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.

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