1848 discovery of gold didn’t leave Marshall a rich man
Jan. 24 marks the 154th anniversary of James W. Marshall’s history-altering gold discovery at Sutter’s Mill, Coloma, in what is now El Dorado County. The area of discovery is designated Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. Marshall was born in New Jersey in 1810 and came to California via Oregon in 1845. It was while building a sawmill that he accidentally came upon gold flakes. He died broke at Kelsey in 1885.
In August 1847, Capt. John A. Sutter, owner of the vast Mexican land grant he called “New Helvetia,” partnered with James W. Marshall to build a water-powered sawmill to supply lumber for his expanding commercial and agricultural ventures in the Sacramento Valley.
Marshall chose a site 45 miles northeast from Sutter’s Fort on the south fork of the American River near excellent timber stands. He hired some Mormon emigrants to help with construction, and by January 1848, the mill was almost completed.
On Jan. 24, Marshall was inspecting the tail race when he spotted some shining flakes on the rocky bottom. He examined them carefully, even pounded them between two rocks – they were soft and malleable. Were they gold?
He took the flakes to Sutter for his inspection. Behind closed doors the two subjected the flakes to many tests. They were convinced it was gold! They hurried back to the mill to make a treaty with the Indians to mine the lands bordering the river.
The discovery remained a loosely guarded secret for some three months, until a wagoner named Jacob Wittmer took a small jar of flakes to San Francisco and showed them to Sam Brannan. The merchant visualized the quick profits he could make selling supplies to those who would flock to the mines, and without hesitation proclaimed, “Gold! Gold has been found on the American Fork. Gold!”
Everyone within earshot stopped to listen; they gazed at the yellow metal and were hypnotized. They believed what they saw and heard; Sam Brannan had said it! Within an hour the exodus began. The Great California Gold Rush actually began in Portsmouth Square on a bright May morning in 1848.
By nightfall, Brannan had rounded up a boatload of supplies and set sail for his store at Sutter’s Fort some 125 miles east up the Sacramento River. Two weeks later San Francisco was a ghost town, and the rest is history!
Marshall did not profit from his discovery. During his lifetime he was hounded by those who were convinced he had knowledge of rich deposits or that he had much gold hidden away, neither of which was true. He eked out a precarious living through carpenter work, a little mining, some blacksmithing and an unsuccessful lecture tour. In his last years, the state of California gave him a meager pension that totaled some $9,600.
On April 16, 1870, the Grass Valley Union reported: “J. W. Marshall proposes to lecture … and tell the plain story of his early life in this State and about his important discovery. Marshall is old (60 years) and poor and has to do something for a living besides mannual (sic) labor. His lecturing tour will begin in Grass Valley because this is the principal mining town in the State. The miners will give him a grand benefit. The lecture will be Sunday evening at Hamilton Hall.”
On April 19, The Union reported: “Sunday night … Marshall lectured at Hamilton Hall detailing his experiences on the Pacific Coast. His audience was not a large one … (this was ) Marshall’s first effort … (and) should not be criticized. It is sufficient that his story is an exceedingly interesting one, and that as he becomes accustomed to facing audiences he will be better patronized.”
On April 21, 1870, the Nevada (City) Daily Transcript reported: “We met James Marshall … who gave what he calls a ‘camp talk’ (in the Nevada Theatre) or a narrative of events connected with his discovery … in June 1848 with his party. He came down the banks of Little Deer Creek … and decamped a mile … above town. He washed out some gravel … and found gold prospects.” [Here he seems to have missed a golden opportunity.]
Like Grass Valley’s lecture, Nevada City’s was not well attended. Marshall earned little from his tour and did not repeat the undertaking.
Bob Wyckoff is a retired newspaper editor, an author of local history, a lifetime student of California history and a longtime resident of Nevada County. He writes history stories twice a month. You can write him at The Union, 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley, 95945.
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