Unless you just pulled off Interstate 5 into the Rogue Valley behind the wheel of a moving van, you learned long ago that gold was first discovered in the Oregon Territory in either Jackson or Josephine county.

Unless you just pulled off Interstate 5 into the Rogue Valley behind the wheel of a moving van, you learned long ago that gold was first discovered in the Oregon Territory in either Jackson or Josephine county.

After all, many historians and history books present as fact that the precious metal was originally discovered in the territory either near Jacksonville or Kerby in the early 1850s.

But Duane Ericson, an archaeologist and mining historian with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Medford District, cautions all that gleams historically is not always gold.

Consider the nugget his research unearthed from the Feb. 22, 1849, edition of the Oregon Spectator newspaper in Oregon City:

"Within the last three weeks gold has been discovered on the Santiam River, a tributary of the Willamette near Mount Jefferson," it reported. "Some persons engaged in mining on the Santiam are making about four dollars per day."

However, the article also noted that gold had already been discovered in several places in what is now Oregon, but "nowhere as yet of great abundance."

In fact, author and geologist James Dwight Dana wrote in 1854 that he had found "gold rocks and veins of quartz ... on the Umpqua River" three years earlier in 1842, Ericson said. Dana also noted he had no time to explore when he made the discovery, he added.

While noting that none of the gold discoveries before 1850 resulted in settlements, Ericson observed the Spectator on Nov. 29, 1949, reported a "mania for gold" already existed in the territory.

The discovery of gold along Josephine Creek near what is now Kerby in 1851 and near present-day Jacksonville shortly thereafter did draw miners in droves, resulting in permanent settlements, he said.

"The books do have it right about the first two big discoveries," Ericson said. "If you read Luther Hasbrouck's account, they are pulling an ounce to two a day from Josephine Creek, which was good money."

Miner Hasbrouck was among those who found gold near the mouth of the stream in the spring of 1951, by most accounts. That was when gold went for $20 an ounce, Ericson said.

Some stories indicate the miners who discovered gold in Rich Gulch in Jacksonville had found it by accident, he said.

"But there were parties going out — they knew there was gold in the area somewhere," he said.

Ericson has been mining records for the earliest gold discoveries in the state as part of the district's abandoned mines program that began four years ago.

"We have to understand the history of the mines we find out there," he explained. "When we find an open shaft or something, we want to understand who built it and its history.

"If it is something significant, we want to preserve it," he added. "And part of that preservation is finding out its history."

He has a master's degree in historic preservation from the University of Oregon with his thesis focusing on gold mining in Southern Oregon.

"If we say a place is eligible for listing on the National Historic Register because of when gold was discovered there, we want to know we did our due diligence in the research," he said. "We need to understand the history of these places in order to document them.

"When we started looking at the sources, we noticed that a lot of them conflicted," he added. "So we need to get a little better answers."

His team has found nearly 500 hard rock mines and more than 2,000 adits or shafts on the district since the project began, he said.

"Part of the puzzle we are missing is the Native Americans' side of this," he said. "But most of the sources said it was recommended not to go prospecting in groups of less than 20 because it was not safe.

"Native Americans knew that if gold was discovered here, their way of life would be heavily disrupted," he added. "We probably had a lot of discoveries that were never documented because the miners had to keep moving."

While Oregonians may quibble about where it was first discovered, there is no doubt gold did have a huge impact on settling Oregon, he said.

Bulletin 61, published in 1968 by the Oregon Department of Geology and Mineral Industries, written by the late geologists Len Ramp of Grants Pass and Howard C. Brooks, reported that between 1850 and 1965 the state produced some 5.8 million ounces of gold and 5.4 million ounces of silver worth about $210 million.

However, that was during a period when gold went for $35 an ounce or less.

Back on the Santiam River in 1849, panning $4 a day in gold was barely enough to make ends meet, Ericson said.

After all, food was very expensive and it was a high-risk occupation, given the rising animosity by Native Americans toward the newcomers, he said.

"Most of the sources indicate that $10 a day was a good wage back then," he said.

Back then, the early-day miners often used what was on hand to pan for gold, often using pots and pans from their backpacks, he said.

"There was a lot of discoveries like that — it was small stuff found in slow steps," he said. "But people want a clean, romantic story and it just didn't happen that way."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.