The Discovery Of Gold In California

By John A. Sutter in 1857

John Sutter

John Sutter

It was in the first part of January 1848 [January 24] when the gold was discovered at Coloma, where I was then building a sawmill. The contractor and builder of this mill was James W. Marshall, from New Jersey. In the fall of 1847, after the mill seat had been located, I sent up to this place Mr. P. L. Wimmer with his family, and a number of laborers from the disbanded Mormon Battalion; and a little later, I engaged Mr. Bennet from Oregon to assist Mr. Marshall in the mechanical labors of the mill. Mr. Wimmer had the team in charge, assisted by his young sons, to do the necessary teaming, and Mrs. Wimmer did the cooking for all hands.

I was very much in need of a new sawmill to get lumber to finish my large flouring mill, of four run of stones, at Brighton, which was commenced at the same time and was rapidly progressing; likewise for other buildings, fences, etc., for the small village of Yerba Buena, (now San Francisco).

In the City Hotel (the only one) at the dinner table, this enterprise was unkindly called “another folly of Sutter’s,” as my first settlement at the old fort near Sacramento City was called by a good many “a folly of his,” and they were about right in that because I had the best chances to get some of the finest locations near the settlements; and even well-stocked rancho’s had been offered to me on the most reasonable conditions, but I refused all these good offers and preferred to explore the wilderness and select a territory on the banks of the Sacramento.

It was a rainy afternoon when Mr. Marshall arrived at my office in the Fort, very wet. I was somewhat surprised to see him, as he was down a few days previous, and then, I sent up to Coloma a number of teams with provisions, mill irons, etc., etc. He told me then that he had some important and interesting news which he wished to communicate secretly to me, and wished me to go with him to a place where we should not be disturbed, and where no listeners could come and hear what we had to say. I went with him to my private rooms; he requested me to lock the door; I complied, but I told him at the same time that nobody was in the house except the clerk, who was in his office in a different part of the house; after requesting of me something which he wanted, which my servants brought and then left the room, I forgot to lock the doors, and it happened that the clerk opened the door just at the moment when Marshall took a rag from his pocket, showing me the yellow metal: he had about two ounces of it, but how quick Mr. Marshall put the yellow metal in his pocket again can hardly be described. The clerk came to see me on business and excused himself for interrupting me, and as soon as he had left, I was told, “now lock the doors; didn’t I tell you that we might have listeners?” I told him that he need fear nothing about that, as it was not the habit of this gentleman, but I could hardly convince him that he need not be suspicious. Then Mr. Marshall began to show me this metal, which consisted of small pieces and specimens, some of them worth a few dollars; he told me that he had expressed his opinion to the laborers at the mill that this might be gold, but some of them were laughing at him and called him a crazy man, and could not believe such a thing.

After having proved the metal with aqua fortis, which I found in my apothecary shop, likewise with other experiments, and read the long article “gold” in the Encyclopedia Americana, I declared this to be gold of the finest quality, of at least 23 carats. After this, Mr. Marshall had no more rest nor patience and wanted me to start with him immediately for Coloma; but I told him I could not leave as it was late in the evening and nearly supper time and that it would be better for him to remain with me till the next morning, and I would travel with him, but this would not do: he asked me only “Will you come tomorrow morning?”

Sutter's Sawmill 1851

James Marshall at Sutter’s Sawmill, Coloma, California, 1851.

I told him, yes, and off he started for Coloma in the heaviest rain, although already very wet, taking nothing to eat. I took this news very easy, like all other occurrences, good or bad, but thought a great deal during the night about the consequences which might follow such a discovery. I gave all my necessary orders to my numerous laborers, and left the next morning at 7 o’clock, accompanied by an Indian soldier, and vaquero, in heavy rain, for Coloma.

About halfway on the road, I saw at a distance a human being crawling out from the brushwood. I asked the Indian who it was: he told me, “the same man who was with you last evening.” When I came nearer, I found it was Marshall, very wet; I told him that he would have done better to remain with me at the fort than to pass such an ugly night here but he told me that he went up to Coloma, (54 miles) took his other horse and came halfway to meet me; then we rode up to the new Eldorado.

In the afternoon, the weather was clearing up, and we made a prospecting promenade. The next morning we went to the tail-race of the mill, through which the water was running during the night, to clean out the gravel which had been made loose to widen the race, and after the water was out of the race, we went in to search for gold.

