New River Symposium 1984
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"Of the outlaws and the killing
And the grief they left behind"

In January 1982, the Nashville Flame, Johnny Sands, recovered two bodies from a gaping abyss—the open pit remains of Ashe County's once prosperous Ore Knob Copper Mine located ten miles east of Jefferson. Sands' subsequent ballad of the intrigue and murder rang as a death knell for a mine that had excited its original developers and promised instant wealth to a handful of Tennessee speculators before the Civil War.

In the summer of 1853, John Mason Lillard of Decatur (Meigs County), Tennessee, announced his candidacy for a seat in the Tennessee House of Representatives on a promise to extend railroads to the recently opened copper mines in Ducktown (Polk County) Tennessee. He won the Democratic primary on August 4th and entered into an agreement on the 22nd, along with Robert R. Davis, to test for minerals on the land of John Nichols in the 6th Civil District of Meigs County (on Sewee Creek). A veteran of the Mexican War and a recent graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Medical School, Dr. John Lillard foresaw the possibility for greater internal improvements in his portion of East Tennessee provided its educated citizenry took advantage of the copper and railroad speculation and organized into a commercial venture.

From October 3, 1853, through March 6, 1854, Dr. Lillard served admirably in the lower house of the Tennessee Legislature where he was instrumental in introducing or supporting bills to incorporate six separate mining companies:

Cherokee, officially incorporated on January 26, 1854; the Decatur, the Tocoee, and the Allegheny Mining Companies, passed as rider amendments to Senate bill no. 118, January 16; the United Consols Mining & Smelting Company, incorporated March 1; and the East Tennessee & Maryland Mining Company, also passed on March 1, 1854.

Following his return to East Tennessee from the winter legislative session of 1853-54, John Lillard channeled his resources into the Decatur Mining Company. On April 14, 1854, several of Dr. John's acquaintances in Meigs County formed the Meigs County and Virginia Mining Company. In July, Dr. John M. Lillard witnessed an agreement between James A. Mitchell of the northern portion of Meigs County and Thomas B. McElwee, owner of the Sewee Cotton Mill (Meigs County). The agreement made Mitchell and McElwee equal partners in leasing mineral lands in North Carolina following Mitchell's trip to that state.

Apparently, during the last summer of 1854, Dr. John and other Meigs County speculators were in Ashe County, N.C., for Edward J. Wood, a former Tennessee legislator and investor in the Decatur Mining Company, received a letter from Lillard that indicated the company had "cut Copper." Once the company found or "cut Copper," the stockholders were to pay a "call" from the company which would provide the capital for the opening of a mine. Edward Wood had recently married and did not have sufficient cash to meet the "call." He wrote that "Copper speculations are a sight of trouble." "Can you find me a purchaser." Writing from his home in Woodbury, Middle Tennessee, Edward Wood asked, "what County Ore Knob is in?"

Dr. Lillard lost no enthusiasm for his mining speculations. He set out for Ashe County and managed the original opening of the Ore Knob Mine: "began shaft Tuesday 6th" (February 1855). Between February 1855 and November 1856, many workers were paid to dig in the shaft. Typical pay was $15 to $25 per month, or $10 plus room and board per month. A partial list of the original miners exists in the tattered "Time Book":

P. Alexander
Eli Bare
Wiley Bare (Bear)
Joe Bear
Wiley Bear
William Barker
Henry Bear
Jonah Bird
Thomas Burgess
John Burgess
John Black
Alven Cook
William Cox
B. Creasy
Nimrod Creasy
Neill Chancy
George Creasy
Leander Cox
Levi Cayton (Caton)
Felix Cox
James Calloway
Levi Caton
William Dillard
R. Davis
Neill Darcey
John Doherty (Daugherty)
John Daugherty
William Ellis
Henry Greenwell
Joseph Garber
Emmanuel Glemps
John Griffin
Sam Johnston
William Johnson
John M. Johnson
Samuel Johnson
John Johnson
Elisha Johnson
Elijah Jennings
Hamilton Lile
John Lomon
J. Logins
W. Miller
William Martin
William J. Martin
John Mash
William Miller
Jonathan Miller
J. Patrick
William Porter
J. Poe
George Richards
A. Sheets
William Sheets
Isdom Sheets
Wiley Sheets
Charles Sheets
H. Sullivan
Archibald Smith
Hardin Sullivan
Cain (Cam) Stringer
Missouris Stringer
Hiram Stamper
Absalom Stringer
Madison Stringer
Calvin Shoemaker
Mat Stringer
A. H. Stringer
A. G. Taff
David Taylor
E. Taylor
H. Taylor
L. Talifaro
E. Toliver
Eli Wyatt

This intense "copper" fever paralled the 1849 gold rush in California and the 1855 gold excitement in the Oklahoma Territory around Witchita Mountain.

