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Sesquicentennial of Marshall’s discovery of gold in California
Submitted By: XNGH Jason Thorn Date: May 08, 2010, 06:09:14 PM Views: 11435

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

John Augustus Sutter,
Victim of the Gold Rush

   Last time, we brought you the words of James Marshall, as he described the circumstances of his momentous discovery of gold in the tail race of the lumber mill he was building for John A. Sutter in the valley of the South Fork of the American River. Now, we present a bit more about Sutter himself, and the first wave of gold seekers to arrive as a result of that discovery.

   Sutter was a bankrupt merchant who had fled Germany to escape his creditors. Leaving his wife and four children in Germany, he wandered around the New World after crossing the Atlantic in 1834, and even suffered another bankruptcy. He felt that his future lay in a place where he could be the lord and master of all he surveyed.

   Sutter’s undeniable charm and amiability were sufficient for him to obtain letters of introduction from the commander of the Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Vancouver and the American consul in Honolulu. He then presented himself to the Mexican governor of California, Juan Bautista Alvarado, and was awarded a grant of approximately 50,000 acres of land in the central valley of California. Very lightly populated but tremendously fertile, this land had been mostly unused by the Mexicans, and Governor Alvarado was pleased to see someone of Sutter’s “stature” agree to take on the task of extending Mexican influence into the area. Sutter had to become a Mexican citizen to qualify for this land grant, and he took his responsibility seriously, building a stockade and fort beginning in 1839, and finished for the most part, in 1842. He took the title Captain, a rank he bestowed upon himself for imaginary service in the Swiss Guard of Charles X of France.

   New Helvetia, as he called it, was situated on a bit of high ground a mile or two from the confluence of the Sacramento and American Rivers. Clearing a path in the wild tangle of brush and tules along the American River, he was able to set himself up in a comfortable, but still somewhat primitive situation. He had brought some Kanaka workers from Hawaii; with them and some of the local Indians to help him in his endeavors, he established farming and ranching operations, and kept a small store in the fort.

   Sutter had escaped the turmoil of the “conquest” of California by Fremont in early 1847, and was named Indian subagent for the northern territory by Governor Kearny. He was able to hire all the able bodied, experienced and industrious men he needed, many of them Mormons, from the ranks of the discharged soldiers of that campaign. He found a good market, both in the newcomers and at San Francisco Bay, for his leather saddles, shoes, bridles and other goods. He had large fields of grain and large herds of cattle and horses (many bought on credit). He even established a small settlement at a location on the Sacramento River called Sutterville, which he envisioned would blossom into a city worthy of his name and territory. A twenty-six year-old Mormon Elder, Sam Brannan, operated several stores for the settlers in the area, and it was Brannan who would become California’s first millionaire, not Sutter.

   To most who met Sutter, he was a kind man, generous to his workers and visitors alike. He was well thought-of by most everyone except his creditors, for even though he and his many ventures appeared to prosper, he was almost continuously in debt, and unable to get clear of it. The Russians, for example, sold Ft. Ross, on the Mendocino coast, to Sutter, but were eventually able to collect only a small fraction of the agreed-upon price from him.

   It was for the need of lumber for his building projects that Sutter took James Marshall into a partnership, one which he thought would provide the lumber at a good price and would add to the merchandise he had for sale to the small but slowly growing population of the valley.

   After Marshall’s visit to show him the gold he had discovered in the tailrace of the sawmill under construction in Coloma, Sutter seemed to be in a good mood. He rode out to the sawmill with gifts for the mill hands and, as usual, a jug of aguardiente, brandy made from his grapes at the fort. He seemed to envision success at last. His wheat was expected to yield 40,000 bushels in the coming season. He had 12,000 cattle, 2,000 horses and mules, 10,000 sheep and 1,000 pigs. His Indian workers were so numerous that he had to provide 4 or 5 beeves a day to feed them.

   However, those same Indians had told him that gold was bad medicine and would cause him grief, for it belonged to a jealous demon who lived on a mountain. Sutter knew that the discovery of gold, no matter how small or great would cause disruptions in his plans. He knew that many would come in search for the gold, and his land and crops would be trampled, his stock would be taken, and he would be unable to complete his ambitious plans for an empire where he would be the master of all he surveyed.

   At Coloma, Sutter was the first California victim of the later common practice of “salting a mine” to attract nervous investors. The mill hands had found gold in the area that they placed in the mill race for Captain Sutter to find for himself. Hoping that Sutter would be pleased and share the bottle of aguardiente, Marshall had arranged the “find.” Sutter then offered to double the sawmill’s workmen’s wages to keep the find quiet.

   Having no title to the land in the area, Sutter arranged a meeting with the local Indians and, in exchange for some clothing and food, negotiated a 3 year lease on the mill land and about a dozen square miles in the surrounding area. Sending news of this agreement to now (Military) Governor Richard B. Mason for his approval, Sutter was informed that Indians could not legally cede property and the agreement was rejected.

   Soon, Sutter’s employees were talking of the find and even Sutter himself, perhaps weakened by his customary nips on the aguardiente, was known to talk of it to visitors. His workers began putting down their tools and wandered off to look for gold for themselves. By May of 1848, word of the discovery had reached San Francisco, but citizens there were in the midst of a land-rush, selling newly formed lots to each other; they had no time for a gold rush. Newspaper reports in May, 1848, labeled the gold discovery “as superb takein as was ever got up to guzzle the gullible.”

   Sam Brannan was not so sure, and visited Coloma to see for himself. It was real, and he was convinced that if he could persuade enough people in San Francisco that the reports were true, he would experience a bonanza of his own at his store in Sutterville. After procuring all the picks, shovels, pans, and camping gear he could get his hands on, he carried a bottle of gold to San Francisco and strode through the streets there, waving the bottle and shouting his now famous slogan, “Gold! Gold from the American River!”

   It worked. By the end of May, scores of San Franciscans had abandoned their real estate dealings and had fled for what were already described as “the diggins.” Hundreds more followed from Monterey, San Jose, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. Soldiers and sailors deserted, servants disappeared, and settlers left their crops. Newspaper editors, in reverse of their previous mockery of the discovery, left their presses and joined the scramble of businessmen, merchants, saloonkeepers and even city officials who had abdicated their offices. By July, 4000 would-be miners were spread all along the mountains north and south of Marshall’s original discovery.

   Those early prospectors found a truly incredible treasure which could indeed be picked up by hand or panned out of almost any shovel full of gravel. Gold was readily available for the taking. It was not so much mined as it was harvested. By the end of 1848, somewhere between 6 and 10 million dollars worth of gold was taken by the lucky early miners.

   By now, word had reached newspapers in the east, and Sutter’s problems had just begun, as the world was ripe for the Gold Rush by the Forty-niners just around the corner of the calendar.

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