California Gold Rush: Discovery of Gold at Sutter’s Mill

Most of us who have studied American history are aware of the Forty-Niners—those intrepid souls who in 1849 left their homes to seek their fortunes in the California Gold Rush. But the Gold Rush actually began in early 1848, when gold was found at Sutter’s Mill.

Over the last two years, I have posted about once a month about travel along the Oregon Trail, focusing on events of 1847, the year in which my first historical novel is set. This year, I will post monthly on the California Gold Rush, focusing on the year 1848, before the “rush” to California from the eastern states began. My second novel takes place in part in California during the Gold Rush years.

I hope through the posts I write this year to give readers a sense of the difficulty of communication in the 1840s. Although gold was discovered in late January 1848, it was late in the year before the find became common knowledge in the East.

In many ways, 1848 was a turning point in the settling of the American West. The Mexican-American War was drawing to an end, and the United States acquired the land that would become California and much of the Southwest. The U.S. and Great Britain had peaceably agreed on the border between Oregon and Canada, granting the U.S. what became the states of Oregon and Washington.

James Marshall

James Marshall

As of the start of 1848, Johann Sutter, a Swiss immigrant to Mexican California, owned a large ranch along the American River that he called “New Helvetia” (“New Switzerland), a land grant from the governor of Mexico. He had built Sutter’s Fort to serve as the commercial center of his empire. In 1847, he hired a carpenter, James Marshall, to oversee construction of a sawmill that would become known as “Sutter’s Mill,” near what is now Coloma, California, and as of January 1848, Marshall was beginning work on the mill.

In late January 1848, while California was still technically owned by Mexico, James Marshall found gold. The accepted date of this discovery is January 24, 1848, but Marshall’s account lists the date as between January 18 and 20.

Gold nugget found by James Marshall (now in Smithsonian Institution)

Gold nugget found by James Marshall (now in Smithsonian Institution)

Here is Marshall’s account of this discovery in his own words:

While we were in the habit at night of turning the water through the tail race we had dug for the purpose of widening and deepening the race, I used to go down in the morning to see what had been done by the water through the night; and about half past seven o’clock on or about the 19th of January–I am not quite certain to the day, but it was between the 18th and the 20th of that month–1848, I went down as usual, and after shutting off the water from the race I stepped into it, near the lower end, and there, upon the rock, about six inches beneath the surface of the water, I DISCOVERED THE GOLD. I was entirely alone at the time. 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,” returned Scott, “that can’t be.”

I replied positively, “I know it to be nothing else.”

Perhaps January 24 is the date that Johann Sutter learned of the gold, because Marshall’s account continues:

Four days afterward I went to the Fort for provisions, and carried with me about three ounces of gold, which Capt. Sutter and I tested with nitric acid. I then tried it in Sutter’s presence by taking three silver dollars and balancing them by the dust in the air, then immersed both in water, and the superior weight of the gold satisfied us both of its nature and value.

Both Sutter and Marshall wanted to keep the gold find secret, because they wanted to finish the sawmill and be prepared to make a profit on the prospectors whom they knew would flood the area. But as we all know, word spread quickly—in California, though not to the rest of the world. Sutter’s Mill was never a success, because Marshall’s laborers left to seek gold.

Just days after this discovery, on February 2, 1848, Mexico and the U.S. signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, ending the Mexican-American War and ceding California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona to the United States for $15 million.

What if Marshall had picked up his nugget a few weeks earlier and the Mexicans had known there was gold in California? What if communications were instantaneous in 1848, as they are today?

How do you think history might have been different, if word of the Californian gold had reached the Mexican or U.S. governments before the war ended?

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  1. The song lyric comes to mind, “What a difference a day makes,” only in this case, ten, but who’s counting! So many things in history hinge on just such timing! Thanks for sharing your wisdom with us.

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