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By Kae Lewis PhD

During the mid-nineteenth century, adventurous young men left their homes and went off to try their luck on the goldfields of the New World. They left home with dreams of great riches but few could have imagined the terrible trials and dangers that lay before them. It is important to put the New Zealand goldrushes into the context of the worldwide developments at the time.


The first goldrush of the 19th century began in North Carolina, USA as early as 1800. However, the great bonanza rush started on the other side of the continent in California in 1849. When they heard the news of gold, miners from all over USA and beyond, including Australia and New Zealand, rushed by land and sea to the hills behind the port of San Francisco. The methods for finding and collecting gold learned in North Carolina were brought to this new goldfield and further developed to suit the new conditions. Great fortunes were made before the initial rush ended by about 1856. However, even by 1850, the Californian miners had spread out all over the world seeking new pastures. There is no-one like a goldminer for thinking to himself that ‘the grass is always greener…’ even when the pickings at hand still seem pretty good for some.

A Look at California in 1851, Two Years Into the Goldrush.

Mining Towns of Western United States.
Also the video entitled Western Mining Overview: The great Gold Rush was one of the largest human migrations in history can be seen on the same page.


By 1850, gold nuggets were being found by farmers, shepherds and surveyors in the State of Victoria, Australia. Many of them were Californians who knew ‘the look of the land’ and how to go about searching for ‘colour’. These finds consolidated into a rush centered on Ballarat in 1851, and there followed a huge influx of miners from all over the world. The newly formed and barely functioning Government of Victoria tried to control the lawlessness and chaos of the gold fields by restricting the mining. They taxed the miners to the point that they hoped they could not afford the license fees. At 30 shillings a month, it was very expensive and often collected at gun-point by corrupt police who did nothing to protect the miners. Even with a license, the miners were given only 12 feet square, barely enough land to work a claim. In 1854, this exploded in a miner’s revolt at Eureka under the Southern Cross flag, and more lives were lost. Finally the Miner’s License, now called a Miner’s Right for the first time, was reduced to £1 (20 shillings) per month. During the next decade or more, the miners spread out and discovered pockets of gold all over Australia.


In 1861, just ten years after the opening of the Victorian gold field, gold was discovered in Otago, New Zealand. The discoverer was Gabriel Reid, a Californian gold miner who used the skills he had acquired in California to search for and recognize ‘pay dirt’. Otago was just a hop across the Tasman, and disillusioned Victorian miners took ship in Melbourne in their droves. Arriving in Otago from August 1861 onwards, the bitterly cold Otago winter soon set in. Acclimatized as they were to a hot Australian or Californian climate, the miners suffered at Gabriel’s Gully, shivering in their ice-bound tents with inadequate clothing and shortages of food and wood for fuel throughout the winter. This was a rich field however and, over the next several years, thousands of hopefuls from around the world dropped what they were doing to follow the gold. By 1863, miners were prospecting all over the barren mountains of Otago, with the government-appointed Gold Wardens closely following them. The fledgling New Zealand government had learnt the lessons of Eureka and moderated their tax demands. A Miner’s Right in Otago in 1861 cost just £1 for twelve months, and the claims were 50 x 54 feet, much larger and more workable than in Victoria.


By 1865, gold had been discovered on the West Coast of the South Island. Many miners left Otago to rush over to the West coast, with some loosing their lives either on the cold and hungry trek across the Southern Alps or alternatively running the gauntlet on the treacherous West Coast river bars in a steamboat. Despite its remoteness, thousands of miners made their way to Hokitika to try their luck with the gold there.


It was in August 1867 that gold was proclaimed in Thames, near the northern port of Auckland. Once more, miners rushed to the area by the thousands over the next several years. The Miner’s Rights still cost £1 per year but for that they received a claim area of 50 x 300 feet. Unlike the alluvial fields in the South Island, the gold at Thames was largely locked up in quartz and too expensive for anyone but large mining companies to extract. Consequently, many miners suffered as their money ran out and gold proved elusive because they could not afford the stamping battery needed to release it from their quartz rock. The goldrush in Thames petered out by 1870, when the successful individual miners had amalgamated to form large mining companies to finance the huge cost of extraction and crushing of quartz.


