James Marshall's Discovery


James W. Marshall partnered with John Sutter to start a lumber business in 1847. Sutter had founded “New Helvetia”—later renamed Sacramento—and a vast agricultural empire in the Sacramento Valley. The partners selected Coloma Valley, 45 miles east of Sutter’s fort, for their lumber mill site because it had a river for power and stands of large ponderosa pine trees for lumber. As equal partners, Sutter would furnish the capital and Marshall would oversee the mill’s construction and daily operation. 

In the fall of 1847, Marshall began construction of the mill with a labor force that included local Indians and members of the U.S. Army Mormon Battalion. A low dam was built across the river to funnel part of the stream into a diversion channel to carry it through the mill. By January of the next year, the mill was ready to be tested. However, the tailrace, which carried water away from the mill, was too shallow, backing up water and preventing the mill wheel from turning properly. To deepen the tailrace, each day the Indian laborers loosened the rock. At night, water was run through the ditch to wash away the loose debris from that day’s diggings.

On the morning of January 24, 1848, while inspecting the watercourse, Marshall spotted some shiny flecks in the tailrace. He scooped them up, and after bending them with his fingernail and pounding them with a rock, he placed them in the crown of his hat and hurried to announce his find to the others. He told the mill workers, “Boys, by God, I believe I’ve found a gold mine.”

When Mr. Scott—a carpenter working on the mill wheel—disputed his claim, Marshall replied positively, “I know it to be nothing else.” Marshall pounded it on a rock, and the cook, Jenny Wimmer, boiled it in lye soap. It passed all their tests—it was pure gold.

Four days later, Marshall rode to the fort with samples of the gold. Sutter consulted his encyclopedia, tried various tests, and confirmed Marshall’s conclusion. Mindful of their investment in the mill, they agreed to keep the news secret until the mill was in operation. After all, small amounts of gold had already been discovered in the Southern California mountains in 1842, and there was no reason to assume that this find was particularly important.

But this was a secret that could not be kept. In a letter to General Mariano Vallejo, Sutter bragged about the new discovery. Mormon elder Sam Brannan, who operated a general store at the fort, went to the mill to see for himself. Several Mormon mill workers readily gave him a tithe of the gold they had found. When Brannan visited San Francisco in May, he paraded the streets waving a quinine bottle full of gold, shouting, “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!” By the end of May, San Francisco was reported to be “half empty” as its able-bodied men departed for the mines. The excitement grew when an army officer carried a tea caddy full of gold to Washington, D.C. Shortly after President James K. Polk confirmed the rumors, thousands trekked to the Gold Country to seek their fortunes.

With Marshall’s gold discovery, the sawmill at Coloma quickly lost its peaceful aspect. By July 1848, the area’s population had jumped to 4,000. That December, Sutter sold his interest in the mill, and Marshall took on two new partners. Management problems entangled the mill in legal difficulties; within two years, it was abandoned. Marshall spent the next few years searching for more gold, with little success. He died, impoverished, in 1885 and was buried on the hillside above Coloma. 

Five years after Marshall's death, the Native Sons of the Golden West, Placerville Parlor, proposed to the State Legislature that a monument to Marshall be constructed. The Legislature appropriated $9,000. Sculptor J. Marion Wells designed a thirty-one foot monument beneath a 10’6” bronze statue of Marshall, holding a gold nugget and pointing to the spot at which he had discovered gold in 1848. California’s first State Historical Monument was placed on the hill overlooking the gold discovery site to mark the location of Marshall’s grave. The site is now part of a state park. For more information on Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, visit http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=484.