As soon as a fair sample of ore had been extracted, Dr. John rushed it to Dr. C. A. Proctor, State Assayer for Tennessee in Nashville. Proctor's reply is recorded in full:

State Assayor Office
June 18, 1855

Dr. Jno M. Lillard

Dr. Sr.

I have carefully analysed the ore you gave me from Ash Co, N.C. and find No. 1 ore as marked & sampled worth 16.06 per cent of pure Copper. No. 2 ore worth 8.21 per cent of pure Copper—which would make a mixture of those ores worth 12.13-1/2 per cent.

You required me to hasten this process so much that I found a trace of Copper which was held in solution after the first Filtration. This I did not discover untill after the decantition (decantation?) of the ore— If you will give me untill the last of the week I will reexamine the ore—No 1, is now worth in Baltimore $67.25 drs per ton. Ore has not advanced of late.

Yours truly
C. A. Proctor

To Jno M Lillard MD

Jasper Leonidas Stuckey, writing in 1965, states that the Ore Knob Mine was opened in 1855, and that "four shafts were sunk on the property to depths of 90, 40, 30 and 40 feet and enough ore that assayed 19 percent copper was mined to make a profit of $9,400." The distance of 63 miles over "poor mountain roads" to the nearest railroad prevented the mine from being profitable. It was closed in 1856. Actually, proceedings in the fall 1856 term of Ashe County's Superior Court of Equity reveal additional reasons for closure of the mine.

M. Buchanan, agent for the Decatur Mining Co., wrote a lengthy explanation of the situation in Ashe County to Prior Neill, president of the company, who resided in Meigs County, Tennessee. Buchanan stated, on July 26, 1856, that the mine had ceased "turning ore" because of a difficulty amongst the partners. The employees were cleaning up the yard and still sending out some ore. No prospect for sale of the mine existed in Ashe County.

Buchanan then explained the legal hearing: Caswell Lea and others vs. R. McKenzie and others which was scheduled as a bill of complaint to be heard in the September Court of Equity (1856) at Jefferson, N.C. J. B. Reves (Reeves?) of Ashe County owned a tract of land (fifty acres) known as Ore Knob. Caswell Lea, Henry B. Davis, James Sloan, Mark J. Parrot, and Mary Pickens, through their legal agent Caswell Lea, made a parol (word of mouth) agreement with J. B. Reves on the 14th of April 1854, by which oral agreement Reves agreed to lease and sell to Lea and others all his mineral interest and rights in the Ore Knob: Reves would lease one half interest for three years and then sell them the other half for a sum of $4,000 if Lea and his friends elected to purchase after their testing of the minerals. Caswell Lea confirmed the agreement which was entirely oral and nowhere written down. Yet, J. B. Reves did not have clear title to one half the property. He postponed a formal written agreement for three weeks so he could acquire the entire property and make a full lease/sale agreement all at once.

Caswell Lea, plaintiff, accused R. McKenzie of the Decatur Mining Company secretly of learning the value of the minerals in Ore Knob and approaching J. B. Reves, thereby proposing to lease and purchase Reves' share of the property which Reves orally had promised to Caswell Lea and others. Reves declined to make an agreement with McKenzie, for he said he had promised the land to Caswell Lea. Reves claimed that McKenzie misrepresented Lea and said he, McKenzie, had knowledge of Lea's bad faith and desire to abandon the oral agreement.

The bill of complaint also alleged that McKenzie induced Reves "to drink excessively of ardent spirits and to become intoxicated and by these means induced Reves to let" McKenzie have the property before Lea's three weeks were out when the oral agreement between Reves and Lea would have been written.

When Caswell Lea approached Reves concerning their oral understanding and requested transfer of Ore Knob, Reves "informed him that he had one or two days previously leased to McKenzie as agent of the Decatur Mining Company." The stock holders of the Decatur Mining Company were subpoenaed to appear in the Ashe County Court of Equity following the Superior Court session (September 1856): R. McKenzie, Thomas McElmer (McElwee?), George W. McKenzie, Robert S. Baldwin, Stephen Taylor, John M. Lillard, David E. Galespie (Gallespie?), William W. Lillard, John R. Neal, and John Eldridge. Agent Buchanan concluded by defending the actions of his Decatur Mining Company: "I have no kind of doubt but we will fully sustain our agent as an honorable high minded gentleman, and prove that Reves was out drunk."

