The Discovery of Gold

Old placer Mines, American River, Folsom, California
Old placer Mines, American River, Folsom, California

So long as men shall covet wealth under an industrial system that makes money the key to power, the history of the accidental discovery of gold in far-away California will appeal to mankind with the weird and luring freshness of romance; and the story of the finding of the first tiny particles by the discoverer of 1848, the history of the ingots first smelted, and of the “dust” first used–the fact that men actually feared that the precious metal would become as common as iron–all this must ever remain the great romance of the nineteenth century. It was the romance that made an empire of a wilderness, turned the heads of sturdy men of all nations, and worked wonders with humble families, lifting the lowly to lordly power, and placing the cap of Furtunatus on the heads of many lucky pioneers.

The marvel of this entrancing and never tiresome story lies partly in the fact that so many generations had passed before anybody learned that what must often have been seen and handled was in fact the gold of which all nations have dreamt since the dawn of civilization; that it remained for a humble millwright to discover, quite by accident, in the glittering gravel of a tail-race, that which had lain hidden through the ages of Spanish exploration, and which was destined from that moment to revolutionize the history of men and countries.

And more marvelous yet does it all seem when it is remembered that all Spanish annals contained accounts of fabulous mines, supposed to abound in the west. Had any one looked for it seriously almost any day from the times of Cabrillo and Drake to the days of Sutter and Marshall gold must have been discovered somewhere in the hills where it lay hid and expectant for the eye of man to behold it.

For many years it was supposed that gold was discovered by James W. Marshall on January 19, 1848, and the date is so named in so reliable a history as that of Tuthill, published in 1865. The fact has since been established, however, that the date was January 24, 1848. The settling of the date belongs to the Pioneer Society of California, and the proper date is celebrated each year by the society and others interested in commemorating historical events of importance. The main outlines of the discovery may be summarized briefly:

James W. Marshall, who discovered the first gold, was a native of New Jersey, a good millwright, and an industrious and honest man. He was generous, but his companions regarded him as a man of rather visionary notions, without much balance or business acumen. His career showed that he failed to profit by his discovery.

Marshall was selected by Captain Sutter to find a site for a sawmill, and to superintend the work of building it. The location of the mill was in the small valley of Coloma, forty-five miles from Sutter’s Fort, from which it was reached without trouble by wagon.

Early in January, 1848, this sawmill was almost completed. In the language of Marshall, “the water had been turned into the race to carry away some of the loose dirt and gravel, and then had been turned off again.” On the afternoon of Monday, January 24, Marshall was walking in the tail-race, when on the rotten granite bed-rock he saw some yellow particles and picked up several of them, the largest about the size of grains of wheat. He told men at the mill, according to Hittell’s version, that he had found a gold mine, but his story was ridiculed. He hammered his new found metal, and it was malleable. He compared it with a gold coin, and was convinced that he had really discovered gold. Sutter tested the substance with acids, after which the world soon knew the facts–the world of the west in a few months, the wide world within a year.

The Pioneer, a newspaper published in San Jose more than a generation ago, has a different version of the original discovery, and it is said to have basis in truth. According to that version Marshall tried hard to keep the discovery a secret, except from his employer. The account states that Sutter and Marshall at once agreed to keep their secret, but they made the mistake of searching for more gold, this within view of many other workingmen. As the enthusiastic prospectors searched carefully together and gloated over new evidences of their treasure, finding many rich deposits, their eager gestures and looks betrayed their secret to a close-observing Mormon shoveler. He followed them cautiously, and soon guessed, then knew the truth. Having less reason than the original discoverer to keep his own counsel he at once told his fellows, and in a day or two the neighborhood knew what had happened. Soon the immediate vicinity was transformed into an eager band of gold hunters.

A number of Mormon immigrants were nearing California by the Southern Pass through the Rocky Mountains, and they hastened to the spot of Marshall’s discovery. Within a week the immediate neighborhood swarmed with diggers, and the excitement was intense. Within ten days more than a thousand people were busy with spades, shovels, picks, wooden bowls, and all manner of utensils that helped in the work of making the earth yield her secrets. The news spread fast all over California, and the excitement grew as the news got farther from home. Families were deserted by their male members. Masters and servants abandoned workshop and field, husbands and lovers went forth to dig ingots while wives and sweethearts dreamt of nuggets and castles. Sutter’s Mill was the watchword, gold the ambition of all.

