Dahlonega, Georgia, July, 28, 1850: Wealthy freed slave, gold miner, store owner and industrious entrepreneur, here, for twenty years, Jim Boisclair, 46, has been killed in a gun fight east of Sacramento in California Territory.
Based on his incredible string of good luck mining for gold, here in north Georgia, “Free Jim,” as he is known in these parts, headed for California in the Gold Rush of ’49. Free Jim’s luck finally played out on a mountain slope at sunset in the windswept foothills of the High Sierra in an argument over a gold claim. He died at the hands of an unknown miner who was faster with a gun and much meaner than the deeply religious Free Jim.
Free Jim stepped into a more violent, lawless area in California than he was accustomed to here in Georgia. Reports indicate that about one hundred fifty men a month are murdered in and around the California gold fields. Few of the killers are ever brought to a lawful justice.
Known as one of the original ’29-ers, locally, Jim Boisclair was clearly a remarkable black miner and business man for two decades here in north Georgia, which is, of course, the site of America’s first gold rush back in 1829.
Boisclair came here from Augusta, Georgia, a freed slave and a part time preacher, and immediately set up a bakery and fruit shop. But, like so many other merchants in Dahlonega in those days, Free Jim got gold fever. He spent all his free time picking and panning for the “yellow money.” Fate shone brightly on this former slave. He discovered one of the richest veins ever found in north Georgia on a plot of land just east of town—Lot 998.
As a black man, Free Jim was not permitted, under Georgia law, to buy or sell real estate. He needed a “white guardian” to do his transactions. Dr. Joseph Singleton agreed to be Free Jim’s guardian and bought Lot 998 for him.
Free Jim worked this mine for ten years, becoming rich beyond his wildest imagination. He used his money to establish the largest dry goods and general merchandise store anywhere around here. He also established the first year- round ice house. But, as some readers might remember, it was his third entrepreneurial effort that created problems—a saloon. The saloon was famously successful, as you might imagine it would be in a gold rush town, but the local Baptist Church expelled him from the congregation “for selling spiritus liquors on the Sabbath.” It is still not known what penance Free Jim paid the church, but one year later he was reinstated. The saloon remained open.
Last year, of course, news of the big California Gold Strike reached us here in north Georgia. And, no amount of coaxing could stop our local gold-hungry miners from a mass exodus westward. Dr. Matthew Stephenson, our resident expert geologist, assayer, and great orator, tried to stop them. He mounted the courthouse steps last summer and chastised two hundred miners gathered on the square not to be fooled by the tall tales of gold in California.
Gesturing emphatically southward toward Findley Ridge, Dr. Stephenson shouted, “Why go to California? In that thar ridge is more gold than man ever dreamt of. Thar’s millions in it!”
Most miners, including Free Jim, refused to heed Dr. Stephenson’s advice. They left.
So, shortly after arriving in those alluring gold fields of California, Jim Boisclair found no glowing fortune; he only found an unlucky fire of fate that quickly dimmed and brutally went out. Free Jim was buried where he fell.
The fact that north Georgia had the first Gold Rush in US history in 1829 has long been forgotten. But, this historic fact is remembered daily in Dahlonega, some 70 miles north of Atlanta. Dahlonega (Cherokee word meaning yellow money) boasts a Gold Museum and various gold festivals throughout the year.
Most of the blacks, of course, who worked the mines in north Georgia between 1829 and 1861 were not freed men but slaves. Free Jim was certainly one of the more fortunate exceptions.
Geologists speculate that 80% of the gold in north Georgia—purist in the world– has still not been found, ensuring that Free Jim will be remembered always in Southern Memories.