Kongo loves living in the Golden State. There’s always a lot to see and do just about anywhere you visit here. Over this Memorial Day weekend he was in the Sacramento area and decided to explore the origin of the “gold” in the Golden State.
It was all pretty much of an accident and involved an unlucky man named James Marshall. You might think the man who sparked the California Gold Rush would be anything but unlucky but Marshall managed to blow just about every opportunity he ever had.
He was a carpenter and wheelwright who landed in California in the mid 1840s and ended up working for a Swiss immigrant named John Sutter who needed a sawmill built on the south fork of the American River, which was about 40-odd miles from a fort Sutter had built in what is now the middle of downtown Sacramento. The mill site was near a tiny village called Coloma. Marshall was using some men who had been part of the Mormon Battalion that had came to California to fight with Captain James Fremont in the “Bear” Rebellion to kick Mexico out of the region.
On January 24 (give or take a day or two) Marshall was examining the residue from the water race that was going to drive the sawmill and found a small nugget of gold. Swearing everyone to secrecy, he rode back to Sutter’s Fort to break the good news to his employer. Using encyclopedias he had, Sutter determined that it was indeed gold, and again swore everyone to secrecy. Good luck with that.
By May, San Francisco was a ghost town as everyone headed up to search for gold. The sawmill never really worked after that because there were no laborers left — everyone had left for the mountains and were panning for gold. The word spread quickly and by 1849, tens of thousands of wannabe millionaires were heading toward the West Coast.
Very few of the men who came to California found gold and got rich. About 90% of those who came went bust and went home. Those who stayed began making history in other ways as they built the state that is now the fifth largest economy in the world. Most who got rich made their money selling supplies, at enormously inflated rates, to the newly arriving gold seekers.
Marshall never made much on his gold find. He tried mining in a few other spots but none of those panned out. Eventually the State of California gave him a small pension to live on for his role in making the state but after a few years when he came before the legislature to renew his writ, a brandy bottle fell out of his pocket. That was the end of that. He died pretty much destitute in a small homesteader cabin in 1885.
Kongo talked to some of the docents at the gold site. Jim explained that Marshall wasn’t very good at dates and the actual day of the discovery may be off a bit. Some of the Mormons who were working at the sawmill at the time kept journals that are probably more accurate.
This lovely docent was keeping house at the “Mormon Cabin” where six or so leftovers from the Mormon Battalion were helping Marshall build the saw mill when he found gold in the river. She explained how her ancestors came to California on a clipper ship during the Gold Rush in 1849 and her family is still hanging around the site of the original discovery. Hopefully they find some gold soon and she can get out of those clothes which have to be really, really hot in the summer.
Sutter’s Fort and the site of the gold discovery are a great place to visit. If you’re traveling toward Lake Tahoe or are otherwise in the area, you should check them out. Maybe you’ll get lucky.
Travel safe. Have fun!