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March 10: Gold Found Near Williston

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In 1932, North Dakotans were on the alert at the prospect of something big: gold in North Dakota! Earlier in the year, free flake gold was reportedly washing up in the Missouri River near Denbigh. On this date, mining engineer Deane Purves declared to Williston residents his belief that it is “possible there is gold enough on the Missouri bottoms in the vicinity of Williston to create profitable employment to many men out of work.”

The prospect of gold from their backyards was a glimmer of hope for some during the Great Depression, but from the beginning, this rush was bust. Immediately after promising profitable employment, Purves weakened his claim by sharing an earlier incident of Williston prospectors hoaxed by practical jokers who had meddled with their sand by adding shavings filed from a gold ring.

Was there actually gold in North Dakota? A 1937 study from the UND School of Mines found that while “gold is definitely present in the glacial gravel deposits from the region, no deposits of commercial value were found.” The particles of gold from the Denbigh area were described as small, well-rounded , pitted, and flat tended. The lack of commercial viability of the gold in North Dakota is supported by the largest nugget ever found in the state: it was only twice the size of a grain of wheat.

Not everyone shared Deane Purves’ enthusiasm for gold prospecting. The editors at the Mouse River Farmer’s Press in McHenry County were skeptical and gave continued coverage to the discovery, boom, and bust in their column, “Gold Nuggets.” The final sentiment to remember was, at least in North Dakota, that if you see something glittering in the sand, not all that glitters is gold.

Dakota Datebook by Ashley Thronson


  • Mouse Rivers Farmers Press, March 11, 1932
  • Williston Herald, March 10, 1932
  • Williston Herald, March 23, 1932
  • Prospecting for Gold in North Dakota. Thomas C. Barger, University of North Dakota College of Engineering, 1937
  • Vossler, Bill. Gold Strikes in North Dakota are Part Fact, Part Fiction.

Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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