Popular Foundations of Identity: The Narrative of Gold’s Discovery in California

February 19, 2012 § Leave a comment

Popular Myth of James W. Marshall’s Discovery of Gold:

          When James W. Marshall discovered gold in 1848, Alta California and the western continent that would become the United States had only just begun its integration into the larger global economy. By 1898, the fiftieth anniversary of that seminal event came to bear on many Californians. Those who identified with the United States’ westward expansion saw themselves on the vanguard edge of the last frontier. The now famous “frontier thesis,” extolled by Frederick Jackson Turner had only just been declared, and California was but the latest and most promising frontier. The “frontier” according to Turner had closed when open land was gone. And to Californian’s in 1898, little seemed to be left of the frontier wilderness legacy of Alta California and the California Gold Rush. San Francisco had become the Pacific Metropolis in the eyes of many. The legacy of Marshall’s discovery in 1898, suggested that the social development of American California was founded on a single event, a single man. The Californian identity around the turn-of-the century was one of a pioneer legacy.

          Printed below is the story of gold’s discovery as presented in California’s Golden Jubilee souvenir pamphlet. The narrative had already been molded and changed since it was first told in 1848-49, as you will read. Official historian of the Society of California Pioneers, John Hittell, when presented with contradictory evidence of the date of discovery, spent a decade tracking down the sources that would speak the truth. By 1893, Hittell presented his findings. But what this change in the narrative suggests is more than a changing date of discovery, but the uncertainty of popular myth and the identities in which they are built upon. Little changed in regard to those who identified with this pioneer myth. However, the fate of John W. Marshall in his later years demonstrates that narrative truth had little influence on the popular myth of California’s birth as an American republic.

[Source Transcription]

The Story of the Discovery of Gold

          It was in the fall of 1847 that Marshall began building that famous sawmill which incidentally led to his discovery of gold. Marshall was in the employ of CAPTAIN JOHN A. SUTTER, a prominent man connected with the pioneer era. He was born of Swiss parents in Baden, February 28, 1803, and was there reared and educated. He served in the army of France until he was thirty years of age, and then emigrated to the United States. His main object in coming was to found a Swiss colony, but while examining the region about St. Charles, Missouri, he lost all his effects by the sinking of the steamer in the Mississippi River, and so abandoned the project. He then set out with a party of trappers, under Captain Tripp of the American Fur Company, to cross the Rocky Mountains. Arriving at For Vancouver, he took ship fro Honolulu, and from there came to San Francisco. He then revived his colonizing scheme, choosing the Sacramento River country for the scene of its foundation.

          Accompanied by a small party of ten white men, he built a fort in the wilderness a few miles below where Sacramento City now stands, which afterwards became famous as Sutter’s Fort. Here he lived in feudal simplicity. At first the Indians waged war upon him, but he, while defending himself and his small band against their attacks, began civilizing them, and in time, such was his influence, employed them as laborers. In course of years the settlement increased and became very prosperous, raising grain and cattle, and trading in furs and hides. Sutter himself was a man of liberal education and of refined manners; in addition, he was brave and generous, and was universally like and respected.

         In 1847 the business of the settlement necessitated a sawmill and a flour mill, and the construction of these mills was entrusted to Marshall. JAMES WILSON MARSHALL was born in New Jersey in 1812, and brought up to the trade of his father, a coach and wagon maker. When about twenty-one years of age, he emigrated to Indiana, where he worked for a time at carpeting. Leaving that State, he sojourned for a while in Illinois, whence he made his way to the Platt Purchase, in the State of Missouri. here he engaged in farming and trading, but finally determined to come to California in May, 1844. As the safest way for reaching California, Marshall, with a portion of the company, took the route through Oregon, where they wintered, and starting out the next spring came on to California. Reaching Sutter’s Fort in the month of july, 1845, Marshall there made a halt, working afterwards most of the time for Captain Sutter.

           When the Bear Flag war broke out Marshall joined the American party, and did good service in the field. Hostilities ended, he returned to the fort and was soon after employed to take charge of the mill-building business, and enterprise that had some time before strongly urged Captain Sutter to engage in.

           And now we cannot do better than continue the story in the words of an article written by Mr. John S. Hittell, the well-known author and pioneer, published in the Century Magazine for January, 1891:

The place chosen for this mill was in the small valley of Coloma, 1500 feet above the level of the sea, and forty-five miles from Sutter’s Fort, from which it was accessible by wagon without expense for road-making. Good yellow pine timber was abundant in the surrounding hills; the water power was more than sufficient; there were opportunities to make a secure dam and race with small expense, and there was little danger of loss by flood.”

“Sutter left the plans and construction of the mill, as well as the selection of the site, to Marshall, and on the 27th of August the two signed an agreement of partnership under which Sutter was to furnish money, men, tools and teams, and Marshall was to supply the skill for building and managing.

          When the project of the sawmill was under consideration some Mormons arrived at New Helvetia and solicited employment. They had belonged to the Mormon battalion, which, after enlisting in Nebraska for one year, marching ot the Pacific by way of the Gila, and garrisoning San Diego, had been mustered out at Los Angeles on the preceding 16th of July. They were on their way to Salt Lake, but at the fort received letters advising all who could not bring provisions for the winter to remain in California until the following spring. They were sober, orderly, peaceful, industrious men, and Sutter hired them to work at his flour mill and saw mill. He sent six of them to Coloma. Besides these, Marshall had three “Gentile” Laborers, and about a dozen Indians. All the white men were natives of the United States.

Image of an autograph of John W. Marshall declaring what he thought was the day of the gold discovery - January 19, 1848.

          For four months these men worked at Coloma, seeing no visitors, and rarely communicating with the fort. The mill had bean nearly completed, the dam was made, the race had been dug, the gates had been put in place, the water had been turned in to the race to carry away some of the loose dirt and gravel, and then had been turned off again. On the afternoon of Monday, the 24th day of January, Marshall was walking in the tail-race, when, on its rotten granite bedrock, he saw some yellow particles, and picked up several of them. The largest were about the size of grains of wheat. They were smooth, bright, and in color much like brass. He thought they were gold, and went to the mill, where he told the men that he had found a gold mine. At the time little importance was attached to his statement. it was regarded as a proper subject for ridicule.

          Marshall hammered his new metal and found it malleable; he put it into the kitchen fire, and observed that it did not readily melt nor become discolored; he compared its color with gold coin, and the more he examined it the more he was convinced that it was gold. The next morning he paid another visit to the tail-race, where he picked up other specimens; and putting all he had collected, about a spoonful, on the crown of his slouch hat, he went to the mill, where he showed them to the men as proof of his discovery of a gold mine. The scantiness in the provision supply gave Marshall an excuse for going to the fort, though he would probably not have gone at this time if he had not been anxious to know Sutter’s opinion of the metal. He rode away, and, according to Sutter’s diary, arrived at the fort on Friday, the 28th. Sutter had an encyclopedia, sulphuric acid, and scales, and with the help of these, after weighing the specimens in and out of water, he declared that they were undoubtedly gold.



  • Ridge, Martin, and Frederick Jackson Turner. Frederick Jackson Turner: Wisconsin’s Historian of the Frontier: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1986.


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