Pyrite: 4 Stories About Fool’s Gold

“Fool’s Gold” is chemically known as iron sulfide (FeS2), or ‘pyrite’.

Pyrite originates from the Greek word ‘pyr’ and was named so because when struck against metal or stone it can create sparks and help start a fire.

Pyrite also has quite a reputation for fooling people into believing that they have found gold, particularly in olden times.

There are many stories of Fool’s Gold and we are going to list a few below:

Sir Martin Frobisher

Sir Martin Frobisher was an British privateer in the fifteenth century and was one of the first miners in Canada. He found a sparkly black rock on the Island of Kodlunarn while on his first journey abroad to the New World.

He returned a couple times thereafter, and once on the Queen’s command.

He ended up shipping back nearly a couple thousand tonnes of this material. Although much of it was lost due to shipwrecks, it didn’t really matter, because the sparkly black ore turned out to be worthless amphibolite and pyroxenite, with pyrite and mica spread throughout the ore, making it appear more valuable than it really was.

Captain John Smith and Christopher Newport

The story of John Smith and Christopher Newport is quite a silly one. You see, all of the colonists around Jamestown were enraged with gold-fever and looked for it constantly, as gold was a major currency around this time.

Living nearby was the Patawomeke Tribe who often harvested a type of sand they called matchqueon, which was full of pyrite flakes. This sand was of course, rather worthless, but typically quite pretty. They then proceeded to trade their quality equipment to the Patawomeke’s in exchange for 1,100 tonnes of sand. They then hauled all of this sand back to England.

“a clay sand so mingled with yellow spangles as if it had been half pindust.” – Captain John Smith

Jacques Cartier

Jacques Cartier was a Celtic adventurer of the New World. Jacques had been a prior journey to New France and failed to find any valuables, resulting in his funding getting yanked. He then talked nobleman Jean-François de la Rocque de Roberval into funding him for one more trip. On this new trip, he found a bunch of sparkly material around a harbor they were docked at. However, when he brought it back to France, they discovered it was simply quartz and pyrite.

Water Raleigh

Walter Raleigh was a wealthy man who funded a gold expedition in the Carolinas in 1584. He was accompanied by renowned Bohemian metallurgist, Joachim Gans, who’s goldsmith’s crucible was found on-site. Sadly, they also found plenty of smelted copper ore alongside it.

There is also another story appearing a Scientific American article in August of 1872:

Fool’s Gold and How we may Know It.

The following story is going the rounds of the papers, and would be decidedly rich if it were only true:

A verdant looking Vermonter appeared at the office of a chemist with a large bundle in a yellow bandana, and opening it exclaimed: “There, doctor, look at that.” “Well,” said the doctor, “I see it.” “What do you call that, doctor?” “I call it iron pyrite.” “What, isn’t that gold?” “No,” said the doctor, and putting some over the fire, it evaporated up the chimney. “Well,” said the poor fellow with a woebegone look, “there’s a wider woman up in our town has a whole hill of it, sad I’ve been and married her!”

That the poor fellow had married the widow for the sake of the hill of pyrites is very probably true, but that the pyrites evaporated up the chimney is simply impossible, and such a statement is to be regretted because the inexperienced may be led to believe that, if a bright, yellow metallic looking mineral does not evaporate when strongly heated, it must be gold. There are several minerals which are sometimes mistaken for gold, but the two which are most apt to give rise to deception in this matter are pyrites and mica, and hence they are sometimes called fool’s gold.

The method of distinguishing between them and gold is very simple, and requires no complicated apparatus. Gold is malleable, that is, it can be beated out into thin leaves under the hammer, while the other crumble to powder. Moreover, gold is easily cut with a knife, while if we attempt to cut pyrite it breaks up, and mica separates into thin flakes. It is when mica is fine powder, however, that it most resembles gold, and in such cases, its weight betrays it character. Gold is nearly twice as heavy as lead, and, even by poising it in the hand, we can tell that lead is much heavier than mica.

This article was last revised on 02/26/2020.

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