James Marshall: California’s Gold Discoverer

6/12/2006 • California Gold Rush, Wild West

If luck were a critical factor in the discovery of gold that initiated the California Gold Rush, probably the unluckiest man of that period was no other than the original discoverer himself, James Wilson Marshall. Few people know about Marshall’s ironically tragic life after he made his great discovery, from which he did not profit; he died with assets barely sufficient to cover his funeral expenses. Marshall’s gold discovery more than 150 years ago arguably began the modernization of California.

The events that set the world in motion to the new El Dorado began almost by accident–John Sutter decided to build a sawmill in partnership with his employee, James Marshall, in 1847. Born on October 8, 1810, in New Jersey, where his great-grandfather had served as a signer of the Declaration of Independence, the young Marshall received an adequate education for that era. He also was taught his father’s trade as a carpenter and wheelwright. His early years were marked by conflicts with his stern Baptist father and rejection by two young women, each of whom he had hoped to marry. Marshall never did marry.

Hoping to get on with his life under better circumstances, young James headed west, drifting into the Ohio Valley during the 1830s and for a while settling in Missouri. In 1844, he arrived in Oregon by wagon train. After spending a long, wet winter doing carpentry in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, Marshall soon wandered south to California where he worked for Sutter, making tools, furniture, spinning wheels, looms and virtually anything else that could be made from wood. In 1846, the restless Marshall joined the Bear Flag Rebellion and served under John C. Frémont as the Mexican War spread into California. In 1847, having been discharged, he returned to Sutter’s employ.

Marshall convinced Sutter that a partnership in a sawmill in the Sierra Nevada foothills would be a profitable venture, and he set out to find a suitable location. On the south fork of the American River, 45 miles northeast of Sutter’s Fort, near a Maidu Indian village called Cullumah (Coloma), Marshall began construction. He enlisted the services of local Indians and Mormon veterans of the Mexican War to build the mill, which was nearly complete by late 1847. Each night Marshall directed the river’s flow through the millrace to allow erosion to deepen the channel and carry away the debris from the previous day’s work.

On January 24, 1848, during his regular morning inspection, he made the discovery that would change the course of California and even American history. He spotted a gleam in the bottom of the ditch, scooped up a handful of gravel, examined it closely and concluded that he had found what appeared to be gold. Before taking samples to Sutter, who had financed the building of the mill, Marshall conducted crude tests to better determine the authenticity of his find by comparing flakes with a $5 gold piece and pounding a nugget on an anvil. He knew that real gold was soft and malleable and would not shatter like fool’s gold–iron pyrite or mica. Additional tests at Sutter’s Mill convinced the partners that Marshall indeed had found gold. They decided to keep the discovery as secret as possible. Surprisingly, their orders to remain silent generally were followed. For the time being at least, workers at the mill continued to perform their usual tasks, remained reasonably silent and prospected individually on their own time.

Although most Californians who heard of the strike doubted its significance, by May 1848 word had reached San Francisco when a Mormon merchant, Sam Brannan, waved a quinine bottle filled with glittering dust at San Franciscans. ‘Gold,’ he shouted, ‘Gold, gold from the American River!’ Within days, half of the city’s population had departed, and within weeks, the news had spread as far south as distant, sleepy San Diego.

During 1848, Marshall and Sutter tried in vain to claim ownership of the Coloma property and charge a commission for any gold found by other miners. Only a few of the most naive newcomers paid Marshall any money or respected his self-proclaimed property rights. By the end of 1848, he was forced to sell one third of his timber and mill rights to raise money. He haggled with the eager prospectors so forcefully that they became enraged to the point of finally attacking the millhands and driving Marshall from the site of his discovery. Despite prior appropriation, the greedy miners in their furious rush to get rich quick showed Marshall and Sutter no respect or restraint.

At that point, the bewildered, depressed Marshall seriously undermined his own future. For whatever reasons, he began to claim supernatural, mystical powers that allegedly allowed him to locate the richest gold deposits. His refusal to reveal the location of these so-called rich diggings only angered resentful miners, who even threatened to lynch him if he did not lead them to new sources of treasure. Marshall was forced to flee for his life and try to start over as just another prospector. However, his identity was so widely and well known that miners hounded him wherever he went.

By 1853, Marshall could stomach no more. He packed a few supplies on his back and sought to hide out in the hills. A quotation from his memoirs suggests his plight at the time: ‘I was soon forced to again leave Coloma for want of food. My property was swept from me, and no one would give me employment. I have had to carry my pack of thirty or forty pounds over the mountains, living on China rice alone. If I sought employment, I was refused on the reasoning that I had discovered the goldmines, and should be the one to employ them; they did not wish the man that made the discovery under their control….Thus I wandered for more than four years.’

In time, failed mining and other business ventures deeply embittered Marshall. He believed that the world–or at least the state–owed him something for his remarkable discovery. Every financial setback he suffered he interpreted as a conscious effort by somebody to deprive him of what he considered to be his divine rights. His eccentric behavior alienated all but a few friends, leaving him a virtual recluse. This was an ironic turn of events, since at one time large numbers of miners had been willing to follow him anywhere in search of gold.

