In the cold morning hours of January 24, 1848,
James Marshall, a construction foreman at Sutterís Mill, was inspecting
the water flow through the millís tail race. The sawmill, on the
banks of the American River in
was owned by John A. Sutter, who desperately needed lumber for the
building of a large flour mill. On that particular morning, Marshall
not only found the water to be flowing adequately through the mill, but
also spied a shiny object twinkling in the frigid stream. Stooping
to pick it up, he looked with awe at a pea-sized gold nugget lying within
He immediately went to visit Elizabeth Jane
"Jennie" Wimmer, the camp cook and laundress, who had grown up
in a prospecting family.
Ms. Wimmer used a lye
soap solution overnight to verify that the 1/3 ounce nugget Marshall
had found was true gold. Dubbing it the Wimmer Nugget, which was later
appraised at $5.12, Marshall gave it to her on a necklace. It would
later be displayed at the Columbian Exposition of 1893.
James Marshall at Sutter's Sawmill, Coloma, California,
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informed his boss, John Sutter, of his find. Sutter, a
German/Swiss immigrant who owned thousands of acres around the
Sacramento and American Rivers, had dreams of developing part of
his land into a utopian farming settlement named "Nuevo Helvetia"
(Spanish for "New Switzerland"). His main compound was known as
Sutter's Fort and had already become a destination for immigrants,
Party. More concerned with expanding his agricultural
empire, Sutter wished to suppress the information about the gold. But such a secret was too big to keep hidden, and before long, a
Francisco newspaper confirmed reports of several gold finds in the
area and miners began to flock to the area turning it from a sleeping
outpost to a bustling center of activity.
Even with the crudest
of mining tools, the earliest miners did well. All one had to do was
to dig down into a placer, and wash the pay dirt. The entire gold
country was open to all. No taxes were levied on what the miners
found. No towns or roads existed in the gold country. Every miner was
on his own, and nobody had to work for wages unless he wanted to.
On August 19, 1848
the New York Herald was the first newspaper on the East Coast of the
United States to confirm that there was a gold rush in California;
by December 5, 1848, even President James Polk would announce this
before Congress, significantly legitimizing the news.
News of gold, free for the taking,
continued to spread. By the end of summer the first gold seekers were
arriving from outside California.
The first immigrants were probably from
where American farmers had been settling since the early 1840ís. Next
came men from the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii). In the autumn, new
arrivals were coming from northern Mexico, and during the winter large
numbers came from Peru and Chile in South America. Still, there was
plenty of gold for all, and fresh discoveries were made daily. The
immense extent of the gold deposits was becoming clear.
As he predicted when he saw the gold nugget,
John Sutter was ruined as more and more of his agricultural workers left
in search of gold, squatters invaded his land, shot his cattle and stole
his crops. Sutter described it this way: "Everyone left, from the
clerk to the cook, and I was in great distress."
Though the great majority abandoned their
other activities to search for the precious metal, one enterprising Mormon