Much has been told of the discovery of diamonds in Southern Africa, especially those findings in Kimberley, South Africa, which established the African diamond industry that continues to flourish over 130 years later. The size of this discovery is such that it is still an important source of income for countries in Southern African countries, primarily Botswana. The finding was so significant that almost anyone you ask will tell you that diamonds come from Africa (although they come for Russia and Australia as well). But what do we know about diamond finds in North America?
In the American heartland is a small diamond resource, not big enough to be a commercially mined operation, but large enough to provide interesting opportunities for adventurers who want to experience digging on their own for the chance to find a diamond. It is also an interesting find because of its location – not on the “southern strip” that includes Southern African countries and Australia, or on the “northern strip” that includes the Russian and Canadian resources, not even the “central strip” that includes Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Angola. This one is an anomaly, which makes it an interesting find. And for that we need to thank John Wesley Huddleston.
Born in 1862, Huddleston was a farmer, born to a farming family in Pike County, Arkansas. His 49.26-acre farm, purchased in 1889 for $100, was slowly expanded over the years as his family grew, first adding another forty acres and then another forty acres in the same area in 1899, after the birth of his youngest daughter. He further expanded his land hold, buying an additional large piece of land in July 1905.
Huddleston is described as very tall, with very large hands and a thick black mustache. According to some accounts, he may have been illiterate, but very intelligent. An avid outdoorsman, he travelled extensively in the area, was an avid hunter, fisherman, and amateur prospector. One of the unusual features of the last piece of land he purchased was a patch of greenish dirt. He was curious about it and noticed it was a stretch of greenish rock, worn down over time into fine grain.
A year after he bought the land, in August 1906, Huddleston discovered two unusual crystals on the property, along a dirt road running through the new property. Huddleston recounted the first diamond find 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.”
Unsure about what they were, but curious enough to investigate further, he showed them to Charles S. Stifft, a jeweler in Little Rock, who confirmed they were diamonds. There are conflicting reports about the size and color of the diamonds. One was apparently nearly 3-carats and white, the other a little under one-and-a-half carats and either brownish or yellow. To confirm the finding, Stifft sent the two stones to New York for further testing, later stating “…after subjecting them to every test, they were pronounced diamonds of fine grade.”
Soon word of the discovery got out, and in September people searching for quick riches started to arrive in the county in search of diamonds. Huddleston was soon made an offer to lease the land to a mining company, Arkansas Diamond Company. He was paid $360 dollars for an extendable six-month option. Later he agreed, signed deed contracts and received payments on principal and interest for almost ten years. An article in The New York Times described the find as “a chapter of Sinbad’s adventures.”
According to reports, some 10,000 fortune seekers arrived, quickly filling the local Conway Hotel, resulting in the erection of a tent city between the nearby town of Murfreesboro and Huddleston’s diamond field. Very few found any diamonds, some found smaller diamonds, and it was not long before people started leaving the area disappointed, looking for their luck elsewhere. One notable exception was the find made many years later. In 1924, a 40-carat diamond was unearthed on the property.
Huddleston took the money he earned for selling his land and a different piece of land, nearby his. Two years later, in 1908, the family moved out of rural Arkansas to a city –Arkadelphia. This gave his family a very different life, including better education for their five daughters. Although Huddleston was careful with his money, the family enjoyed a life of ease. He bought himself a car, a rare thing to own in rural America of the day. But not all went well for him.
In 1917, Huddleston’s wife Sarah suffered a fatal heart, and two months later, their youngest daughter, Joe May died. These events prompted Huddleston to move back to Murfreesboro. He started investing in real estate and apparently did well. The sole account of this time is by an Arkansas Gazette article from late 1920 that reported that he was a relatively wealthy man “as wealth goes in this remote region.” In 1921, he married a young woman who was more interested in his money than in him. At her urging, he took heavy loans to provide her with some $4,000 in cash, putting up a few of his real estate holdings as collateral. This marriage did not last long and in 1924, he got a divorce on grounds of adultery and abandonment.
With the help of a friend, Huddleston was able to recoup most of the mortgaged real estate, but was then hit again. The Great Depression and drought that hit the American heartland turned the fertile ground into what has become to be known as the ‘Dust Bowl’. Owning agricultural land became an expense due to taxes, which could not be covered without the ability to grow crops. Huddleston slowly lost his lands and by 1934, his home in Murfreesboro was the last and only property he owned. To make a living, he started trading used goods.
In November 12, 1941, Huddleston died at home and was buried not far from the diamond field he found.
Over the years, the diamond field went through several transformations, changing hands several times. With few diamonds, and most of them brownish in color and weighing below 0.10-carat, the Huddleston diamond field proved to be of little commercial value. Eventually the diamond field was opened to the public, with the land owners understanding that they could earn more from selling admission tickets to people dreaming to find diamonds than from their own diamond mining attempts. The land continued to change hands until the state of Arkansas purchased it in 1972, paying $750,000 for it. The state turned the land into a state park, called Crater of Diamonds, and opened it to the general public that keeps visiting the park until today.
Since becoming a state park, a number of exceptional diamonds have been found, many of them yellow and several of them larger than 6 carats. In 1984, Crater of Diamonds State Park declared an annual John Huddleston Day, a celebration of the finder and his unexpected discovery.