In the 1890s, the spotlight shifted back to the North American continent with miners rushing to the Klondike and Alaska. A Thames miner, William Nichols, wrote about his journey from New Zealand to the Klondike in search of gold, after the Thames rush was over.


This entire scenario of worldwide goldrush after goldrush throughout the nineteenth century poses a problem for the genealogists of today. This massive upheaval of young, fit and mostly single young men, moving from one side of the world to another was unprecedented. Never before had such large numbers of people traveled around the world for reasons other than immigration and trade. It seems clear that many of the same miners were going from North Carolina to California and then on to Australia, and even back again. Boatload after boatload of Victorian miners sailed from Melbourne to Otago in 1861 and 1862. In 1862, there was a Ballarat Bakery at Gabriels Gully and Old Bendigo Bakery at Waitahuna. In Thames between 1869 and 1872, there were Eureka, Australasian, Sydney & Melbourne, Ballarat Star and Bendigo Registered Gold Mining Companies, and also Californian, Wild Missouri, Fourth of July, Abraham Lincoln, New Orleans, Mexican, Don Pedro and Young American Registered Gold Mining Companies. These all indicate that some miners from the Californian rush in 1849 and the Victorian rush of 1851 were still searching for gold in Gabriels Gully in 1862 and Thames in 1867 – 1872, twenty years later. And just to show that the South Island goldminers were also in Thames, there was a Hokitika Gold Mining Company in Thames.

The earliest goldfields were largely ungovernable and chaotic, with very few, if any, written records surviving. Even births, deaths and marriages went unrecorded in many cases. The official Victorian mining records have simply been lost, almost all of them. An exception to this is the 1851 US census which was undertaken on the Goldfields of California and is intact to this day. This record is extraordinary because, not only does it include the occupation of each person, allowing us to identify the miners and their locations, but also specifies the miner’s place of origin. In 1850 the Californian ‘License to Mine’, where they survive, record the miner’s country of citizenship, age and complexion.

Worldwide, the earliest goldmining records that do survive today are mostly from New Zealand. For many of the miners, New Zealand was the end of a long career as a miner following the rushes around the world. For all these reasons, the New Zealand mining records are very important for genealogists and historians around the world.

As time went by, governments became more organized, if only to more efficiently tax the miners. By 1861, when the miners arrived in Otago, Gold Wardens were appointed very quickly. They were standing in place at Gabriel’s Gully by August 1861, meticulously recording Miner’s Rights and other licenses. Unfortunately, apart from the Register containing the first 6500 miners to arrive in Otago, all the Miner’s Rights Registers from Otago have been lost. This 1861 Miners’ Right register only survived because it fell into the hands of Alexander Turnball in Wellington, in whose collection it remains to this day. It was not until 1867 in Thames that the government authorities saw fit to preserve most of the Goldfield Register books.

References: 1. Gold Rushes of North America, by Lionel Martinez. Wellfleet Press 1990. 2. Gold Fleet for California, Forty Niners from Australia and New Zealand, by Charles Bateson, Ure Smith 1963. 3. Gold Seeking, Victoria and California in the 1850s, by David Goodman. Stanford 1994. 4. A Pictorial History of the Victorian Goldfield, by James Flett. Rigby Ltd, 1977. 5. Passenger Lists Victoria Outwards to New Zealand 1852 – 1923 (NZSG publication). 6. Goldfields of Otago, An Illustrated History, by John Hall-Jones. Craig Printing 7. The Amazing Thames, by John Grainger A.H. & A.W Reed. 1951. 8. The Thames Today and As It Opened 60 Years Ago, by William Nichols, held by Auckland City Libraries. 9. Thames, The First 100 Years, by William A. Kelly and the staff of The Thames Star. 1968.

Contact: Kae Lewis