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It’s All His Fault - The Story of James Marshall and His Discovery of Gold
Submitted By: XNGH Jason Thorn Date: May 08, 2010, 06:07:11 PM Views: 11823

Originally published in the Hewgag Monitor by Tom Barry in February, 1998

   James Wilson Marshall, 35 year old carpenter and Jack-of-all trades, came to California from New Jersey by way of Oregon. He appears to us now as having been born to failure, for he lost a homestead in Kansas because of illness, and another in California by the hands of others. He made the most momentous discovery in the history of California at the sawmill in Coloma, but never made a dollar in the diggings.

   In an interview with J. M. Hutchings, of Hutching’s California Magazine, Marshall gave his own account of the events leading up to his discovery of about 50¢ worth of gold, which would precipitate the flood of immigration into California and the production of $978 million in gold in the next 25 years alone. His story follows.


   “Being a millwright by trade, as there was a ready cash sale for lumber, I concluded to seek a location in the mountains and erect a mill, to supply the valley with lumber. Some time in April, 1847; I visited New Helvetia, commonly known as the “Fort,” where I made my resolution known to John A. Sutter, Sen., and requested of him an Indian boy, to act as an interpreter to the mountain Indians in the vicinity of the American River - or Rio del los Americanos, as it was then called. At first he refused, because, he said that he had previously sent several companies, at various times, and by different routes, for that purpose, all of whom reported that it was impossible to find a route for a wagon road to any locality where pine timber could be procured, and that it was the height of folly to attempt any such thing.

   “Capt. Sutter at length, however, promised me the desired interpreter, provided I would stock some six or eight plows for him first, of which he was immediate want, which I readily agreed to do. While I was employed upon this job there was much talk at the Fort concerning my contemplated trip to the mountains; and Messrs. Gingery, P.L. Wimmer and McLellan having resolved also to take a trip, with the same object in view, came where I was working, and asked me where I expected to find a road and timber, and I promptly gave them my views and directions.

   “They departed, I believe in company, but finally separated, and P.L. Wimmer found pine timber and a road, on what is now known as the Sacramento and Diamond Springs road, and about the 12th day of May, Gingery and Wimmer commenced work, about thirteen miles west of the (now called) Shingle Spring House.

   “On the 16th of May, having completed my work for Capt. Sutter, I started, with an Indian boy - Treador, and W.A. Graves (who is now residing in Butte County, and who had assisted me in my work, and heard the conversation between myself, Gingery, Wimmer, and McLellan) accompanied me for the purpose of seeing the mountains. On the 18th of May we entered the valley of Culluma; and on the 20th Gingery joined our company. We then traveled up the stream now called Weber Creek - the Indian name for which is Pul-Pul-Mull - to the head of the creek; thence higher in the mountains until we arrived at the South Fork of the American River, where it divides into two branches of about equal size; from whence we returned by Sly Park and Pleasant Valley to the Fort.

   “On my arrival I gave Capt. Sutter an account of my trip, and what I had discovered. He thereupon proposed to me a partnership; but before we were ready to commence operations, some persons who had tried, in vain, to find Culluma, reported to Sutter that I ‘had made a false representation,’ for they could find no such place. To settle matters, Capt. Sutter furnished me with a Mission Indian, who was Alcalde of the Cosumnes tribe, as an interpreter and guide - trusting partly to the Indian’s report, as to the propriety of the proposed co-partnership.

   “The report which I had made on my first trip having been fully confirmed by observations on the second, the co-partnership was completed, and about the 27th of August, we signed the agreement to build and run a saw-mill at Culluma. On the third day (I think) afterwards, I set out, with two wagons, and was accompanied by the following persons, employed by the firm of Sutter & Marshall, viz: P.L. Wimmer and family, James Barger, Ira Willis, Sidney Willis, Alexander Stephens, Wm. Cunce, James Brown, and Ezekiah Persons.

   “On our arrival in the Valley we first built the double log cabin, afterwards known as Hastings & Co’s store. About the last of September, as Capt. Sutter wanted a couple of capable men to construct a dam across the American River at the gristmill - near where the Pavilion now stands - I sent the two Willises, as the most capable; (Wm. Cunce being in feeble health, left about the same time;) and I received Henry Bigler, Israel Smith, Wm. Johnston and Evans in return; and shortly afterwards I employed Charles Bennet and Wm. Scott, both carpenters. The above named individuals, with some ten Indians, constituted my whole force.

