In April of 2014, David Anderson found a 6.19-carat white diamond just lying on the ground. This wasn’t some lost piece of jewelry, but a natural and uncut diamond fresh from the earth at the only place in the United States where anyone can dig for diamonds and keep what they find: Crater of Diamonds State Park in Murfreesboro, Arkansas.
The discovery of this natural resource in rural Arkansas was a combination of creative sleuthing and perseverance. In 1889, a state geologist named John Branner investigated an area near Murfreesboro known for its heavy concentration of the greenish, volcanic peridotite soil. Miners in South Africa had previously found that the appearance of this mineral was indicative of diamonds.
Branner didn’t find anything, but in 1906 local farmer John Wesley Huddleston did find several high-quality diamonds in a variety of colors. He described how he found the gems to the Arkansas Gazette: “I was crawling on my hands and knees…when my eyes fell on another glittering pebble, I knew it was different from any I had ever seen before. It had a fiery eye that blazed up at me every way I turned it. I hurried to the house with the pebble, saddled my mule and started for Murfreesboro….Riding through the lane, my eye caught another glitter, and I dismounted and picked it up out of the dust.”
For years afterward, private interests mined the area for diamonds, but it wasn’t until after World War II that the various owners decided to open their property for treasure seekers. This private tourist attraction was eventually purchased by Arkansas in 1972 and made into a public state park where visitors can dig through the 37-acre field.
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Today, not much has changed from when Huddleston found the first diamond. The field is regularly plowed to churn up the dirt and diamonds it contains, but the best time to visit is right after a rainstorm. The water runoff washes away the mud and dirt and leaves behind the heavier rocks and gems. That’s how David Anderson found his diamond, which he named the Limitless Diamond.
Park Interpreter Waymon Cox explained how this jelly-bean-sized diamond was the fifteenth largest found at the Park since 1972. “Over 4 inches of rain fell on the park last weekend, and David found his diamond on the first sunny day following the rain. Rainwater washes soil from the search area and often exposes heavy gravel and diamonds on the surface. David has worked hard to find more than 400 diamonds here over the years, but he had never surface searched for diamonds until this year. This is the largest, and probably the easiest, diamond he’s ever found!”
Visitors to the park can rent the basic equipment they need, although they are also welcome to simply walk along and see what they find on the surface. The park rents wooden box screens for sifting the gravel, 3.5-gallon plastic buckets for washing the dirt and small shovels for digging. If you go, prepare to get muddy and spend a lot of time on your knees, so dress accordingly.
Diamonds are discovered at a rate of two per day and are typically white, brown or yellow. The site is the eighth largest surface diamond deposit in the world but visitors can find a lot more than just diamonds. The volcanic material that makes up the soil here is rich in semi-precious stones, including amethyst, garnet, peridot, jasper and agate. If you have a hard time telling one rock from another, the park staff are more than happy to assist you with gem and mineral identification and rock-hunting classes.
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With more than 75,000 diamonds discovered here both commercially and privately since 1906, there have been some tremendous finds. In 1924, the Uncle Sam white and pink diamond was found. Weighing over 40 carats, it is the largest diamond ever found in the United States.
The largest diamond found by a park visitor was the white Amarillo Starlight at over 16 carats discovered in 1975. In 1981, the second largest found was nearly nine carats. This site is also notable for the discovery of the most perfect diamond ever certified, the 1.09-carat D-flawless Strawn-Wagner Diamond, which was found in 1990. It was originally over three carats in its raw form. The diamond is considered so perfect as to be a one-in-a-billion find.
The park soil is plowed monthly, so it is best to try and arrange a visit right afterwards. Diamond-searching facilities are provided to all visitors, including washing pavilions and sun shelters. Visitors can also explore the historical attractions, including old mining structures and equipment, and learn about the history of diamond mining in the area.
Crater of Diamonds State Park is a full-service park with plenty of activities for the family. When you get tired of striking it rich, there are plenty of campsites available as well as a water park, wildlife observation blinds, fishing and plenty of hiking trails.
You may not need to travel to Arkansas to find treasure on public land. According to the National Park Service’s regulations, individuals are allowed to collect rocks and minerals for personal, non-commercial use in many national parks. The typical exceptions are for silver, platinum, gemstones and fossils. Searching for gold, however, is allowed.
“Persons may collect such rocks and minerals only by hand or use of a gold pan. They may not use shovels, pickaxes, sluice boxes or dredges. Collection methods which may result in the disturbance of the ground surface are prohibited. The use of metal detectors is illegal in national parks.”
Gold panning is also allowed in many state parks, and no state has a greater reputation for gold than California. It all started with the California Gold Rush, which lasted between 1848 and 1855. News of the discovery of plentiful gold brought more than 300,000 people to the area. Gold nuggets could be found on the ground at first, but once the easy pickings were gone, people resorted to mining and panning. Rivers and streams form natural drainage sources that wash soil and minerals and help to concentrate gold deposits. These known deposits make obvious places to look for gold downstream.
One great place where you can still pan for gold in California is near the spot where it all began, the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park in Coloma, California. Located approximately halfway between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe, this is the site where James W. Marshall first discovered gold in 1848, on the South Fork of the American River.
Marshall found gold by accident when he saw shining flecks in the water as he was building a sawmill. The park currently has a replica of this original mill as well as several historical buildings and living-history days with period re-enactors helping visitors with crafts, demonstrations and exhibits. A guided walking tour takes you right to the site where the gold was originally discovered, and visitors are allowed to pan for gold themselves and keep what they find.
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Going For Gold
If you have never panned for gold, the park offers daily lessons for visitors at Bekeart’s Gun Shop. This is the oldest period building in Coloma and was originally a gunsmithy and gun shop. Today, it is used as a classroom for the park’s Eureka Program activities. According to Susan Okey, the park’s interpretive specialist, the practice troughs are “salted” with real gold flakes as well as Fool’s Gold and garnets, and visitors can keep what they find.
Park guides train visitors on how to pan for real gold using the proper technique for best results. Families and groups are welcome, and all supplies for the class are provided. Afterwards, visitors are welcome to try their hand at the real thing and can purchase a pan (you can also bring your own). According to the park website, “gold panning is allowed during park hours on the east side of the river across Mount Murphy Bridge.” However, you must use your hands or pans only and no other mining equipment is allowed. This is a historical site after all. You may not strike it rich, but you can claim to be a 49er, or at least to have walked in their shoes.
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To learn more about treasure hunting at these state parks, visit the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park online at parks.ca.gov and the Crater of Diamonds State Park at craterofdiamondsstatepark.com.
This article was originally published in the AMERICAN FRONTIERSMAN ™ 2015 issue #174. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.