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California Sesquicentennial

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"This day some kind of mettle was found in the tail race that looks like goald first discovered by James Martial the Boss of the Mill." —Henry Bigler's diary (and spelling), January 24, 1848.

"Gold mine found.—in the newly made race-way of the saw-mill recently erected by Captain Sutter....California, no doubt, is rich in mineral wealth; great chances here for scientific capitalists."

—from the newspaper Californian, March 15, 1848.

A century and a half after the event, California begins a celebration of the gold strike, the Gold Rush, and the coming of statehood. It's a big state, big enough to justify taking nearly three years to celebrate a sesquicentennial.

California had just become American territory when Marshall picked up the historic nuggets. His discovery wasn't the first gold strike in California, but it was the first to make the headlines. It's almost as though the virus responsible for gold fever had to await America's arrival to find a proper host.

The relatively small number of Americans who visited or settled in California during the Mexican era may have included a few "scientific capitalists." And many would have agreed with Richard Dana's prophetic observation from the 1830s, "In the hands of an enterprising people, what a country this might be!"

After word of the Sutter's Mill gold strike got out, thousands of enterprising people arrived. They were, as described by one observer in 1849, "...a mixed mass of human beings from every part of the wide earth, of different habits, manners, customs, and opinions, all, however, impelled onward by the same feverish desire of fortune-making....We are in fact without government—a commercial, civilized, and wealthy people, without law, order, or system."

Then as now, things moved fast in California. While remaining commercial, reasonably civilized, and wealthy, it achieved law that same year when it adopted a constitution. System was not far behind, and order followed incrementally.

January, 1848: Beginning the rush— the men, the mill, the metal

California's transformation started small. There is general agreement that it was James Marshall who picked up the pieces of gold that got the wheels turning, that the date was January 24, 1848, and the place the millrace at Sutter's sawmill in Coloma.

The two men most prominent on the scene at the very beginning of the Gold Rush were ruined by it. The sawmill, where the gold was found, failed as an enterprise. The metal itself was more enduring; gold inspired such activity that it brought far more to California, and America, than its cash value alone could have bought.

The men James Marshall

"Hey, Boys, by God, I believe I've found a gold mine." Various versions of that quotation are attributed to Marshall. He had indeed found a gold mine, but not for himself.

A carpenter, Marshall came to California from New Jersey. In 1847 he agreed to build a sawmill in partnership with John Sutter to supply lumber for Sutter's grand expansion plans. During construction, he regularly inspected the channel dug to supply water to the mill and it was on one of these he picked up the gold.

Four days later, he went to Sutter's Fort, about 45 miles off, to inform Sutter and further verify his belief the metal was gold. As diarist and free-speller Henry Bigler put it on January 30, "Our metal has been tride and proves to be goald..."

Marshall couldn't enforce his mining claim against aggressive '49ers, nor did he manage to pick up much more gold. Unsuccessful as a prospector, Marshall became a blacksmith. Attempts at a career as speaker and author failed. By this time, drink had become his enemy. In 1872 he was granted a pension by the legislature. It soon was halved, then discontinued. Appearing at the legislature to argue his case while drunk did him no good at all.

Marshall died in poverty in 1885 and was buried on a Coloma hill. In 1889 a monument was built in his memory atop the hill overlooking the discovery site. It cost $25,000, and 10,000 people, including the governor, attended its dedication in 1890. Dead, Marshall created the job and income he couldn't alive. The monument's groundskeeper earned $75 per month.

John Sutter:

"My best days were just before the discovery of gold." Just before the discovery of gold, John A. Sutter was rich in property, if not cash. He owned two forts; two large land grants; many thousands of sheep, cattle, and hogs; vineyards; orchards; wheat fields; and the right personally to enforce the law in his domain. But he wanted a flour mill, too. And to produce the lumber for it, he built a sawmill. Then things started to slide.

Born in Germany (1803) and raised in Switzerland, Sutter came to California by way of New York, St. Louis, Santa Fe, Oregon, Honolulu, and Sitka, arriving in 1839 minus his wife and five children but with the apparently self-awarded title of Captain.

He surely was as enterprising as anyone to whom Dana might have been referring, and he succeeded in getting a lot of California into his own industrious, if improvident, hands.

After the gold discovery and the arrival not just of America but thousands of Americans, the bottom fell out. Squatters used his land and took his livestock. One of his land grants was disallowed in the courts. Old debts proved impossible to pay. His house burned down. Until 1878, he received a small pension from the state, but he died in poverty in 1880.

The mill

In the winter of 1847-48, Marshall was in charge of a work crew building the sawmill. The open-air, wood-frame structure had a short career. Although the area soon swarmed with miners, demand for lumber apparently wasn't what it might have been, and the mill wasn't used after 1850.

