The First Gold Rush

People left their lives behind and came in droves to search for gold. The 1871 federal census shows there were 568 miners working Nova Scotia’s gold districts.

Black and white photo of a gold miner at the entrance to an adit at the Waverley Gold District.

Gold miner and others outside an adit in the Waverley Gold District.

NSDNR Index of Historical Mining Photography, Nova Scotia 1870c-1960c.

In 1861, Nelson Nickerson, a farmer from Sherbrooke, had quietly discovered gold in his fields and tried to keep this secret. His gold fevered neighbours were suspicious and watched the Nickerson family closely for weeks. After hearing the sound of hammer on rock, over two hundred people converged on Sherbrooke, and a one-day search yielded over $400 in gold. That same amount of gold in 2012 would be worth over $36,150.

Coloured engraving showing gold miners walking up between a 'street' of wooden shaft houses and tents.

A hand-coloured wood engraving of New Gold-diggings in Nova Scotia: Gold-Street, Tangier, published in the Illustrated London News, September 14, 1861. Based on a drawing by Captain Campbell Hardy.

AGNS: 1995.405

Captain Campbell Hardy wrote in the article which accompanied the engraving of Gold-Street, Tangier in the Illustrated London News that,

"The diggings at Tangier are prettily situated in the forest, about half a mile from the eastern shore of the upper portion of Tangier harbour. A good road has been cut through the dense fir forest to the claims, and though our correspondent once went astray, as, unguided, he left it for some beaten cattle-path, the sound of the blasting rocks and shouting of the diggers soon recalled him to the right direction. Gold-street, as it is called — an assemblage of wooden houses, or rather shanties, raised up at an expense of some £2 or £3 in this country of cheap timber — is the subject of our Engraving. A town suddenly appearing in the midst of the woods, without clearings, fields, or inclosures, full of shops, or rather stores as they are called in America, where anything can be procured, from a crinoline to a bottle of Bass's pale ale, may be certainly reckoned amongst the novelties even of the New World; whilst the universal civility and good manners of its inhabitants would certainly hardly agree with the notions of the character of the gold-digger as forwarded to us from the Eldorados of Australia and California."

Page from the 'The Gold Gazette' with advertisements specifically targeting gold miners.

The Gold Gazette, Saturday, 26 July 1862, p. 1.

NSA Newspaper Collection  

Service and supply companies catering to prospectors, investors, and mining companies flourished during Nova Scotia’s first gold rush. These business were sometimes more profitable than gold prospecting.

Photograph of a gold pick.

Gold pick used at Mount Uniacke.

Museum of Industry, I98.13.73

"…all the farming utensils are housed, save the pick and shovel, which are taken for the purpose of procuring that which we hear almost hourly sounding in our ears, from the lips of every person we meet – GOLD."
— R.T., Economy, N.S., in British Colonist in August 1861.

Joseph Howe

Pastel portrait of Joseph Howe in 1851 by T. Debaussy.

The Honourable Joseph Howe, 1851, pastel by T. Debaussy.

Dartmouth Heritage Society: 1968.002.003

The Hon. Joseph Howe was the Provincial Secretary from 1860 to 1863 and his office was responsible for mineral development in the province. He went to Tangier to investigate the gold rush in 1861. Skeptical, Howe denounced "the richest specimen that I have seen, either at Tangier or that came from thence, is not intrinsically worth half a crown; and all that I have seen put together would scarcely fill a lady's thimble."

Reporting on the gold rush, the Hon. Joseph Howe noted the "buoyant step and flashing eyes of the new comers, just rushing out of the dense foliage, in hot haste to be rich." In contrast, Howe thought those prospecting for a while had "the subdued and doubting expression of those who had been digging and washing all day without a sight of the glittering ore."