On This Day: Gold Found at Sutter’s Mill

January 24: Gold!

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.”

Amador City © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Sutter Creek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Jackson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Placerville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Angels Camp © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Check out these articles to learn more:

Worth Pondering…

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 

California Gold

Get a taste of frontier life as you retrace the history of California’s boom-and-bust Gold Rush, a defining event of the 1800s

Pan for the glittering metal and see merchants in period dress recreate life as it was in the 1850s at Columbia State Historic Park. Climb aboard an inflatable raft for a bump-and-splash whitewater raft trip down the American River. Discover Placerville known during the gold-rush era as Hangtown.

Placerville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The most popular whitewater-rafting river in the West, the American tumbles through the Gold Country, an inviting jumble of churning rapids, deep pools, and tumbling cascades. While its rich riparian ecosystem long supported Native American tribes, the next wave of humans—the legendary ’49ers—saw the waterway as means to their fortune, panning for gold in the river silt.

Placerville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While remnants of old mining equipment still poke up in or near the river, the rush for gold has mostly been replaced by the rush for adrenaline. Each of the American’s three forks serve up their own style of watery fun, and outfitters offer everything from family-friendly half-day floats to white-knuckle multi-day adventures.

Placerville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though it only has a population of around 10,681, the number and variety of attractions to be found in and around Placerville will be a pleasant surprise to visitors.

After news spread about the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill on January 24, 1848, thousands began arriving from all over the United States, and even from abroad. People from all walks of life wanted to make their fortune in the area’s streams and hills.

Placerville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Merchants and others hoping to profit from the miners soon followed. The “gold rush” was born, and by 1849 it was going full bore.

It has been estimated that at least 39,000 people arrived in California by sea, and another 42,000 via overland routes, by the end of 1849. Though Coloma was the initial rendezvous point for those who became known as “Forty-Niners,” camps soon sprung up elsewhere in the area, including what eventually became known as Hangtown.

Placerville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What is now State Route 49 follows approximately the same course as the trail used by miners—and the merchants who supplied them—as they moved between Coloma and Hangtown. But mining was hard work, and not everyone was willing to do it for long. Some resorted to stealing gold from others, resulting in many robberies and even some murders.

Placerville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Before the name Hangtown was applied to the camp, it was referred to as Old Dry Diggins (because the miners had to cart the dry soil to running water for washing out the gold).

Placerville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Details seem to vary by some accounts, but in 1849 an impromptu jury met there to decide the fate of three accused murderers. After a trial that lasted about 30 minutes, someone reportedly shouted “Hang them!” Up to 1,000 miners gathered, and the sentence was carried out. Those first known hangings in the Mother Lode were carried out at a giant white oak near the center of the camp (where Coloma and Main streets intersect today).

Placerville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Word spread rapidly, and other hangings were later carried out at the same place. The location soon became known as Hangtown.

Placerville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

By 1854, Hangtown was the third-largest town in California—behind only San Francisco and Sacramento in total population. Los Angeles, at 15th place, had a population of only 541 voters. That same year, Hangtown was incorporated and renamed Placerville. The name was chosen for the deep-reddish-brown soil that the gold was mined from. Some of the methods used included excavating pits, digging tunnels and hydraulics (eroding the soil by shooting large volumes of water under high pressure).

Placerville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many fortunes were made. Merchants from near and far flocked to the rapidly expanding town.

Placerville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Still a robust community today, Placerville also serves as the El Dorado County seat. Through a variety of attractions and sponsored activities that are put on within the historical section throughout the year, people can now visualize what it was like during that wild period.

Placerville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Though terrible fires tore through and destroyed most of the historical section, visitors can still see buildings of stone or brick that were constructed as early as 1852

Worth Pondering…

All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

—J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

Eureka: Exploring California Gold Country

If you love history, beautiful scenery, and small towns, Gold Country is a trip worth taking

Nestled against the western slope of the Sierra Nevada the foothills offer outdoor adventure, farm-fresh produce, and relaxed wineries.