The Ore Knob Mine, once the economic hope of the leading citizens of Meigs County, Tennessee, failed to operate after July of 1856. Dr. John Mason Lillard's one benefit for having managed the mine operation was his marriage to Mary C. Jane (Jennie) Thomas of North Fork, Ashe County, on the 14th of May 1856. Dr. John did not return to Ashe County for the Court of Equity hearing in September 1856. He did, however, write several letters of inquiry, probing investors for the possible sale of the Ore Knob Copper Mine. His most promising reply came from Samuel Congdon, once a speculator in Polk County, Tennessee, and then Managing Director of the Union Consolidated Mining Company, living in New York City. Congdon expressed an interest in the mine but could promise little cash following the economic crisis of 1857. He suggested that Doctor John manage the mine operation directly, thereby turning a liability into an income. Doctor John, however, was by now married and less interested in moving permanently to Ashe County to manage a copper mine that was far from rail transportation. From other letters, there is reason to believe that a settlement had been reached giving the Decatur Mining Company 2/3's control of the property and Caswell Lea 1/3 control. David Keener, of Baltimore, also expressed an interest in the Ore Knob property but wanted to know who controlled the "other 1/3d — & if it is likely they would sell also." The Civil War interlude put a halt to further mining speculation at the Ore Knob Mine for over a decade.

For a brief period (1855-56) black ores were extracted from the Ore Knob site similar to the ores of Ducktown, Tennessee. T. Sterry Hunt, writing in 1874, established that S S. and J. E. Clayton of Baltimore reopened the mine in 1873. In the month of July 1873, "about 1400 tons of ore" were raised, "averaging more than 25 per cent, of copper." Apparently, J. E. Clayton acted as site superintendent and was chief owner of the property in that year. The Decatur Mining Company made an effort to collect and record all outstanding deeds to the Ashe County property in 1867 following the legal confusions created by the Civil War and the death of Dr. John Lillard. Clayton must have purchased the company's 2/3s interest by 1873.

The Ore Knob Mine was worked briefly before 1860. The Claytons reestablished the operation from 1873 through 1883. Other periods of operation include 1896, 1913, 1917-18, 1927, 1942-43, and 1953-62, when the mine was "completely worked out" and "abandoned." Eben E. Olcott, in 1875, described the method employed in the reduction works. The ore was sent to Boston and to Baltimore. In 1874, "the Revere Copper Company purchased the greated part of the 400,000 pounds of copper produced by the works at Ore Knob."

In 1881, T. Egleston, moreover, commented on the method of mining. He found a large number of Negro employees working the mine—"better than white labor, and much more tractable." "The wages paid are low, but the work performed is equal to that done elsewhere."

Ore Knob Mine remains a symbol of mountain wealth, exploited by outside interests. Its entrance is a large gaping hole, a "cavernous opening scopped out by pick and shovel decades ago," wrote Bruce Henderson (Charlotte Observer) From the mine, two bodies were recovered on January 25th, 1982, those of Tom Forester and Lonnie Gamboa. How many other lives were lost at the Ore Knob Mine? And, can we include the failed ambitions and lost fortunes of the original Decatur Mining Company stockholders who made little from the 1850's dig and witnessed the destruction of their way of life during the 1860's?

— Stewart Lillard


Egleston, T. "Investigations on the Ore Knob Copper Process." American Institute of Mining Engineers. Transactions. Vol. 10 (1881), pages 25-27.

Hunt, T. Sherry. "The Ore Knob Copper Mine and Some Related Deposits." American Institute of Mining Engineers. Transactions. Vol. 2 (1874), pages 123-131.

Lillard Family Papers MSS, Account Number 480, in the Manuscript Division, Tennessee State Library and Archives. Box 3, folder 23 contains the "Time Book" for the Ore Knob Mine, 1855-56.

Lillard, Stewart. Meigs County, Tennessee. Sewanee: The University of the South Press, 1975, reprinted 1982. Pages 68-111.

Olcott, Eben E. "The Ore Knob Copper Mine and Reduction Works, Ashe County, N.C." American Institute of Mining Engineers. Transactions. Vol. 3 (1875), pages 391-99.

Schoenbaum, Thomas J. The New River Controversy. Winston-Salem: John F. Blair, 1979. Page 33.

Stuckey, Jasper Leonidas. North Carolina: Its Geology and Mineral Resources. Raleigh: Dept. of Conservation and Development, 1965. Pages 283-84.

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