James Wilson Marshall was born October 8, 1810 in New Jersey.
Like many pioneers before him, James left New Jersey in 1834 and headed west.
After spending time in Indiana and Illinois, James settled in Missouri in 1844, and began farming along the Missouri River.
It was there that James contracted malaria, a common affliction in the area. On the advice of his doctor, James left Missouri in hope of improving his health.
James joined a wagon train heading west and arrived in Oregon’s Willamette Valley in the spring of 1845.
James then left Oregon in June 1845 and headed south along the Siskiyou Trail into California, eventually reaching Sutter’s Fort, California in mid-July of 1845.
James soon met John Sutter, the founder of Sutter’s Fort.
Sutter hired James to work at his sawmill, and to conduct minor carpentry around Sutter’s Fort.
Sutter also helped James purchase two leagues of land on the north side of Butte Creek (a tributary of the Sacramento River) and provided him the opportunity to raise cattle.
It was here that James began his second job as a farmer.
Soon after this, the Mexican-American War began in May 1846.
James volunteered and served under Captain John C. Frémont’s California Battalion during the Bear Flag Revolt.
When James left the battalion and returned to his ranch in early 1847, he discovered that all his cattle had either strayed or been stolen.
With his sole source of income gone, James Marshall lost his land.
James soon entered into a partnership with Sutter for the construction of another sawmill.
James was to oversee the construction and operation of the mill, and would in return receive a portion of the lumber. After scouting nearby areas for a suitable location, James eventually decided upon Coloma, located roughly 40 miles upstream of Sutter’s Fort on the American River.
James proposed his plan to Sutter, and construction began in late August.
The work crew consisted mainly of local Native Americans and veterans of the Mormon Battalion on their way to Salt Lake City, Utah.
Construction continued into January 1848 until it was discovered that the ditch that would drain water away from the waterwheel was too narrow and too shallow for the volume of water needed to operate the saw.
James decided to use the natural force of the river water to excavate and enlarge the area. This could only be done at night, so as not to endanger the lives of the men working on the mill during the day.
Every morning James would examine the results of the previous night’s excavation.
On the morning of January 24, 1848, James was examining this channel below the mill when he noticed some shiny flecks in the channel bed.
As later recounted by James W. Marshall:
“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 carpenters bench making the mill wheel) with the pieces in my hand and said, “I have found it.”
“What is it?” inquired Scott.
“Gold,” I answered.
“Oh! no,” replied Scott, “That can’t be.”
I said,–“I know it to be nothing else.”
The metal was confirmed to be gold after members of James’s crew performed tests on the metal—boiling it in a lye solution and hammering it to test its malleability. James, however, still primarily concerned with the completion of the sawmill, permitted his crew to search for gold only during their free time.
James Marshall returned to Sutter’s Fort, four days later, the war had ended and California was about to become an American possession. James shared his discovery with John Sutter, who performed further tests on the gold and reported to James that the gold was “of the finest quality, of at least 23 karat,” (96% pure).
News of James Marshall’s gold discovery soon reached around the world.
The immediate impact for James Marshall was negative.
The sawmill failed when all of the able-bodied men in the area abandoned everything to search for gold.
Before long, arriving hordes of prospectors forced James off his land.
James Marshall soon left the area without profiting from his discovery of gold.
James Marshall did not return to Coloma until 1857 and started a vineyard in the 1860s. That vineyard venture also ended in failure towards the end of the decade, due mostly to higher taxes and increased competition.
James himself then turned to prospecting in the hopes of finding success.
He became a partner in a gold mine near Kelsey, California but the mine yielded nothing and left James practically bankrupt.
The California State Legislature awarded James Marshall a two-year pension in 1872 in recognition of his role in this important era of California history.
This pension was renewed in 1874 and 1876 but lapsed in 1878.
James Marshall, penniless, eventually ended up living in a small cabin until he died August 10, 1885.
In 1886, members of the Native Sons of the Golden West, Placerville Parlor #9 felt that the “Discoverer of Gold” deserved a monument to mark his final resting place.
In May 1890, five years after Marshall’s death, Placerville Parlor #9 of the Native Sons of the Golden West successfully advocated the idea of a monument to the State Legislature, which appropriated a total of $9,000 for the construction of the first such monument erected in California.
A statue of James Marshall stands on top of the monument, pointing to the spot where he made his discovery in 1848.
The monument was rededicated October 8, 2010 by the Native Sons of the Golden West, Georgetown Parlor #91 in honor of the 200th Anniversary of James W. Marshall’s birth.
Now WE know em
- Historic Sutter’s Creek Gold Mine Reopens (missionmining.wordpress.com)
- Museum brings California Gold Rush to life (utsandiego.com)