Yerba Buena and San Jose were then the chief towns of the territory, and they were abandoned by all save a few. The ships in San Francisco Bay were deserted by their crews, newspapers were suspended, and no enterprise of any importance was undertaken during the first flush of excitement following the news of the discovery. Honorable S. O. Houghton passed through San Jose in the fall of 1848, and he describes the town as desolate. Grain and other crops lay unharvested save as cattle and horses ate it in the fields, business was abandoned, and there were none to do the work of life except women, children, and a few old men and cripples.

The first printed account of the remarkable discovery appeared in the Californian of March 15, 1848–an item to the effect that gold to the value of $30 had been received in San Francisco. In all the years that have passed since that date there has never been so significant a news item in any San Francisco newspaper. Before the middle of June the entire country was awakened by the cry of “Gold! gold!” By September, 1849, the reports of fabulous amounts of gold in California had reached the Atlantic states, and long before that time some of the Californians had begun to fear that the new metal was to be as common as iron in Pennsylvania. There was no mint, however, until J. S. Ormsby & Company established a private one in Sacramento, late in the summer of 1849. Doctor Light, a dentist, was put in charge at a salary of $50 a day. This mint coined five and ten dollar pieces, and they bore the stamp of the mint. Miners and others were charged a royalty of $4 for each $20 coined.

We have it on good authority that San Francisco’s population in the spring of 1847 was about seven hundred, and in March, 1848, it had grown to more than eight hundred. Two wharves were under construction, a public school was doing good work, and various other enterprises were under way. The atmosphere was that of a prosperous little American village. Real estate sales were going forward under O’Farrell’s survey. it is interesting to know that lots north of Market street were selling for sixteen dollars, and those south of that street were bringing twenty-nine. The city embraced very little territory except Telegraph and Rincon hills.

Tuthill says that with the first news of gold San Francisco’s streets were deserted, its business was stopped, its infant commerce paralyzed. If a pestilence had swept the Peninsula depopulation could scarcely have gone on faster. Everywhere, and from other little villages, the people were flying eastward and northward to the rich foothills of the Sierra Nevada. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Californian issued an extra in which it apologized for the non-appearance of its regular number. “The whole community,” said the editor in his farewell, “resounds to the sordid cry of ‘Gold!'”

In 1849 from 25,000 to 50,000 immigrants from the east and Europe arrived overland or by sea. Charles Lummis, editor of Out West, estimates the number at 47,000. The yield of gold during 1848 was about $5,000,000 but it reached $23,000,000 during 1849, $65,000,000 during 1853 and today it is about $12,000,000 a year.

The transformations wrought by the great discovery in the lives and fortunes of men from all parts of the globe were not greater than those worked upon the small communities of the territory, upon the people themselves, and upon the great metropolis destined to grow where San Francisco now stands.

The pitfalls of mining camps, the evils of suddenly acquired wealth, the abandoning of the ordinary restraints and manners of men, these, and the coming of gamblers and desperate characters, were some of the evils to be met and dealt with. California was from that time “to be morally and socially tried as no other community ever has been tried, and that trial was to show both the true nobility and the true weaknesses of our national character.”

But, on the whole, the real problems came rather slowly, considering the magnitude of the discovery at Sutter’s Mill. There were few miners in the country, however, and not until Consul Larkin’s report to Buchanan and Colonel Mason’s letter on mineral conditions–based on his investigations during June and July, 1848–was there much confidence or much excitement throughout the east. The awakening came with the records of the revelation, and the character of the state today was formed very largely by those that came during the yesterday, the golden yesterdays of ’49.

On June 17 Governor mason left Monterey to visit Caloma and other points on the American river for the purpose of verifying the reports of gold discoveries, and by the time he had finished his researches he sent a glowing account to the war department. In this he stated that the hills had gold for the gathering. He said: “I have no hesitation in saying that there is more gold in the country drained by the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers than will pay the costs of the late Mexican war a hundred times over. * * * No capital is required to obtain the gold, as the laboring man needs nothings but his pick and shovel and tin pan with which to dig and wash the gravel, and many frequently pick gold out of the crevices of rocks with their butcher knives, in pieces of form one to six ounces.”

It is not strange that those who had opposed Polk’s Mexican war policy ridiculed the entire story as fictitious, yet the report was actually true. The governor’s report recited the well known facts about the desertion of towns and ships, the rotting of the crops, the fabulous prices of flour and provisions, the high wages of laborers, and all that goes with mining camp days. In one place the sun shone warmly upon two hundred miners working for gold–some using tin pans, some Indian baskets, and some rude cradles. The people at work in another place were digging out from one to three ounces a day. One man had made ten thousand dollars net in less than a week. Men were abandoning wages of fifty dollars a day because they could do better elsewhere by mining on their own responsibility. Three miles above Sutter’s the governor met a Mr. Sinclair, who employed fifty Indians for five weeks and showed net proceeds worth sixteen thousand dollars. About four thousand men–half of them Indians–were then working in the gold belt. Crime was then almost unknown. Men lived in open tents with thousands of dollars worth of dust in their possession, yet they were not molested. Robberies and murders were reserved for a later and more civilized phase of existence.

