In 1845 James Marshall took a carpentry job with John Sutter, later constructing a sawmill to supply lumber for Sutter’s ambitious project—a colony he called New Helvetia (present-day Sacramento, Calif., and environs) after his native Switzerland. Alta California Governor Juan Bautista Alvarado had granted Sutter nearly 50,000 acres for his colony.
Marshall sited the sawmill on the South Fork of the American River, where tall, straight pines would mill readily into building planks. Local Nisenan Indians called the area Cullumah (“Beautiful”). Marshall began construction of the mill in the fall of 1847.
Digging the tailrace, through which the river would run to turn the wheel, was laborious and time consuming, so each night Marshall redirected the water flow through the ditch to carry away that day’s debris and deepen the channel. On the morning of January 24, 1848, Marshall noticed in the tailrace a pea-sized nugget he suspected to be gold.
Marshall later penned what transpired: “I went down as usual, 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. [William] Scott [a carpenter building the mill wheel].…‘What is it?’ inquired Scott. ‘Gold,’ I answered. ‘Oh!’ returned Scott,‘No, that can’t be.’ I replied positively, ‘I know it to be nothing else.’”
Marshall and others tested the ore and were certain they’d found gold. Four days later Marshall rode to Sutter’s Fort and showed the samples to his employer. Sutter, too, was convinced.
They intended to keep secret their discovery, but word soon leaked of their gold find, and the valley filled with miners and merchants. By 1849 the boomtown of Coloma had a post office, as well as several mercantile stores, hotels, boardinghouses and gambling halls to serve the tens of thousands of prospectors and pioneers drawn to the area. The following year it became the seat of newly formed El Dorado County.
But things dried up quickly for Coloma. A downtown that boasted 5,000 souls in 1849 dwindled to a few hundred by 1851, as the rich placer deposits played out. Marshall’s sawmill lay in ruin a few years later. Many of Coloma’s extant buildings date from the post-rush 19th century, including St. John’s and Emmanuel churches, the El Dorado County Jail, the schoolhouse and Robert Bell’s store.
Sutter himself never profited from the gold fever that spelled the end of his New Helvetia colony, lamenting in 1857 in Hutchings’ Illustrated California Magazine, “What a great misfortune was this sudden gold discovery for me!” He sought compensation for the land he lost to squatters, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled his Mexican land grant invalid.
In 1854 murderers James Logan and William Lipsey had the unenviable distinction of being the first two men hanged in El Dorado County. The following year schoolteacher Jeremiah Crane became the third. Crane, who had a wife and family back east, had fallen in love with 16-year-old student Susan Newham and then murdered her for rebuffing him. The sheriff saved the schoolteacher from a lynch mob only to see his neck stretched in Coloma. Crane’s gallows request was to sing a macabre song he had composed: “I killed Susan Newham, as you have heard tell/I killed her because that I loved her so well.”
Gold brought many groups to Coloma —Anglos, Chinese, Irish, Mormons and Mexicans—and sometimes conflict between them. In 1861 Chinese and Irish miners became embroiled in a dispute over a plot of land near town. When a court ruled in favor of the Chinese, the Irish faction under James O’Donnell attacked and killed several Chinese. Authorities arrested 16 attackers, but most skipped town. Two restored buildings—the Man Lee and Wah Hop stores —survive from Coloma’s Chinatown.
James Marshall, the man who inadvertently started the rush, found himself the object of scorn when he tried to defend the Nisenan people, whom the gold-seekers uprooted. Marshall ultimately settled into a quiet existence in his Coloma cabin, raising grapes and making wine. In the 1870s he moved east to neighboring Kelsey, where he died in 1885. Marshall was buried at the site of Sutter’s Mill.
In 1890 the Native Sons of the Golden West [www.nsgw.org] dedicated a monument atop Marshall’s grave depicting him pointing to the spot of his gold discovery. He had always claimed, “Someday they’ll make a fuss over me.” In 1927 California set aside much of the town, Marshall’s cabin, his monument/tomb and the mill site as Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park [www.parks.ca.gov].
Originally published in the April 2012 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.