In 1862 a flood destroyed the deteriorating structure. Its exact site was rediscovered in 1947 when excavators found some of its hand-hewn timbers. The mill now near the spot is a replica; some of the original timbers are displayed nearby.

The metal

Gold is useful stuff for relatively limited purposes in a purely practical way. Perhaps universal agreement that it's worth something, always was and always will be, explains the ability it historically has shown to enable considerable numbers of people in overcoming what morality, fear, and rationality they might otherwise have had.

When Sutter wanted to determine what Marshall had found really was gold, he began by reaching for the "G" volume of Encyclopedia Americana for some practical information. The "G" volume of VIA's Encyclopedia Britannica is a little dry to be much help when it comes to gold's psychological hold on people, but it does give a good account of this elusive element's more prosaic properties. Here's a trio of nuggets from it and other sources:

• Gold as an alloy is measured in karats. Pure gold is 24 karat. Twelve karat gold is an alloy with 50 percent gold.

• Its value fluctuates. A recent edition of The Wall Street Journal listed gold at $315.60 per troy ounce. In Gold Rush times, the value was more like $8-$16. At just over 31 grams each, troy ounces are a bit heavier than ounces in the familiar avoirdupois system of weights that we use for just about everything else.

• That first nugget picked up by James Marshall was described by Jenny Wimmer, the camp cook: "Except for the color, it looks like a piece of spruce gum, just out of the mouth of a schoolgirl—full of indentations."

For more information about gold country, visit

Oakland Museum of California

The Sesquicentennial’s biggest opening event is a three-part exhibition at Oakland’s Museum of California. Its sonorous prospectus describes it as seeking "to expose stereotypes, discover and illuminate new truths, and provide an informed surrounding in which to reflect on the lasting—and still resonating—impact of California’s Gold Rush."

That seems a tall order, but it might accurately have added that the exhibitions promise to be fascinating and a lot of fun, too. The umbrella title, "Gold Rush! California’s Untold Stories," includes three exhibitions: "Gold Fever! The Lure and Legacy of the California Gold Rush," "Art of the Gold Rush," and "Silver and Gold: Cased Images of the Gold Rush."

"Gold Fever" shows the event’s impact on California’s economy, population, environment, and cultural diversity. You’ll enter a re-created archaeological dig, full of 1850s goods from buried ships, piers, and buildings. From the buried Gold Rush-era waterfront comes the stern of the most famous ship in San Francisco’s sunken fleet, the Niantic, and hundreds of other items recently discovered. The large show also has tableaux of miners’ lives, and objects relating to many other aspects of the era.

"Art of the Gold Rush" includes paintings and drawings documenting the Gold Rush. Portraits, landscapes, and genre scenes depict the era’s brief life in a sometimes blunt, sometimes humorous, occasionally nostalgic (things move fast in California), and frequently poetic way.

"Silver and Gold" is a collection of daguerreotypes and ambrotypes made between 1848 and 1860. Portraits include Native Californians, Spanish and Mexican Californios, and miners. Early lenses also captured the gold fields and effects of hurried gold extraction on the land.

The museum plans a program of special events on the exhibitions’ opening day, January 24 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. It includes gold panning and storytelling for children, strolling musicians, actors performing Gold Rush scenes, and a dedication ceremony with Governor Wilson. "Gold Rush!" runs through July 26 at the Oakland Museum of California, 1000 Oak Street. Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Friday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Closed Monday. Adult admission: $8. Information: (510) 238-2200.

Coloma. It all started in Coloma, where Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park plans a big weekend January 23-25. It begins with a Friday evening gala where "an elegant dinner, fine wines, music, theater vignettes, and commemorative gifts await guests in formal or 1848 evening attire" at the fairgrounds in nearby Placerville (6 p.m., $45/person).

During the weekend at the park there will be living history presentations, theatrical entertainment, gold panning, a wagon train, and an appearance by Governor Wilson. Admission is $6/person. Access is by shuttle from Placerville or Auburn; you can’t drive to the park that weekend. Information: (916) 622-3470.

PBS television has scheduled a documentary, "The Gold Rush," to air January 20.

Super Bowl XXII (January 25) in San Diego features a "choreographed extravaganza" exploring California’s cultural, ethnic, historic, and economic heritage in its pre-game show.

Some highlights among future Sesquicentennial events:

Tall ships gather in San Francisco July 2-5, 1999. Other stops include Los Angeles and San Diego.

(June) is a ten-day celebration of railroad history and technology centered at one of the country’s best museums, the California State Railroad Museum in Old Sacramento.

The Highway 50 Association Wagon Train, augmented by 13 other trains to form one grand string of wagons, comes into California from Nevada to meet the tall ship Californian at Stockton (1999).


This article was first published in January 1998. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.