On January 24, 1848, James W. Marshall, a carpenter from New Jersey, picked up a few shining flecks of gold in the tailrace of the sawmill he and John Sutter were constructing on the South Fork of the American River in the valley the Nisenan Indians knew as Cullumah.

Placerville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

James Marshall was building the sawmill to supply lumber for Sutter’s Fort in the Sacramento Valley. John Sutter had ambitious dreams of creating an empire—the New Helvetia in the Sacramento Valley.

Placerville © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The gold discovery site and several historic buildings in present day Coloma became part of California’s state park system in 1927. Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park features a statue of James Marshall pointing at his gold discovery site, full-size replica of the original sawmill, over 20 historic buildings (many original and restored), living history demonstrations, video presentations, and costumed volunteers. Visitors can try their luck panning for gold and enjoy hikes and picnics under the riparian oak woodlands. 

Placerville during the Gold Rush © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The discovery of gold was truly “dumb luck.” John Sutter and James Marshall started out as partners in the lumber business. In the fall of 1847, construction began on a sawmill, and by early 1848, it was ready to be tested. However, the tailrace, which carried water away from the mill was too shallow, and had to be deepened so the water would not back up and prevent the mill wheel from turning. It was during his inspection of the watercourse that Marshall found the shiny flecks. Four days later, the sample was confirmed to be real gold.

Amador City © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

By May 1848, San Francisco was reported to be “half empty” as every able-bodied man—doctors, lawyers, gamblers, merchants, miner, and more—headed for Coloma. A great number of Oregon Trail pioneers now had a good reason to head south. News also spread around the world. Many Chinese workers were lured to California, too, by the promise of gold.

The “easy” placer gold at Coloma played out within the first 10 years, sending prospectors into the surrounding hills where many hard rock mines were established.

Amador City © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Soon after the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill sparked the California Gold Rush, the small town of Old Dry Diggings sprang up. Later in 1849, the town earned its most common historical name, Hangtown. The name was changed in 1854 when the City of Placerville was incorporated. Placerville was named after the placer deposits found in the river bed.

Sutter Creek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Other towns followed. One of California’s smallest incorporated cities, with a population of just over 200 residents, Amador City is a little city with a lot to offer. It all started when Jose Marie Amador, a wealthy California rancher found gold outcroppings were discovered on both sides of the creek.

Sutter Creek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

As the “easy” gold was mined out on the upper part of the creek, mining explorations gradually moved. Founded in 1853, the Keystone Mine was the city’s most famous gold mine and a major reason for the town’s growth. It reached a depth of 2,680 feet and before closing in 1942 produced an estimated $24 million in gold.

Jackson © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Jackson, the city that produced more than half the gold pulled from the Mother Lode, home to the deepest mines on the continent, the Argonaut and the Kennedy both in excess of 5,000 feet deep, is the largest city in the historically rich and beautiful wine country of Amador County.

Amador County Wine Country © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Once the richest mining area in the Mother Lode, today Jackson’s main industry is tourism.

Moke Hill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Founded in 1848, Moke Hill, as the locals called Mokelumne Hill, was among the richest of the digs. Claims in some areas were confined to sixteen square feet and many fortunes were made. It was the county seat in the early days and, although it held no exclusive rights, it was known as one of the most violent, bawdy towns in the Mother Lode.

Angels Camp © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Several good strikes were made by early miners at Angels Camp. The source of gold played out quickly but hard rock mining kept the gold industry flourishing in Angels until recently. The town is honeycombed with tunnels from the many successful mines.

Most of the 49ers never intended to remain in California permanently. Most meant to seek their fortune and return to wherever they called home. But many sent for their families and stayed, causing a culturally diverse population to grow rapidly between 1848 and 1852.

Murphys © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Over the next 50 years, roughly 125 million ounces of gold was taken from the hills in the California Gold Country.

Worth Pondering…

There are not many places in the world where you can get to the beach in an hour, the desert in two hours, and snowboarding or skiing in three hours. You can do all that in California.

—Alex Pettyfer