   “While we were in the habit at night of turning the water through the tail race we had dug for the purpose of widening and deepening the race, I used to go down in the morning to see what had been done by the water through the night; and about half past seven o’clock on or about the 19th of January - I am not quite certain to a day, but it was between the 18th and the 20th of that month - 1848, (Ed. Note: Henry Bigler wrote in his diary that the date of the discovery was the 24th. Bigler’s date has been commonly accepted as the actual date.) 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 was entirely alone at the time. I picked up one or two pieces and examined them attentively; and having some general knowledge of minerals, I could not call to mind more than two which in any way resembled this - sulphuret of iron, very bright and brittle; and gold, bright, yet malleable; I then tried it between two rocks, and found that it could be beaten into a different shape, but not broken. 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) with the pieces 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.’
“Mr. Scott was the second person who saw the gold. W. J. Johnston, A. Stephens, H. Bigler, and J. Brown, who were also working in the mill yard, were then called up to see it. Peter L. Wimmer, Mrs. Jane Wimmer, C. Bennet, and I. Smith, were at the house; the latter two of them were sick; E. Persons and John Wimmer, (a son of P.L. Wimmer), were out hunting oxen at the same time. About 10 o’clock the same morning, P. L. Wimmer came down from the house and was very much surprised at the discovery, when the metal was shown him; and which he took home to show his wife, who, the next day, made some experiments upon it by boiling it in strong lye, and saleratus; and Mr. Bennet by my directions beat it very thin.

   “Four days afterwards I went to the Fort for provisions, and carried with me about three ounces of the gold, which Capt. Sutter and I tested with nitric acid. I then tried it in Sutter’s presence by taking three silver dollars and balancing them by the dust in the air, then immersed both in water and the superior weight of the gold satisfied us both of its nature and value.

   “About the 20th of February, 1848, Capt. Sutter came to Coloma, for the first time, to consummate an agreement we had made with this tribe of Indians in the month of September previous, to wit: - that we live with them in peace, on the same land.

   “About the middle of April the mill commenced operation and, after a few thousand feet of lumber was abandoned; as all hands were intent upon gold digging. In December, ‘48, Capt. Sutter came again to Coloma, and sometime in that month sold his interest in the mill to Messrs. Ragley & Winters, of which new firm I became a member. The mill was soon again in operation, and cut most of the lumber of which the town of Coloma was built.

   “The first piece of gold, which I found, weighed about fifty cents. Mr. Wimmer, having bought a stock of merchandise some time about May or June, 1848; and Mrs. Wimmer being my treasurer, used four hundred and forty dollars of my money to complete the purchase; and among which was the first piece of gold which I had found. Where that went, or where it is now, I believe that nobody knows.”

   Thus ends Marshall’s own story. Rather than making him wealthy, the Gold Rush ruined him. He, within a year of his discovery, was looked upon unfavorably by many whites in Coloma for taking the defense of some Indians, who he felt had been slaughtered unjustly, rather than held for trial in a case of the murder of some miners.
He began prospecting for gold himself, but was never successful. Other miners often followed him, thinking that he had some special skill at finding gold. They often became abusive towards him when he did not lead them to riches. After a few futile years, he became a blacksmith at Kelsey, a small town between Coloma and Placerville. He drank heavily. He also toured in a lecture series telling his story and selling autographed cards.

   In 1872, he petitioned the State for a pension of $200 a month, in recognition of his “considerable service to the State.” It was granted, but cut in half by the next legislature to meet. In 1878, his pension was discontinued completely after he showed up drunk at the assembly chamber in Sacramento, where he had gone to petition for improvement of his stipend. He died in 1885, after several years of abject poverty, and was buried on a hill above Coloma, where his seemingly innocuous discovery 37 years before had changed the world.

   John Augustus Sutter had fared no better: Once one of California’s wealthiest and most influential citizens, his fields and stock were literally taken from him by the miners; debts and other obligations forced him to sell much of his holdings, and he died a broken man in Washington D.C. in 1880 while nearing success in his pursuit of a claim for reimbursement of $125,000 from the government for aid he had given to California-bound immigrants in past years.

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Scrappy Doo
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June 27, 2010, 11:36:23 AM
Great story! I am always interested in stories of James Marshall. This story caught my eye. Thanks for the info, Ron Marshall

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