The NSS Bulletin - ISSN 1090-6924
Volume 43 Number 4: 88-93 - October 1981

A publication of the National Speleological Society

Historical Geogrpahy of United States Saltpeter Caves
Duane De Paepe and Carol A. Hill


Saltpeter, an essential ingredient in gunpowder, is produced artificially from organic matter or can be obtained from the "nitre" earth and rocks of caves. Cave saltpeter mining started on a large scale in Virginia and West Virginia just prior to the Revolutionary War, when the colonists realized that they needed an inexpensive, dependable supply of gunpowder. After the Revolutionary War, among the first settlers to push into the westward territories were the "saltpeter chemists" searching for caves containing nitrous earth.

Many caves in Kentucky, Indiana, and Tennessee were mined on a small scale in the years between the two wars with Britain. The pace of saltpeter mining in caves again quickened immediately proceding the War of 1812. The price of saltpeter skyrocketed, and large-scale mining ventures were begun. The central region of Kentucky-especially the Mammoth Cave area-became famous for saltpeter mining and gunpowder manufacturing. After the war ended in 1815, the market price of saltpeter plummeted. Most mining activities in saltpeter caves closed, and the few remaining were reduced to "cottage" operations.

During the Civil War, the Confederacy had to depend almost completely on caves for its source of saltpeter. Both small- and large-scale operations were supported by the rebel government as most of the major caves in the deep South were worked for saltpeter.

The active cave saltpeter era ended in the late 1800's with the discovery of Chilean nitrate deposits and nitrogen fixation technology.

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