James Wilson Marshall, a moody and eccentric master carpenter, found "some kind of
mettle" in the waters of the American River on January 24, 1848. The "mettle," of
course, proved to be gold.
As news of Marshall's discovery began to spread, Californians rushed to the site.
These eager "forty-eighters" were seized by a gold fever that soon swept the nation
and the world.
"Some Kind of Mettle"
On January 24, 1848, a young Virginian named Henry William Bigler recorded in his
diary one of the most fateful sentences in American history: "This day some kind
of mettle was found in the tail race that looks like gold first discovered by James
Martial, the Boss of the Mill."
Thus was recorded, in a scrawl barely legible, the momentous discovery of California
gold by master carpenter James Wilson Marshall while working at a sawmill on the
south fork of the American River.
Marshall later said that he made the discovery while inspecting the tailrace of the
mill. He found there a glittering particle, caught behind a stone beneath the water.
When he showed his find to Johann August Sutter , the owner of the mill, Sutter exclaimed
"It's gold--at least twenty-three-carat gold."For an event of such importance, it's
surprising that so little is known about the exact circumstances of the discovery.
Marshall was never entirely sure of the date. He later speculated that he had made
the discovery "on or about the 19th of January." Several other accounts, including
Bigler's diary entry, contradict Marshall.
Life in the Diggings
"Gold-rush California was a tumultuous place. Mark Twain aptly called it "a wild,
free, disorderly, grotesque society!"
In their relentless pursuit of wealth, the Argonauts used a variety of mining methods.
Some of their methods, such as hydraulicking, left ugly scars upon the land.
To introduce law and order into this chaotic society, Californians formed mining
districts and drafted mining codes. In the cities, they formed vigilance committees.
One enterprising Argonaut published a fanciful set of rules, The Miner's Ten Commandments.
Many of the most successful gold-rush Californians were merchants who sold supplies
to the miners. Mining the miners often proved to be a more lucrative enterprise than
simply mining the gold. Sadly, many of the miners themselves failed to realize their
dreams of wealth. Gold-rush songs such as "The Lousy Miner" are poignant reminders
of the miners' loneliness and disappointment.
One of the finest eye witness accounts of the gold rush is a set of letters written
by Dame Shirley, the pen name of Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe. Dame Shirley realistically
portrayed the hardships of life in the diggings, conditions that often were forgotten
by those in later years who engaged in remembering the gold rush.
Diversity and Conflict
Following the discovery of gold in California in 1848, the world rushed in. Eager
gold seekers headed south from Oregon; north from Mexico, Chile, and Peru; east from
China and the islands of the Pacific; and west from every state in the union and
countries throughout Europe. This richness of intersecting frontiers produced the
most ethnically diverse region in the nation.
Gold-rush California also became a region noted for its ethnic conflict. Frustrated
ambitions of unsuccessful gold seekers were vented in an almost unending round of
ethnic hostilities. Scapegoats were eagerly sought, identified with lightning speed,
and dispatched with little regret.
Native American miners were forced to abandon the diggings, and many fell victim
to genocidal campaigns. The destruction of the ranchos dispossessed members of the
old rancho elite, and Latino miners endured violent opposition as well as discriminatory
taxes. French miners, derided as Keskydees, bitterly complained when they too were
compelled to pay extra fees as foreign miners. Hawaiians in the gold fields were
commonly called Kanakas. Chinese immigrants came seeking their fortune in the fabled
land known as Gam Saan. African Americans were a small minority in gold rush California
and they too were bounded by unfair laws and practices. In spite of discrimination
and hardship, individuals like Biddy Mason left a legacy of pride and accomplishment.
James Wilson Marshall
Highway 49 Gold Rush Mother Lode Path
California goldfields in the Sierra Nevada (Northern and Southern Mines)
Panning for gold on the Mokelumne River
A forty-niner peers into his gold pan on the banks of the American River
More Details on the gold discovery
In the cold morning hours of January 24, 1848, James Marshall, a construction foreman
at Sutter’s Mill, was inspecting the water flow through the mill’s tail race. The
sawmill, on the banks of the American River in Coloma, California, was owned by John
A. Sutter, who desperately needed lumber for the building of a large flour mill.
On that particular morning, Marshall not only found the water to be flowing adequately
through the mill, but also spied a shiny object twinkling in the frigid stream. Stooping
to pick it up, he looked with awe at a pea-sized gold nugget lying within his hand.
He immediately went to visit Elizabeth Jane "Jennie" Wimmer, the camp cook and laundress,
who had grown up in a prospecting family.
Ms. Wimmer used a lye soap solution overnight to verify that the 1/3 ounce nugget
Marshall had found was true gold. Dubbing it the Wimmer Nugget, which was later appraised
at $5.12, Marshall gave it to her on a necklace. It would later be displayed at the
Columbian Exposition of 1893.
