual output of gold is small ; it is worth less than our wheat, not to mention corn. But it must be recalled that all gold production is a permanent addition to the stock already gathered, and since prices are estimated finally in gold as the standard of value, an increase and consequent cheapening of gold means rising prices.

Processes. The increase of gold has been possible not only because of the discovery of new deposits but also because of the development of processes for the profitable treatment of ores of a lower and lower grade. At first all gold-mining, where it was not merely the picking up of larger or smaller lumps, was placer-mining. The simplest mechanical device for separating gold particles from sand was a pan, in which the sand and gold were shaken about until the gold, being heavier, sank to the bottom ; thus, slowly and painfully, the metal can be separated out. This is called panning. Also a small stream of water, running rapidly down a trough or sluice, on the floor of which cleats have been placed at intervals, can be used. The gold-containing earth is thrown in and the gold settles in the depressions. In real placer mining banks of earth are broken down by a powerful stream of water from a hose and the earth treated with water to obtain the gold grains. Dredging consists in using an implement not unlike that employed in deepening channels ; the earth dredged up is run through sluice boxes. These processes have to do, of course, with gold which has been washed out of its original setting by natural forces ; it involves much less investment of capital than actual mining.

Improvement of processes. But when gold-bearing quartz is mined, the masses have to be crushed and the gold collected from the pulverized material. Here is the place where improvement of processes has appeared most notably. There were formerly inevitable losses in the mining and extraction ; much waste material, called tailings, was rejected and cast aside. It is good evidence of the improvement in processes that beds of tailings have been worked over with profit by modern methods of extraction. The process has gone on until it seems that the limit of the lowering of the grade of ore must be approaching, for in some instances two thousand pounds of material are being mined and milled to get one twelfth of an ounce of gold. We cannot expect that the grade of the ore can be lowered much more than this.

Development of the industry. In our colonial times gold-mining was an unimportant industry. The deposits in the eastern part of the country are insignificant, the best being on the Atlantic slope in North Carolina, where, in 1799, a large lump of gold was picked up the first indication of its local presence. Gradually a few mines were opened and worked in a crude way, but what gold was obtained came chiefly from washings. Later on quartz-mining was pursued to a limited extent, sometimes at great expense but not with a corresponding profit. When the gold mines of California were discovered, these Eastern enterprises were al-most entirely abandoned. The average annual value of gold mined in the United States for the decade 18301840 was $11,697,000. Then came the California gold strike, in 1849, and the yield for the year 185o was in the neighborhood of $50,000,000. At present our annual product averages nearly double this sum, having remained fairly constant during the last ten years. California and Colorado are by far the largest producers, with Nevada and Alaska as important contributors. In the preceding figures the Alaskan output is included.


The high value placed on silver. Silver is found at times in a native state, but it occurs more commonly in ores along with other metals, such as copper, lead, and zinc. It is therefore not nearly so easily obtained as is gold in the nugget or dust form, and this accounts for the fact that in remote antiquity silver was valued equally with gold, or even above it. This metal is not so well known among savage peoples as gold. But the American Indians were well acquainted with it, especially the Mexican and Peruvian tribes ; the latter had accumulated the vast quantities of it, which, along with the gold, worked so powerfully upon the cupidity of the Spaniards. Immense quantities of silver were looted; later, immense quantities were mined by the conquerors and carried back to Spain in the famous " Silver Fleet." But they did not turn their attention to the lands now known as the United States.

Colonial silver-mining. In some of the Eastern colonies silver in small quantities and mixed with lead ore was found about the middle of the eighteenth century ; such a vein was worked with some profit in Massachusetts, and a number of other states in the East once contained rather insignificant silver mines. When the population moved westward, and the large lead-ore deposits of the Upper and Lower Mississippi were discovered, they were found to contain some silver. But this was seldom in paying quantities, for in the earlier days of silver-mining the metal could not be extracted from the ore as readily as at the present time. In 1850, of the silver dollars in use, 99 per cent were of Mexican or Peruvian metal. And the same situation existed with respect to silver plate. Silver had been coined in Massachusetts as early as 1652, but the metal has regularly been an import up to relatively recent years.

Silver discoveries. The amount of silver produced in this country up to 1834 is officially reported as "insignificant" ; from 1834 to 1857 its value was $868,000; until 1859 the annual value was less than $100,000. The critical point in American silver-mining was the discovery, in 1859, of the largest deposit in the world. This was on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada. Between 185o and 186o prospectors had ranged, for the most part on foot, over the whole Western mountain region. They wandered from ledge to ledge, picking up specimens from time to time and cracking them or reducing bits of ore with charcoal and blowpipe. In the discovery year Henry Phinney and Henry Comstock chanced upon some promising silver deposits interspersed with free gold, and they laid a claim to a mine. Phinney sold out to Comstock for a pinch of gold dust, and Comstock himself soon sold the property. Then it was discovered that marvelous wealth lay hidden away in this claim, and the tidings spread like lightning over not only the United States but the whole civilized world. A period of frantic excitement ensued, such as is described in Mark Twain's " Roughing It," and there followed a great inrush of people and the growth of new large towns, notably Virginia City, Carson City, and Silver City. Nevada was admitted to the Union' in 1864, and the Central Pacific Railroad was extended through the region, passing within twenty miles of the point of first discovery.

The Comstock Lode. Between 1859 and 1866 it is said that about $70,000,000 worth of silver was taken from the Comstock Lode alone, and a good deal of gold was associated with the silver. Between 1859 and 1876 about $200,000,000 worth of gold and silver were drawn from this lode, of which about $120,000,000 were in silver. Within a few years subsequent to the big initial discovery silver had been found in considerable quantities elsewhere in Nevada and in neighboring states. The United States at once came to the front as a silver producer ; at the present day Nevada, Montana, Utah, and Idaho are the states of greatest yield. In 1890 the famous lode was approaching exhaustion. The population of Virginia City, close by, had been around 11,000 in 188o; in 1908 it was about 2500. If anyone is disposed to doubt the control exercised by natural resources over national destiny, he may reflect that Nevada's silver added a state to the Union and two senators to Congress. Apart from the metallic wealth Nevada's silver regions are a hopeless desert.

Silver a by-product. Taking the world as a whole, at the present time mining for silver by itself is uncommon. It is done in a few special places in Canada, the United States, Mexico, and South America ; but the greater proportion of the world's annual output of silver is a by-product of mining for the baser metals, in particular copper and lead.

Silver coinage. It remains to say a word about the coining of silver. A large part of the world's silver product is minted ; and until towards the close of the last century silver was the principal metal coined in most civilized countries, and was the standard of value in many of them. Owing, however, to the fall in the price of silver due to increased production, there was a wide discrepancy between its coinage value and its value in the open market. Silver remains admirably adapted for small circulating coins. It has also been used in the arts from early times, and finds a place in some of the newer ones, like photography.

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