In 1872, he received some compensation for his contribution to California’s gold-crazed growth. The state Legislature awarded him a $200-per-month pension. Marshall was 62 years old at the time. Shortly thereafter, he moved to Kelsey, a few miles east of Coloma, where he used the money to open a blacksmith shop. He worked there and lived in the Union Hotel until his death on August 10, 1885. In the meantime, his state pension had been cut in half after 1874 and eliminated entirely in 1876. During his last years, Marshall, who had become an obvious alcoholic, was forced to live by handyman jobs, handouts and the sale of his autograph on special cards for 50 cents each. An attempted lecture tour failed to sustain a profit, in part because Marshall was a poor speaker.

Margaret A. Kelly, Marshall’s friend during his embittered old age, wrote that ‘probably no man ever went to his grave so misunderstood, so misjudged, so misrepresented, so altogether slandered as James W. Marshall.’ Although possibly true, it should be noted that Marshall’s self-destructive, often bizarre behavior contributed to his misfortune. Even before his famous discovery, he was known as a person who told tales about spiritual visions and claimed to have heard strange voices.

On May 3, 1890, a monument of the man whose discovery unleashed the force and fury of the California Gold Rush was officially dedicated with an elaborate program attended by thousands. The statue shows the former carpenter pointing at the spot where he allegedly found the first flakes of gold. It was financed by the Native Sons of the Golden West and an appropriation by the state legislature. Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park in Coloma also commemorates the gold discovery and contains artifacts and memorabilia regarding the man himself. An authentic replica of the sawmill still operates, and a few old gold rush buildings remain intact from Coloma’s glory days.

Harassed and unappreciated throughout much of his adult life, Marshall was a tragic victim of nature’s great lottery. Ironically, he has been remembered in death as one of California’s more influential–though accidental–history-makers. The original nugget he found, which has long belonged to the Bancroft Library at the University of California in Berkeley, is called the Wimmer Nugget after Peter L. Wimmer, Marshall’s assistant in supervising the Indians and others who dug the tailrace of Sutter’s Mill. Wimmer’s wife tested the metal by boiling it with homemade soap to assure that it would emerge untarnished. Despite the involvement of others in determining that Marshall indeed had discovered gold, one would think that the nugget should have been named in his honor–the oversight being just one more of the many ironic twists of fate that plagued Marshall’s troubled life.

A final irony is that Marshall was not, as is generally assumed, the original discoverer of gold in California. The metal was mined at least as early as the beginning of the 19th century, if not before. California Indians gave gold to the mission padres in return for trading goods. According to the late California historian W. H. Hutchinson,’such minor amounts…did not stimulate any gold seeking expeditions of consequence…because the Franciscans had seen the evils wrought by mining upon the native population of Mexico and did not wish to see such havoc repeated in California.’

Padre Luis Antonio Martinez of Mission San Luis Obispo did, however, operate a modest gold mine in his district in 1829. And in 1841, Baptiste Ruelle, a French Canadian fur trapper who had worked for the Hudson’s Bay Company, uncovered a gold deposit near Los Angeles, according to John Bidwell, organizer of the first emigrant wagon train from Missouri to California.

Early gold discoveries such as these generally were unpublicized and were of only local interest. Still, small shipments of gold dust turned up in the trade between merchants in New England and missionaries and rancheros in California.

A vaquero named Francisco Lopez is credited with making the first commercially significant, well-documented gold discovery on March 9, 1842, in Placerita Canyon about 35 miles northwest of Los Angeles. According to legend, Lopez fell asleep under an old oak tree after tending cattle on a nearby rancho. When he awoke, he unearthed some wild onions–with which to season his lunch of dried beef or jerky–and found glittering gold flakes clinging to the roots. Within two months, about 100 miners, mostly Mexican, were working the diggings, which produced gold for several years. It is estimated about $80,000 in gold was taken from the canyon before the shallow deposits played out.

Oddly enough, the first gold sent from California to the U.S. mint in Philadelphia did not come from James Marshall or Coloma but from Placerita Canyon. Don Abel Stearns, a native of Massachusetts who became a naturalized Mexican citizen and large landowner in California, shipped 20 ounces of gold to the East. It was another six years before James Marshall made the discovery that created his reputation, mistakenly, as the original discoverer of California gold. Unlike the earlier discoveries, however, his find was like a shot heard around the world.

This article was written by Richard H. Peterson, Ph.D. and originally appeared in the December 1997 issue of Wild West. Peterson has published extensively in the mining history of California and the West, including numerous book reviews, articles and three books. The best-known of the latter is The Bonanza Kings: The Social Origins and Business Behavior of Western Mining Entrepreneurs, 1879-1900. Suggested for further reading: James Marshall, a Biography, by Theressa Gay; Sutter’s Fort, Gateway to the Goldfields, by Oscar Lewis; The California Gold Discovery, by Rodman Paul; and The Gold Discovery Journal, by Azariah Smith.

Note: An abbreviated version of this article was published in the January 1997 issue of the International California Mining Journal, and this version appears here with the permission of that publication’s publisher/editor.

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