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James Wilson Marshall Discovers Gold in the American River: January 24, 1848

This text comes from our book, Lands of Hope and Promise.

It was January 1848. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo had not yet been signed, but the war with Mexico was effectively over. California remained what it long had been—a sparsely settled Mexican frontier province. Except for the American flag that waved over the plazas and the presence of American troops, there was little evidence that California now belonged to the United States of America.

That was soon to change.

Johann Sutter had hired a carpenter named James Wilson Marshall to build him a saw mill on the American River, which flows from the Sierra Nevada southwestward into the Sacramento. One day, January 24, Marshall saw in the millrace “something shining . . . I reached my hand down and picked it up. It made my heart thump, for I was certain it was gold. The piece was about half the size and shape of a pea. Then I saw another piece in the water. After taking it out I sat down and began to think right hard.” Marshall told Sutter of his find, and Sutter thought to keep the matter a secret. However, he told his servants, who spread word of the discovery. Soon, the California Star, a small paper in San Francisco, got wind of it. But E.C. Kemble, the Star’s editor, thought the rumors of gold a “sham, as superb a take in as ever was got up to guzzle the gullible.”

A reproduction of a ca. 1850 daguerreotype showing James Marshall standing before the mill, where he discovered gold
A reproduction of a ca. 1850 daguerreotype showing James Marshall standing before the mill, where he discovered gold

A few days after the Star dismissed the news of gold, a man came to San Francisco from Sutter’s fort and paid for goods with gold. This convinced Sam Brannan, the Star’s owner, that there might be more to the rumors. He went to Sutter’s fort and, discovering that the reports were true, returned to San Francisco to plan his strategy. Though he thought there probably was not much gold at the mill, he decided that publicizing the strike would sell newspapers. One day, in May, he strolled down Montgomery Street in San Francisco, holding a bottle of gold nuggets over his head. “Gold! Gold! Gold on the American River!” he cried.

A few days later, the Star reported, “the stores are closed and places of business vacated, a large number of houses tenantless.” The citizens of San Francisco had abandoned the town for the gold mines. News spread to Monterey. “My messenger sent to the mines has returned with specimens of the gold,” wrote Walter Colton, whom Commodore Stockton had named alcalde (mayor) of the town.

He dismounted in a sea of upturned faces. As he drew forth the yellow lumps from his pockets and passed them around among the eager crowd, the doubts, which had lingered until now, fled. All admitted they were gold, except one old man, who still persisted they were some Yankee invention got up to reconcile the people to the change of flag. The excitement produced was intense; and many were soon busy in their hasty preparations for a departure to the mines . . . the blacksmith dropped his hammer, the carpenter his plane, the mason his trowel, the farmer his sickle, the baker his loaf, and the tapster his bottle. All were off for the mines, some on horses, some on carts, and some on crutches, and one went in a litter.

Word now spread by ship to Hawai’i, and then south into Mexico and Chile. In September, U.S. Navy lieutenant Edward Beale arrived in Washington with 230 ounces of gold. In November, California’s territorial governor sent to Washington $3,000 in gold nuggets along with his official report of the gold strike. The federal government put the gold on display, and the East Coast awakened to the hope of promised riches.

A sailing card, advertising transport to California by clipper ship
A sailing card, advertising transport to California by clipper ship

“The frenzy continues to increase every day,” wrote George Templeton Strong from New York. “It seems as if the Atlantic Coast was to be depopulated, such swarms of people are leaving it for the new El Dorado.” Strong of course exaggerated; but, between December 1848 and January 1849, 61 ships set sail from the East Coast carrying 3,000 eager gold seekers. Gold fever spread so swiftly that by the end of 1849, 700 ships had carried 45,000 passengers to California. Some of these took the long (six to eight month), tedious route around Cape Horn. Others sailed to Panama, and crossing the isthmus, awaited ships to carry them along the Pacific Coast to San Francisco. Cholera and malaria assailed those who crossed by way of Panama; many never reached the gold fields.

Other gold seekers came by land to California—some in Conestoga wagons drawn by two to six mules or oxen, others pulling their belongings in push-carts or wheelbarrows. Emigrants braved the Indian threat of the Plains, the lofty terror of the mountains, and the parched and burning desolation of the deserts. Guided by experienced trappers, such as Jim Beckworth, Thomas Fitzpatrick, and Etienne Provost, the “Forty-niners” (so-called because they came in 1849) faced innumerable dangers—starvation, thirst, disease, wild animals, hostile Indians, and their own gullibility and foolishness. We hear of those who, following some deceptive Indian guide, took a “short cut” to the gold fields—and never were seen again. One group who took a “short cut” nearly died of thirst and starvation in a California desert valley, which they christened “Death Valley.” Others arrived in the Sierra Nevada after the autumn snows had fallen, and many froze or starved to death. Those who survived did so by the generosity of the California mining towns, which sent them money and supplies.

Emigrants took many routes to California. From Independence, Missouri, they followed the Platte River to Fort Laramie, and from Fort Laramie they crossed the Rockies over South Pass to the Humboldt River. From the headwaters of the Humboldt, the trail passed though miles of desolate desert to the Truckee River, following that river into the Sierra Nevada. From the Sierra, the trail descended into the Sacramento Valley. Other emigrants followed the southern Santa Fe Trail, which crossed New Mexico into Arizona, and then followed the Gila River to Yuma on the Colorado. From the Colorado, it traversed the desert to San Bernardino, a Mormon outpost, and from thence to a new American settlement called El Monte. From El Monte and Los Angeles, emigrants continued north to the gold fields.

Gold mining in California, an 1849 Currier & Ives lithograph
Gold mining in California, an 1849 Currier & Ives lithograph

Gold-hungry adventurers followed the American River into the Sierra Nevada. They panned and sluiced gold out of the river and its tributary streams and knocked it out of rocks. Soon new gold strikes had been made north on the Sacramento River, and farther north on the Trinity and Humboldt Rivers, all the way to the Oregon border. The mining camps that sprang up overnight in the gold fields were colorful places where all ranks of society were reduced to a common level. The camps had professors, doctors, lawyers, even European nobility mixing with the common farmer and mechanic. Blacks were accepted as equals in the camaraderie of the camps.

The miners who made their fortune were generally the clever or unscrupulous, who organized and used the labor of others. Most miners however did not even break even. Some left the gold fields to become carters, run boarding houses, or operate stores. Though most came to California for only as long as it took them to strike it rich, many were so utterly ruined that they could not afford to return to their homes.

The height of the California gold rush was from 1849 to 1853. During that period, miners dug or panned or sluiced $220 million in gold out of California’s waters and soil.

“The Days of ’49”

Tom Moore, an old miner and “wandering ghost,” recalls California’s “days of gold” and his departed friends in this song, first published in San Francisco in 1874.

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