It is not at all wonderful that such a report, presented to congress as a part of the report of the secretary of war, stirred the country like an alarm cry, and it is not wonderful that thousands got the “gold fever” and worked themselves up to the belief that the precious metal existed not only in the crevices but that it grew on the bushes. The grand rush to California began in earnest as soon as this news was published to the country. [1]Though gold was discovered by Marshall, as stated, and though his discovery marked the real importance of mining, the reader should not imagine that gold and silver were unknown at a far earlier … Continue reading

In 1842 Professor Dana, the eminent geologist, saw gold rocks and veins of quartz near the Umpqua river, in Oregon, and he found pebbles of similar character on the Sacramento river, but his discoveries were for the most part inconsequential and were put to academic rather than to practical uses. None of his announcements in any way hastened the real discovery of gold.

Within a month after Marshall’s discovery, however, and before the news of it had become general, an armistice was agreed upon between Mexico and the United States, and a treaty of peace was ratified by both nations by May. The news of this convention was celebrated enthusiastically in California by illuminations, cannonading and gay processions.

Within a few months after the ratification of the treaty the entire east was aflame with the news, and enthusiasm for gold-hunting seized the people like a fever of the blood. The call to round the Horn or cross the plains was heard and responded to by all sorts and conditions of men, and even conservative people sacrificed their homes, their business, or their posts of duty to brave the unknown perils and fortunes of the great and comparatively unknown west. The desire to begin life anew permeated the breasts of the most phlegmatic, and a few eeks filled the dusty roads of the middle west with hopeful thousands, who trudged their way toward the land of the setting sun. It was usual to travel in companies, particularly when overland parties were making the long journey.

Not only did the eager gold-seekers start by land, but all sorts of craft–river steamers, old whaling vessels, and un-seaworthy hulks, were pressed into service for the voyage by sea. Thousands braved the perils of the Isthmus of Panama, and thousands died of Chagres fever or from the countless hardships of the undertaking. Those who reached San Francisco hurried on to the mines, if they had money and grit, or found high wages and prompt pay if they feared or were unable to venture farther. Twenty and thirty dollars a day was common pay for ordinary work. Houses were brought around the Horn in parts, and some of the residences in the Santa Clara Valley, in San Francisco, and elsewhere are pointed to with pride today as having made the tour around Cape Horn. The growth of San Francisco was so fast that it was known as the “City of Magic.”

The autumn of 1849 and the spring of 1850 was the free-and-easy era of California history, the time when men in tents and rude cabins threw off the “knapsack of custom” and rollicked in perfect abandon. Gambling and other vices throve–and it was the conditions that grew up in these times that made great problems for society to solve later.

Under these strange, new circumstances soon grew from a small village a great city of industry. Tents and temporary houses sprang up like muchrooms, and eager multitudes continued to rush in through the Golden Gate or overland. Fortunes were literally made and lost in such periods as a month, week, even in a day. Nuggets of varying sizes continued to be found in large numbers for several years, but the severe search soon plucked the richest bearings, and then the quartz mills began to thrive, as in later years. Men settled down to the quieter callings of life, and the hot youth of the great rush was spent.

One of the pathetic phases of the grand discovery is that neither Marshall nor Sutter reaped any benefits from the revelation they made to the world. Good-hearted, somewhat visionary and deficient men, they came to want in their declining years. Lucia Norman thus portrays their fate:

“Strange to say, neither Marshall nor Sutter reaped any of the benefit of the discovery of gold. Marshall was of a thriftless, unsettled, and somewhat dissipated disposition. Most of his life, after the discovery, he spent in prospecting for new deposits of the precious metal. At the present writing (May, 1883), he is still engaged in that occupation, residing, in comparative poverty, in a rude cabin at Kelsey, a place six miles from Placerville, El Dorado county.