This was done every morning: small pieces of gold remained on the bottom of the clean, washed bedrock. I went in the race and picked up several pieces of this gold, several of the laborers gave me some which they had picked up, and from Marshall, I received a part. I told them that I would get a ring made of this gold as soon as it could be done in California; and I have had a heavy ring made, with my family’s cost of arms engraved on the outside and on the inside of the ring is engraved, “The first gold, discovered in January 1848.” Now if Mrs. Wimmer possesses a piece which has been found earlier than mine Mr. Marshall can tell, as it was probably received from him. I think Mr. Marshall could have hardly known himself, which was exactly the first little piece among the whole.

Fort Sutter in Sacramento, California today by Kathy Alexander.

Fort Sutter in Sacramento, California 2009 by Kathy Alexander.

The next day I went with Mr. Marshall on a prospecting tour in the vicinity of Coloma, and the following morning I left for Sacramento. Before my departure, I had a conversation with all hands: I told them that I would consider it a great favor if they would keep this discovery secret only for six weeks so that I could finish my large flour mill at Brighton, which had cost me already about from 24 to 25,000 dollars – the people up there promised to keep it secret so long. On my way home, instead of feeling happy and contented, I was very unhappy and could not see that it would benefit me much, and I was perfectly right in thinking so, as it came just precisely as I expected.

I thought at the same time that it could hardly be kept secret for six weeks, and in this, I was not mistaken, for about two weeks later, after my return, I sent up several teams in charge of a white man, as the teamsters were Indian boys. This man was acquainted with all hands up there, and Mrs. Wimmer told him the whole secret; likewise, the young sons of Mr. Wimmer told him that they had gold and that they would let him have some too; and so he obtained a few dollars worth of it as a present.

Sutters Fort, 1849

Sutters Fort, 1849

As soon as this man arrived at the fort, he went to a small store in one of my outside buildings, kept by Mr. Smith, a partner of Samuel Brannan, and asked for a bottle of brandy, for which he would pay the cash; after having the bottle, he paid with these small pieces of gold. Smith was astonished and asked him if he intended to insult him; the teamster told him to go and ask me about it; Smith came in, in great haste, to see me, and I told him at once the truth – what could I do? I had to tell him all about it. He reported it to Mr. Samuel Brannan, who came up immediately to get all possible information, when he returned and sent up large supplies of goods, leased a larger house from me, and commenced a very large and profitable business; soon he opened a branch house of business at Mormon Island.

Mr. Brannan made a kind of claim on Mormon Island and put a tolerably heavy tax on “The Latter Day Saints.” I believe it was 30 percent, which they paid for some time until they got tired of it (some of them told me that it was to build a temple for the honor and glory of the Lord.)

So soon as the secret was out, my laborers began to leave me, in small parties first, but then all left, from the clerk to the cook, and I was in great distress; only a few mechanics remained to finish some very necessary work which they had commenced, and about eight invalids, who continued slowly to work a few teams, to scrape out the mill race at Brighton. The Mormons did not like to leave my mill unfinished, but they got the gold fever like everybody else. After they had made their piles, they left for the Great Salt Lake. So long as I have employed these people, they have behaved very well and were industrious and faithful laborers, and when settling their accounts, there was not one of them who was not contented and satisfied.

Then the people commenced rushing up from San Francisco and other parts of California in May 1848: in the former village, only five men were left to take care of the women and children. The single men locked their doors and left for “Sutter’s Fort,” and from there to the Eldorado. For some time, the people in Monterey and farther south would not believe the news of the gold discovery and said that it was only a ‘Ruse de Guerre’ of Sutter’s because he wanted to have neighbors in his wilderness. From then on, I got only too many neighbors and some very bad ones among them.

What a great misfortune was this sudden gold discovery for me! It has just broken up and ruined my hard, restless, and industrious labors, connected with many dangers of life, as I had many narrow escapes before I became properly established.

From my mill buildings, I reaped no benefit whatever, the mill stones even have been stolen and sold.

My tannery, which was then in a flourishing condition, and was carried on very profitably, was deserted, a large quantity of leather was left unfinished in the vats, and a significant quantity of raw hides became valueless as they could not be sold; nobody wanted to be bothered with such trash, as it was called. So it was in all the other mechanical trades I had carried on; all was abandoned, and work commenced or nearly finished was all left, to an immense loss for me.

Even the Indians had no more patience to work alone, in harvesting and threshing my large wheat crop out; as the whites had all left, and some white men had engaged other Indians to work for them, and they commenced to have some gold for which they were buying all kinds of articles at enormous prices in the stores; which, when my Indians saw this, they wished very much to go to the mountains and dig gold.

