The Early Years
The story of the first attempts to mine alluvial gold in the vicinity of De Kaap is lost in the mists of antiquity. It is fairly
certain that long before the white man found his way to what became known successively as the Valley of Death and the Valley of Gold, the area had already been worked for the precious metal by various Bantu tribes. Who these people were no one knows, for the present Swasi had conquered the older Sotho Baka nGonane inhabitants, who in their turn had succeeded the Karanga people. But those in the vanguard of the first gold rush in 1882 found that the area had been well prospected for alluvial gold in the past years, and for a time all that was needed was to open up these old workings and extract what they could with more modern methods of recovery.
The first European on record to have come to the valley in search of gold was the famous prospector, Tom MacLachlan. One of the most energetic of all South African prospectors, he had roamed into the De Kaap as early as September 1874. But he did not stay at that time, moving on beyond the mountains into the wilds of Swaziland.
It was another eight years before the first rumours of a discovery of gold in the region of De Kaap began to spread abroad. A number of diggers, anxious to make their fortune quickly, soon arrived at Elands Hoek, the reported scene of the discovery, only to find that the rumours were all a swindle of some enterprising farmer trying to boost his property’s value. The disgruntled men scattered into the wilds, and one party arrived at what is now Kaapsehoop. They were more fortunate, and it was not long before the news spread that gold was being mined in payable quantities at Duivels Kantoor, as the mountain was then called.
There was an immediate rush to the spot. At the first news of alluvial goldfrenzied diggers clambered over the hills from all directions. With them came the canteen-keepers, the inevitable impedimenta of all diggers. A particularly wild crowd started to pour in from the Kimberley diamond fields. Some of the toughest characters ever to come to South Africa found their way to these alluvial diggings, and early in the rush gunplay was popular and murder not uncommon. The gold was not so plentiful as had been hoped, and in their frustration the diggers drank, quarreled and fought with each other.
The din soon penetrated to Pretoria and the government hastily sent a commission of investigation. General Joubert and Eduard Bok, The State Secretary, arrived in July 1882 with an escort of artillery. They found about fifty men, canteen-keepers, store men and what-not, living in a camp pitched among the mighty boulders which are so prominent a feature of the area, while a thousand diggers were grubbing around in the neighbourhood. They attempted to bring some order into the chaos by appointing a temporary gold commissioner, one Ziervogel, but the diggers did not take him very seriously.
By November the camp at Kaapsehoop had grown to some thirty canteens and a dozen stores. There was a tin shack housing the commissioner and a sort of goal consisting of a set of stocks chained to some rocks. But gold finds continued to be meager, and disgruntled prospectors began to quit the place in favour of the valley below. All along the edge of the Berg and across the flats they wandered, finding small strikes as they went and provoking short-lived rushes. Most of these yielded little save disappointment. Famous prospectors like Charlie the Reefer, French Bob, Ingram James and Tom MacLachlan, who had returned to the scenes of their early wanderings, went off on their own and claimed to have discovered rich strikes. But they kept them a close secret.
However, the truth must out eventually, and early in 1883 Harry Culverwell found French Bob party’s working on the banks of the North Kaap. He pegged his claims, told others, and led the rush into the valley. Within a few months a fair sized town of tents and shacks had sprung up on the banks of the river. Jamestown it was called, after Ingram James, the actual discoverer of the alluvial, and it was the first European settlement in the De Kaap Valley.
About one hundred diggers flourished in Jamestown, and most of the well-known men of the De Kaap Valley stayed there for a while, it being a sort of depot for prospecting in the area. But it was a feverous little place, and some great characters prospected death there. French Bob and his partners, however, quit Jamestown as soon as it was rushed by the rabble, wandering off to fossick among the creeks and gullies of the Makwonja Range. And here, on a private farm belonging to G.P. Moodie, they found the richest strike so far discovered in the valley.
They decided to keep their find a secret, get in touch with Moodie and arrange terms with him, and raise finance for a proper company. But when they started to dig a water-race to enable them to work the alluvial at the bottom of the reef, the news of the strike became known. In an astonishingly short time the story traveled, not only throughout the valley but to the ends of the earth, attracting to South Africa the greatest flood of fortune-seeking humanity since the discovery of diamonds. Three camps were quickly established, Moodie’s Upper, Middle and Lower Camps. Then serious trouble flared up between Moodie and the diggers, which dragged on for years. And out of this long and fierce struggle Barberton was born.
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