Marshall then informed his boss, John Sutter, of his find. Sutter, a German/Swiss
immigrant who owned thousands of acres around the Sacramento and American Rivers,
had dreams of developing part of his land into a utopian farming settlement named
"Nuevo Helvetia" (Spanish for "New Switzerland"). His main compound was known as
Sutter's Fort and had already become a destination for immigrants, including the
Donner Party. More concerned with expanding his agricultural empire, Sutter wished
to suppress the information about the gold. But such a secret was too big to keep
hidden, and before long, a San Francisco newspaper confirmed reports of several gold
finds in the area and miners began to flock to the area turning it from a sleeping
outpost to a bustling center of activity.
Even with the crudest of mining tools, the earliest miners did well. All one had
to do was to dig down into a placer, and wash the pay dirt. The entire gold country
was open to all. No taxes were levied on what the miners found. No towns or roads
existed in the gold country. Every miner was on his own, and nobody had to work for
wages unless he wanted to.
On August 19, 1848 the New York Herald was the first newspaper on the East Coast
of the United States to confirm that there was a gold rush in California; by December
5, 1848, even President James Polk would announce this before Congress, significantly
legitimizing the news.
News of gold, free for the taking, continued to spread. By the end of summer the
first gold seekers were arriving from outside California. The first immigrants were
probably from Oregon, where American farmers had been settling since the early 1840’s.
Next came men from the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii). In the autumn, new arrivals
were coming from northern Mexico, and during the winter large numbers came from Peru
and Chile in South America. Still, there was plenty of gold for all, and fresh discoveries
were made daily. The immense extent of the gold deposits was becoming clear.
As he predicted when he saw the gold nugget, John Sutter was ruined as more and more
of his agricultural workers left in search of gold, squatters invaded his land, shot
his cattle and stole his crops. Sutter described it this way: "Everyone left, from
the clerk to the cook, and I was in great distress."
Though the great majority abandoned their other activities to search for the precious
metal, one enterprising Mormon merchant named Samuel Brannan had a better idea. He
bought all the mining supplies he could find, and filled his store at Sutter's Fort
with buckets, pans, heavy clothing, foodstuffs, and similar provisions. Then he took
a quinine bottle full of gold flakes to the nearest town, San Francisco. There he
walked up and down the streets, waving the bottle of gold over his head and shouting
"Gold, gold, gold in the American River!" The next day, the town's newspaper described
San Francisco as a "ghost town." Samuel Brannan quickly became California's first
millionaire, selling supplies to the miners as they passed by Sutter's Fort.
The gold discovery sparked almost mass hysteria as thousands of immigrants from around
the world soon invaded what would soon be called the Gold Country of California.
The peak of the rush was in 1849, thus the many immigrants became known as the '49ers.
Some 80,000 prospectors poured into California during that year alone, arriving overland
on the California Trail, by ship around Cape Horn, or through the Panama shortcut.
The majority of them came in one immense wave during mid summer, as covered wagons
reached the end of the California trail. At the same time, sailing ships were docking
in San Francisco, only to be deserted by sailors as well as passengers.
Digging for gold from early dawn until dusk was backbreaking work. The hope of "striking
it rich" became an obsession with many of the Forty-Niners. Stories of others who
had found their fortune in gold kept driving them on. A streak of bad luck could
always be followed by a rich strike.
By the 1850s miners were coming from places all over the world --Britain, Europe,
China, Australia, North and South America. However, the gold was getting harder to
find and competition grew fierce between the miners. At the same time, merchants
raised the prices of mining tools, clothing, and food to astronomical levels. A miner
had to find an ounce of gold a day just to break even. Most miners barely found enough
gold to pay for daily expenses. Nevertheless, it was among the most important eras
of migration in American history, and led to statehood for California.
As miners continued to invent faster, more destructive methods of finding gold, the
land was ravaged. Hillsides were washed away in torrents of water, and towns downstream
were inundated by immense floods of mud. Water supplies were poisoned with mercury,
arsenic, cyanide, and other toxins. Grand forests of oak and pine were leveled for
The gold discovery wrought immense changes upon the land and its people. California,
with its diverse population, achieved statehood in 1850, decades earlier than it
would have been without the gold.
The peak production of placer gold occurred in 1853. Every year after that, less
gold was found, but more and more men were in California to share in the dwindling
supply. Thousands of disillusioned gold seekers returned home with little to show
for their time, glad to escape with their health.
After the boom, many miners returned to San Francisco, rich or more often broke and
looking for wages. Like many cities of the 19th century, the infrastructures of San
Francisco and other boom towns near the fields were strained by the sudden influx;
leftover cigar boxes and planks served as a sidewalk, and crime became a problem,
causing vigilantes to rise up and serve the populace in the absence of police.
Other miners, instead of returning home sent for their families, turning to agriculture
and other businesses as a way of survival.
The California Gold Rush is generally considered to have ended in 1858, when the
New Mexican Gold Rush began. These hearty pioneers found the land unbelievably productive,
and ultimately California's great wealth came not from its mines but from its farms.
You can also click my ‘Southern & Northern Adventures’ for more history in particular
areas (Including areas that had mining activity before the Gold Rush, such as in
the Potholes District, Santa Clarita Valley, etc)