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 

Towns along the Gold Rush Trail: Amador City & Sutter Creek

Gold! The cry went up from Sutter’s Mill and brought tens of thousands stampeding into California from the four corners of the world.

COVID-19 (Coronavirus) has impacted RV travel right now. As RVers, travel is our way of life and, if you’re like us, you’re feeling the frustration of being limited to one location without the freedom to travel. 2020 is certainly presenting new challenges and now, more than ever, we realize that the freedom to travel is something we can’t take for granted. Now is a great time to start thinking of places you’d like to go—especially bucket-list destinations.

Amador City © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Travel back to the Gold Rush era on Highway 49 where charming mining towns dot the route, surrounded by the panoramic vistas and bubbling streams of the western Sierra Nevada foothills

Sutter Creek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848 changed the course of California’s and the nation’s history. Although most of the mining camps faded after the mines closed, tourism has brought some of them back to life. 

Amador City

Amador City © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Amador City © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The original mining-era buildings are now home to unique shops including Victorian clothing, custom quilts, local handmade gifts, a kitchen store, shops offering unique house and garden items, garden art, and antiques and books from the Gold Rush Era. You will also find wine tasting, an old fashioned soda fountain and lunch counter, an artisan bakery, and gourmet lunches and dinners. 

Amador City © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Imperial Hotel (from 1878) affords visitors an opportunity to stay the night and enjoy Amador City’s Gold Country small town way of life.

Amador City © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It all started several hundred yards upstream from today’s town site. Jose Marie Amador, a wealthy California rancher, mined along this nameless creek in 1848-1849. There, gold outcroppings were discovered on both sides of the creek. The Original or Little Amador Mine and the Spring Hill Mine were probably the county’s first gold mines. Soon, the creek, the town, and a new county carried Amador’s name.

Amador City © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As the “easy” gold was mined out on the upper part of the creek, mining and encampments gradually moved to South Amadore where French Gulch flows into the creek. This is the current site of Amador City. 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.

Amador City © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Keystone’s early years were plagued with production and ownership problems; luckily, a rich new vein was discovered in 1866, enabling the mine to yield a monthly gold production average of $40,000, making the Keystone one of the most lucrative California mines. In those days there were an estimated four to six thousand residents in Amador City.

Amador City © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Amador City’s oldest structure, built around 1855, is the center portion of the Amador Hotel. Up Main Street is the stone Fleehart Building (now the Whitney Museum) was the Wells Fargo Building and dates from the 1860s.

Sutter Creek

Sutter Creek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The town takes its name from the creek, and the creek takes its name from John A. Sutter. Sutter owned the saw mill in Coloma where the first Mother Lode gold was found in 1848. Unable to stop the tide of gold-seekers flowing over and destroying his lands, Sutter decided to follow the call of gold, trying in vain to recoup what the Gold Rush had taken from him. He arrived where Sutter Creek is currently located in 1848, and upon finding a likely spot, began mining along the creek.

Sutter Creek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A small settlement began to grow, centered around a cloth tent where the miners met on rainy Sundays. The place eventually took the name of its most prominent citizen, and was called Sutter’s Creek, Sutter, Sutterville, and finally, plain old Sutter Creek.

Sutter Creek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But Sutter wasn’t a miner, and many of the other miners in the area didn’t much approve of his using servants to dig for gold. He left the area a short while later, returning with his men to Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento. Sutter would never mine again.

Sutter Creek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sutter Creek achieved prominence as the supply center for the many mines that circled the town. It was hard rock mining more than placer mining that helped the town to boom. Mines owned by Alvinza Hayward (the Gold Country’s first millionaire), Hetty Green (at one time the country’s richest woman), and Leland Stanford (at one time California’s governor and the founder of Stanford University) included the Union Mine (later renamed the Lincoln Mine) and the Old Eureka Mine. Sutter Creek remained a full- fledged mining town, boasting some of the best producing deep rock mines in the Mother Lode.

Sutter Creek © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, the town’s locals mine the visitors who come from around the world, drawn by both history and small town hospitality.

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