At last, I consented, got a number of wagons ready, loaded them with provisions and goods of all kinds, employed a clerk, and left with about 100 Indians and about fifty Sandwich Islanders (Kanakas) who had joined those which I brought with me from the Islands. The first camp was about ten miles above Mormon Island, on the south fork of the American River.

Sutters Mill Buildings

Sutters Mill Buildings

In a few weeks, we became crowded, and it would no more pay, as my people made too many acquaintances. I broke up the camp and started on the march further south, located my next camp on Sutter Creek (now in Amador County), and thought I should be alone. The work was going on well for a while until three or four traveling grog shops surrounded me, from one and eight, half to two miles distance from the camp; then, of course, the gold was taken to these places for drinking, gambling, etc., and then the following day they were sick and unable to work, and became deeper and more indebted to me, and particularly the Kanakas. I found that it was high time to quit this kind of business and lose no more time and money. I, therefore, broke up the camp and returned to the Fort, where I disbanded nearly all the people who had worked for me in the mountains digging gold. This whole expedition proved to be a heavy loss to me.

At the same time, I was engaged in a mercantile firm in Coloma, which I left in January 1849 – likewise with many sacrifices. After this, I would have nothing more to do with the gold affairs. At this time, the Fort was the great trading place where nearly all the business was transacted. I had no pleasure to remain there and moved up to Hock Farm with all my Indians, who had been with me from the time they were children. The place was then in charge of a Major Domo.

Coloma Valley

Coloma Valley

It is very singular that the Indians never found a piece of gold and brought it to me, as they very often did other specimens found in the ravines. I requested them continually to bring me some curiosities from the mountains, for which I always recompensed them. I have received animals, birds, plants, young trees, wild fruits, pipe clay, stones, red ochre, etc., etc., but never a piece of gold. Mr. Dana of the scientific corps of the expedition under Commander Wilkes’ Exploring Squadron told me that he had the strongest proof and signs of gold in the vicinity of Shasta Mountain and further south. A short time afterward, Doctor Sandels, a very scientific traveler, visited me and explored a part of the country in a great hurry, as time would not permit him to make a longer stay.

He told me likewise that he found sure signs of gold and was very sorry that he could not explore the Sierra Nevada. He did not encourage me to attempt to work and open mines, as it was uncertain how it would pay and would probably be only for a government.

So I thought it more prudent to stick to the plow, although I knew that the country was rich in gold and other minerals. An old attached Mexican servant who followed me here from the United States, as soon as he knew that I was here and who understood a great deal about working in placers, told me he found sure signs of gold in the mountains on Bear Creek, and that we would go right to work after returning from our campaign in 1845, but he became a victim to his patriotism and fell into the hands of the enemy near my encampment, with dispatches for me from General Micheltorena. He was hung as a spy, for which I was very sorry.

With this sudden discovery of the gold, all my grand plans were destroyed. Had I succeeded for a few years before the gold was discovered, I would have been the wealthiest citizen on the Pacific shore; but it had to be different. Instead of being rich, I am ruined, and the cause of it is the long delay of the United States Land Commission of the United States Courts, through the great influence of the squatter lawyers. Before my case will be decided in Washington, another year may elapse, but I hope that justice will be done by the last tribunal — the Supreme Court of the United States. By the Land Commission and the District Court, it has been decided in my favor.

The Common Council of the city of Sacramento, composed partly of squatters, paid Adelpheus Felch, (one of the late Land Commissioners, who was engaged by the squatters during his office) $5,000, from the fund of the city, against the will of the tax-payers, for which amount he has to try to defeat my just and old claim from the Mexican government, before the Supreme Court of the United States in Washington.

By John A. Sutter, 1857. Compiled and edited by Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated September 2022.

About the Author: The undisputed founder of California, pioneer Johann Augustus Sutter owned the land where gold was first discovered, beginning the famous California Gold Rush. When news of the gold find leaked out, his property was overrun by nearly 100,000 prospectors, and in the end, he lost everything. This article, written by Sutter, first appeared in Hutchings’ California Magazine in November 1857.

See our Gold Rush Slide Show HERE

Also See:

The California Gold Rush

Coloma – Gold Town to Ghost Town

Placerville – Hub of the Mother Lode

James Marshall – Discovering Gold in  California

John A. Sutter – Boom & Bust in California

Sutter’s Fort

Historical Accounts of American History