James Capps: Shafted

James Capps was a poor farmer in early nineteenth century Mecklenburg County. Purchased in 1808 from Alexander McClure, his 108 acre family farm located on present day Beatties Ford Road was believed to be some of the most barren and worthless land in the area. Barely able to feed his family, an important discovery was made on this same lot of sterile land in 1827.

Gold! That precious yellow rock that changed many a Carolina farmer’s life had been discovered on the Capps property. Within six months shafts had been dug, some nearing 100 feet in depth, and the newly formed Capps Mine was the richest in the county. His fortune had surely changed for the better. James, with his newfound wealth, was known to carry portable scales with him everywhere he would go to facilitate purchases with his gold dust. One such place that often saw his purchases first hand was any local tavern. Sobriety and temperance gave way to extravagance and decadence with his main vice being the whisky bottle.

By 1828 James had drank himself to death perishing in his own mine shaft at age 53. His body today lays at rest at the Old Settlers Cemetery in downtown Charlotte with this tombstone inscription:

Adieu to all both far and near
My loving wife and children dear
for my immortal soul is fled
I must be numbered with the dead

His widow remarried shortly thereafter and the mine continued to prosper. One rule that was now enforced at the Capps Mine was that alcohol, that same drink that stole life from its founder, was now prohibited. This was uncommon around mining communities as virtually every vice known to man flourished in these circles: gambling, drinking, fighting and prostitution all were known to develop around mining towns.

By 1829 the Capps Mine was utilizing the first stamp mill in the entire United States. Installed by J. Humphrey Bissell, the mill would pound the ore into a fine golden gravel. The Capps Mine had migrant Cornish and Italian miners employed to operate the machinery as well as some 38 black slaves who provided physical labor for the camps such as mending fences and tending to the teams of horses and mules.

The heirs of the Capps fortune in subsequent years leased the operation of the mine to Mecklenburg Gold Mining Company, which held interest in the Capps, Rudisill and St. Catherine mines and employed some 600 men. It is a shame that James could not live to see the full success of the mine that bore his name. Had he lived a few more years he could have witnessed the gold minting operation of the Bechtlers in nearby Rutherfordton, and within another decade he could have seen Charlotte given her own federal mint.

His life is best summed up by the obituary that was printed in the South-Carolina State Gazette And Columbia Advertiser:

James CAPPS, the owner of the land on which the most productive gold mine in Mecklenburg county, died at his residence, near Charlotte, on the 7th instant. Poor old man - his gold mine was his grave! The treasures dug from his land gave employment and subsistence, and even wealth to others, but the proved the death of him who might have profited by them. Anterior to the discovery of his gold mine, he owned but a few acres of the most sterile, and apparently valueless land in Mecklenburg county, which yielded a miserable subsistence to himself and family; but they had stayed on the place, in a half-starved condition for many years. The discovery of the gold mine, however, had a magical effect of the wo-begone condition of the family. No sooner was the old man's pockets well lined with cash, from the products of the auriferous soil, than himself and family plunged into extravagance and excess; and the BOTTLE, that too common resort of those whom affliction has cast down, or some freak of fortune has suddenly elevated to a condition for which nature has unsuited them, cut short the days of this miserably fortunate old man!

Despite the author’s similar surname and the fact that he is a North Carolina native, there is no presumed descendancy between Gregory James Capps and the subject of this article.

-- Greg Capps