Like most mountain counties, Henderson County’s past is tied to the region’s most abundant natural resource — minerals such as gold.
Many of county’s original settlers were drawn here by the first real gold rush in U.S. history. Nearly 60 years before gold was discovered in California, an 11-year-old boy named Conrad Reed found a 17-pound chunk of gold in 1799 in a Cabarrus County creek and set off a chain of events that led fortune hunters into what was today is Henderson County.
No one knows the number of gold mines in and around Hendersonville, says Dr. George Jones, Henderson County’s award-winning historian, but for many years it was a thriving and lucrative business that pumped money into Western North Carolina and helped to establish the region’s economy.
“If someone had cash money back in the early 1800s around this area, they most likely made it from gold mining,” Jones says. “Back then no one got rich from farming in this area.”
Many of the miners staked claims and established homesteads in the county and many of their descendants still live in the area, Jones says. Others followed the gold strikes in north Georgia and then in California. “There’s no way to know how many gold miners ended up staying in Henderson County,” Jones says. “But they did make a pretty significant impact on establishing the county.”
Gold miners are notoriously independent. For example, that independent streak shined through in the founding of Henderson County when a group of settlers decided to break free of the larger and richer Buncombe County. Their efforts touched off the Walton County Border War.
It wasn’t much of a war. It was more like a shootout out between the Buncombe County sheriff and his deputies and a group of irate settlers who didn’t want their tax money going north into the coffers of the rapidly growing town of Asheville.
In the 1790s, no one quite knew where the borders to North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia lay. So the settlers who now had an ax to grind with Buncombe County, petitioned Georgia to make them a county. Georgia was more than happy to extend its authority and claim the mineral rich territory and laid claim to the area as Walton County, Ga.
The land dispute finally forced the governors of both Carolinas and Georgia to commission a land survey that would set the elusive and flexible state boundaries.
The surveyor determined that the new Walton County actually lay in North Carolina, so Buncombe County once again laid claim to the land. It wasn’t until Dec. 15, 1838, that the N.C. General Assembly saw fit to break off the notoriously independent region from Buncombe County and finally established Henderson County.