“The discovery of gold ruined Sutter. It caused a stampede among his employes, who fled into the mountains in search of gold, took his horses, and left his crops to rot for want of harvesters, and his cattle to the mercy of thieves. Sutter also caught the gold fever. He set those Indians that remained with him–about two hundred–to dig for gold in the American river, but the enterprise was not successful. It cost more to supply implements and provisions than the value of the gold he obtained. Gold-hunters were generously fed by him by the thousands, as they pushed on to the mines. His hospitality was, nevertheless, frightfully abused. He was robbed again and again. It is said that in 1849-50, $60,000 worth of stock was stolen from him by one party. The timber and grass on his lands were cut and carried off without compensation to him. He was deprived of his land by claimants who seized it ‘under new laws and new circumstances,’ and he was never able to recover it through the courts. In 1851 he ran for governor on the Whig ticket, but was defeated, and he then retired in comparative poverty to his Hock farm, a small and undisputed possession on the west bank of the Feather river, with the empty title of General of Militia to comfort him. Afterward Sutter became a pensioner on the state, receiving as such $250 a month, in recognition of his services and his sacrifices. But in 1868 the pension was stopped, and Sutter repaired to Washington to push his claims for compensation for the loss of his property before Congress. For twelve years he continued in the role of an unsuccessful petitioner, and, overwhelmed by disappointment, died in poverty in June, 1880.”

Marshall’s death, soon after the time spoken of by the writer, left little but regret for his friends. Though his bronze monument will long grace the parks and museums it is rather pitiful that his last years were years of want and years of black memories.

In the bustling throngs that came west were many thousands whose sole purpose was to make hostages with fortune, as Bacon says, and return home. Throughout the east today one will find many old men who were birds of a single season. The many thousands that remained–some because too poor to leave, others because too prosperous and content–were the ones that had placed upon their shoulders the problem of founding a state, and it was not long until they began to carve a government from the rude surroundings and the mixed population. It is superfluous to say that they brought the prejudices of northern and southern men, the passions and prejudices of the time. In the building of the state the Democrats got well under control by 1851, and remained in power until the war. In Benton’s speeches in the United States senate one gets an idea of the strange conceptions of statesmen, for the immortal Benton went to great pains to show that the gold mines would prove worthless, but he went to equal pains to prove that if the territory of California should become a state it would not disrupt the Union.

The first official act looking to the establishment of a state government for California was the issuance of a proclamation on June 3, 1849, by Brigadier-General Bennet Riley, U. S. A., the then military governor of the territory, “recommending the formation of a state constitution or a plan for a territorial government.” The convention was made to consist of thrity-seven delegates, to be chosen as follows: District of San Diego, two delegates; of Los Angeles, four; of Santa Barbara, two; of San Luis Obispo, two; of Monterey, five; of San Jose, five; of San Francisco, five; of Sonoma, four; of Sacramento, four; and of San Joaquin, four.

The election for delegates was held on August 1, 1849. The convention met in Colton Hall, in the town of Monterey. at 12 o’clock m. on Saturday, September 1, 1849, and adjourned on Saturday, October 13, 1849. The convention admitted to seats quite a number of delegates in excess of those contemplated in the proclamation of General Riley. On organization the following were chosen officers of the body: President, Robert Semple; Secretary, William G. Marcy; Assistant Secretaries, Caleb Lyon and J. G. Field; Reporter, J. Ross Browne; Sergeant-at-Arms, J. S. Houston; Doorkeeper, Cornelius Sullivan; Interpreter and Translator, W. E. P. Hartnell; Clerk to Interpreter and Translator, W. H. Henrie. The Constitution framed by the convention was adopted by the people at an election held November 13, 1849.

Soon after the adoption of the sovereign law of the land the people of San Francisco and other parts of the state–but of San Francisco in particular–were confronted with problems of disorder and anarchy that led to the forming of the famous vigilance committees that have made the country famous ever since the era when they administered a rude form of popular justice. With those stirring events the following pages will deal.

Source: Leigh H. Irvine; A History of the New California Its Resources and People, 2 Volumes; New York and Chicago: The Lewis Publishing Company, 1903.


1 Though gold was discovered by Marshall, as stated, and though his discovery marked the real importance of mining, the reader should not imagine that gold and silver were unknown at a far earlier period of history. Tuthill satisfied himself that gold was discovered on the San Francisquito Canon, forty-five miles northward from Los Angeles, in 1838. The mine was worked for ten years and it yielded an average of six thousand dollars a year. He reports that silver was discovered in Alizal, Monterey county, in 1802, and gold was found in San Isidro, San Diego county, in 1828. Hakluyt’s account of Drake’s visit–1579–tells of large quantities of gold and silver, but the probability is that the stories of that time were large exaggerated, though there may have been a basis for the assertion.

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