James Marshall's discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill in
in 1848, started the
California Gold Rush.
Born in 1810, Marshall followed in his
father's footsteps by becoming a skilled carpenter and wheelwright. When
his father died in 1834, he headed westward, spending some time in
Illinois and Indiana
before settling in
Missouri. There, he contracted malaria and at the
advice of his doctor, he moved westward again.
In July, 1845, he arrived in the
Valley and began to work for John Sutter as a carpenter. Fairing well
there, he improved his economic prospects, purchasing a ranch and began to
raise cattle. In 1846, he joined John C. Fremont's California Battalion,
and participated in the Bear Flag Revolt, a bid to seize control of
California from Mexican control.
When he returned to his land, he found his
cattle had been stolen and was forced to sell his land. He then formed
a partnership with John Sutter
to build a sawmill. It was at the sawmill that, on January 24, 1848, he
discovered gold in the water flow through the millís tail race.
He immediately advised Sutter, who
swore all his employees to secrecy. But, the "news" was just too big,
and in no time it leaked out.
As word quickly spread, some 80,000 miners flooded the
area, extending up and down the length of the
Sacramento Valley, and
overrunning Sutterís domain. Ironically, neither Sutter nor Marshall ever
profited from the discovery that should have made them independently
wealthy. Though Marshall tried to
secure his own claims in the gold fields, he was unsuccessful. His sawmill
also failed, as every able-bodied man took off in search of gold. Soon,
the area surrounding Sutter's Mill became the first mining boom town in
Embittered, Marshall left the area, drifting
from place to place in California, looking for yet another
rich strike. In 1857, he returned to Coloma and started a vineyard in the
early 1860's. Initially profitable, his endeavors as a vintner would also
fail when, by the end of the decade, increased competition and less demand
put him out of business once again.
Marshall then returned to prospecting and
wandering about the state. He soon partnered up with another miner in a
gold mine near Kelsey, California.
However, the development of the mine proved expensive and yielded nothing,
leaving the unlucky Marshall once again close to bankruptcy.
In 1872, Marshall had a turn of luck when
State Legislature awarded him a two-year pension in recognition of his
role in an important era in California
The pension was renewed in 1874 and 1876,
but lapsed in 1878. According to the legend, Marshall then went to
visit the legislature assembly in person to get the pension renewed
again. However, when a brandy bottle dropped from his pocket and
rolled on the floor, no additional pension was awarded.
Marshall continued to live in Kelsey, in a
spartan homesteader's cabin, earning money from a small garden until his
death on August 10, 1885. His body was then taken to Coloma and buried on
the property where he had owned his vineyard. Overlooking the south fork
of the American River, a monument was erected over the grave site in 1890.
Atop the monument is a bronze statue of Marshall, pointing to the spot
where he changed California
of America, updated May, 2017.