On January 24, 1848, an event occurred in Coloma that would radically impact the history of California and the Nation. James W. Marshall was building a sawmill for Captain John Sutter, using water from the South Fork of the American River. He noticed several flakes of metal in the tailrace water and recognized them to be gold. Though he tried to keep it a secret, the word spread quickly and triggered the California Gold Rush of 1849.
Until then, Coloma had been a remote outpost, named for a nearby Southern Maidu Indian Village. (Early spellings of the name included “Colluma” and “Culoma”.) Its population soon swelled to many thousands.
In 1841, “Captain” John Sutter received a grant of 48,000 acres along the Sacramento River. He was one of the very first ranchos in the great Central Valley of California. On a small rise a few miles back from the river he began building a new adobe fort, soon to be known as “Sutter’s Fort.”
As his empire expanded, he began to run out of building materials and looked eastward into the foothills for a source of suitable lumber.
Among the dozens of men Sutter employed was a recent immigrant from New Jersey, James Marshall. Like so many American pioneers, Marshall had been gradually moving west with the frontier. After coming west on the Oregon Trail, he found Oregon too rainy and continued south into California. Here he came upon Sutter’s Fort and was immediately hired by the Captain. Marshall was a man handy with tools, and he quickly made himself very useful with his wood and ironworking skills.
John Sutter and James Marshall formed a partnership to build a sawmill. Sutter would supply laborers and materials, and Marshall supplied his skills as a millwright. They would share equally in the lumber produced. After searching the foothills for a suitable site, they selected a small valley on the South Fork of the American River, called by the Nisenan people “Cullumah.” This place had tall straight pine trees easily milled into lumber and a river for water power.
They began construction in the fall of 1847. By January the mill was half done. The crew then dug a ditch to carry river water through the sawmill. This ditch is called a millrace. They found that the tailrace—the lower end of the ditch—was much too shallow, so they spent several weeks deepening the tailrace so the water could flow through the mill without stopping. The flowing water carried away sand and dirt and lighter minerals, but a heavier metal was left behind to accumulate in the deepening ditch. When the workers hit bedrock at the end of the tailrace, this long-hidden gold was at last exposed to view.
The first piece of gold was noticed by James Marshall early on the morning of January 24, 1848. His own words describe the event:
“I went down as usual, and after shutting off the water from the race I stepped into it, near the lower end, and there, upon the rock, about six inches beneath the surface of the water, I discovered the gold. I then collected four or five pieces and went up to Mr. Scott (who was working at the carpenter’s bench making the mill wheel) and the pieces in my hand and said, ‘I have found it.’
‘What is it?’ inquired Scott.
‘Gold,’ I answered.
‘Oh! No,’ returned Scott, ‘that can’t be!’
I replied positively, ‘I know it to be nothing else.'”
Marshall and his workers tested the metal in several ways, including a lye bath. Four days after the discovery, Marshall rode to Sutter’s Fort and showed the gold to the Captain. After consulting an encyclopedia and conducting various tests on the metal, Sutter decided Marshall was right. It was pure gold.
The following day Sutter himself came up to the mill site, and he asked for the promise of secrecy from all the workers. The Captain knew that if the word got out his laborers at the Fort would desert him. But as we all know, the secret was not kept for long, and within a year, the California Gold Rush of 1849 would change the history of California and the nation.
As for James Marshall, he never “struck it rich.” In 1849 there was a dispute between the native Nisenan and some aggressive gold-miners from Oregon. The dispute turned ugly. Marshall did his best to defend his friends, the Nisenan, but the Indians were murdered and Marshall was forced to flee for his life. Years later, after things quieted down, he returned to Coloma and spent about ten years in a cabin on the hillside, raising grapes and making wine. In the late 1860s, he moved to Kelsey, five miles away, where he spent his last years in poverty. He died in Kelsey in 1885 and is buried on the hilltop behind his cabin in Coloma. His monument, erected by the State of California, was dedicated May 10, 1890, in a ceremony that attracted hundreds of interested people. This fulfilled Marshall’s oft-repeated prophecy, “Someday they’ll make a fuss over me.”
Excerpted and condensed from Discover Coloma: A Teacher’s Guide, by Alan Beilharz, published by the Gold Discovery Park Association.