California’s most famous gold rush dates to the morning of January 24, 1848 when James Marshall made his customary inspection of the sawmill he was building for John Sutter. During the previous night, Marshall had diverted water through the mill’s tailrace to wash away loose dirt and gravel and on that fateful day he noticed some shining flecks of metal left behind by the running water.
He picked them up and showed them to his crew and, as he later told the story: “My eye was caught by something shining in the bottom of the ditch. . . . I reached my hand down and picked it up; it made my heart thump, for I was certain it was gold. . . Then I saw another.”
James Wilson Marshall, a foreman at John Sutter’s lumber mill near Coloma, California was on the edge of the American River when he spotted something glittering in the sun on January 24, 1848. When he brought the shiny flakes to his boss, Sutter ordered him to be quiet while they secretly tested the material.
As Sutter feared, Marshall had found gold. The two men did not know it yet but California’s fabled Gold Rush was about to explode and California and the United States would change forever.
Sutter was dismayed because he owned nearly 50,000 acres and knew that his dreams of an agricultural empire would be ruined if crazed gold prospectors rushed in and overran his property. Despite all his efforts at secrecy, however, rumors started spreading.
Men began to write letters; by the summer newspapers on the East Coast were announcing the news and in an address to Congress on December 5, 1848, President James Polk—a strong supporter of America’s Manifest Destiny—officially confirmed the discovery of gold in California helping to spur the Gold Rush and ensuring the acceleration of America’s westward expansion.
California was still part of Mexico at the time Marshall discovered gold but Polk took care of that by acquiring California with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican-American War on February 2, 1848. At the end of the year Polk delivered his address to Congress and the California Gold Rush erupted the next year as 90,000 49ers rushed to California in 1849 looking for the gold Polk confirmed was there. California was admitted into the Union the next year as part of the Compromise of 1850.
Between 1848 and 1855 about 300,000 prospectors flooded into California, mostly Americans but tens of thousands also came from as far away as China, Hawaii, Europe, Peru, and Australia. It is estimated they recovered over $7 billion in gold. It all began with that January 24, 1848 discovery by Marshall, a find that touched off an irresistible gold fever that made men abandon what they were doing and head off to California to strike it rich.
Today, a few mines and the remains of several boom towns have been preserved in a variety of state parks. Most of them, including the Marshall Gold Discovery site, the fabulous Empire Mine, the historic town of Columbia, the rich gold deposits at Plumas Eureka, and the controversial hydraulic mining pits at Malakoff Diggins are located in or near the Mother Lode region of the central Sierra Nevada foothills.
The riverfront embarcadero and commercial district of the Gold Rush preserved at Old Sacramento teemed with activity as would-be miners disembarked from riverboats and regrouped before setting out for the Mother Lode. Outfitters and other merchants there thrived on the gold trade portrayed in the re-created Huntington & Hopkins Hardware Store. The mining boom that Captain John Sutter himself set in motion nearly destroyed his Nuevo Helvetia agricultural empire headquartered at Sutter’s Fort. A portion of his Mexican land grant became the bustling Gold Rush boomtown of Sacramento.
While gold-seekers were pouring through Sacramento and into the Sierra, deposits of the precious metal were also discovered in the Klamath Mountains of northwest California. Today, ruins of the historic town of Shasta and the Chinese temple at Weaverville Joss House State Historic Park recall the days of the Klamath gold rush.
In combination, the Mother Lode and the Klamath gold fields produced the modern-day equivalent of more than $25 billion in gold before the turn of the century with operations continuing at Empire Mine until as late as 1956.
Between the 1860s and the turn of the century, prospectors found gold in a number of locations in California. One of the Wests largest authentic ghost towns is Bodie in the eastern Sierra Nevada, now a state historic park that preserves the abandoned buildings of the rough-and-tumble mining town that sprang up in response to a gold strike in 1877.
In Southern California, three historic gold mining areas lie within the state parks. Park headquarters at Red Rock Canyon State Park is on the site of what was once an important community in a region that produced several million dollars in gold primarily in the 1890s -including one 14-ounce nugget.
At Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, visitors can tour the remains of the Stonewall Mine which produced $2 million worth of gold between 1870 and 1892.
At Picacho State Recreation Area on the lower Colorado River, visitors can view Picacho Mill, the last visible remnant of Picacho, a gold mining community that boasted a population of 2,500 in 1904.
Check out these articles to learn more:
- Towns along the Gold Rush Trail: Amador City & Sutter Creek
- The Gold Rush Trail: California Highway 49
- California Gold
All the gold in California
Is in the bank in the middle of Beverly Hills
In somebody else’s name.
So if you’re dreamin’ about California,
It don’t matter at all where you’ve played before.
California’s a brand-new game.
Tryin’ to be a hero, winding up a zero,
Can scar a man forever right down to your soul.
Living on the spotlight can kill a man outright
‘Cause everything that glitters is not gold.
—written by Larry Gatlin and recorded by Larry Gatlin & the Gatlin Brothers Band in 1979