Although some specimens of gold were collected in North Carolina and Virginia previous to the American Revolution, no excitement about the subject arose until the discovery in California in 1848. Before then, the gold-miner had pursued his occupation quietly, and without ever dreaming of enormous riches suddenly acquired; but, with the discovery on the Pacific Coast, all was changed. Gold had been found in California prior to this time; for Hakluyt (in his account of the voyage of Sir Francis Drake, along the Pacific Coast in 1579) said, “There is no part of the earth to be taken up wherein there is not a reasonable quantity of gold and silver.”
Although this statement was highly overdrawn, it probably contained a basis of truth; for the Mexicans found placer-gold near the Colorado River at various intervals between 1775 and 1828. Still, these discoveries were regarded as unimportant; and even so late as 1835, when Forbes wrote his History of California, he said, “No minerals of any particular importance have yet been found in Upper California, nor any ores of metals.” Three years later, the placers of San Francisco, 45 miles northwest of Los Angeles, were discovered. The deposit of gold was neither extensive nor rich; but it was worked steadily for twenty years.
In 1841, the exploring expedition of Commodore Wilkes visited the coast; and its mineralogist, James D. Dana, made a trip overland from the Columbia River, by way of Willamette and Sacramento Valleys, to San Francisco Bay; and in the following year he published a work on mineralogy, in which was mentioned the discovery of gold in Sacramento Valley, and of auriferous rocks in Southern Oregon. Dana did not regard his discovery as of any practical value; and, if he said any thing about it in California, no one heeded his words. Nevertheless, many persons believed the country was rich in minerals; and on May 4, 1841, Thomas O. Larkin, at that time United States consul in Monterey, wrote in an official letter to James Buchanan, who was then Secretary of State, saying: “There is no doubt but that gold, silver, quicksilver, copper, lead, sulphur, and coal mines are to be found all over California; and it is equally doubtful whether, under their present owners, they will ever be worked.”
Seven years later, on January 19, 1848, ten days before the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, and three months before the ratified copies were exchanged, — James W. Marshall, while engaged in digging a race for a sawmill at Coloma, about 35 miles eastward from Sutter’s Fort, found some pieces of yellow metal which he and the half-dozen men working with him at the mill imagined were gold. Feeling confident that he had made a discovery of great importance, but knowing nothing of chemistry or gold mining, he could not prove the nature of the metal, or tell how to obtain it in paying quantities. Every morning he went down to the race to look for gold; but the rest of his companions regarded Marshall as very wild in his ideas, and continued their labors upon the mill and in sowing wheat and planting vegetables. The swift current of the mill-race washed away a considerable body of earthy matter, leaving the coarse particles of gold behind, so Marshall’s collection of specimens continued to accumulate, and his associates began to think there might be something in his gold mine, after all. About the middle of February, one of the party employed at the mill went to San Francisco for the purpose of learning whether this metal was precious, and was there introduced to Isaac Humphrey, who had washed for gold in Georgia. The experienced miner saw at a glance that the true stuff was before him, and, after a few inquiries, was satisfied as to the richness of the deposits. He made immediate preparation to go to the mill, and tried to persuade some of his friends to go with him; but they thought it would be only a waste of time and money, so he went with Bennett for his sole companion.
Arriving at Coloma on March 7th, he found work at the mill going on as though no gold existed in the neighborhood. The next day he took a pan and spade, and washed some of the dirt from the bottom of washing the mill-race in places where Marshall had found his specimens, for gold and in a few hours declared the mines to be far richer than any he had seen or heard of in Georgia.
He now made a rocker, and went to work earnestly washing for gold and everyday he found an ounce or more of metal. The men at the mill made rockers for themselves, and all were soon busy in search efforts of the shining stuff.
Everything else was abandoned; yet the rumor of the discovery spread slowly. In the middle of March, Pearson B. Reading, the owner of a large ranch at the head of the Sacramento Valley, happened to visit other Sutter’s Fort; and, hearing of the mining at Coloma, he went there to see it. He said, that, if similarity of formation could be regarded as proof, there must be gold mines near his ranch so, after observing the method of washing, he went away, and in a few weeks was at work on the bars of Clear Creek, nearly 200 .miles in a northwesterly direction from Coloma.
A few days after Reading left, John Bidwell, formerly a representative of the northern district of the State in the lower House of Congress, came to Coloma; and the result of his visit was the organization of a party of Indians belonging to his ranch to wash for gold on the bars of Feather River, 75 miles from Coloma. Thus, the mines were opened at several distant points.
The following was the first printed notice, in a California newspaper published in San Francisco, of the discovery: “In the newly-made Printed raceway of the sawmill erected by Captain Sutter on the American Fork, gold has been found in considerable quantities. One discovery person brought thirty dollars to New Helvetia, gathered there in a short time.”
On May 20th, the same paper, announcing that its publication would be suspended, said, ” The whole country, from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and from the seashore to the base of Sierra Nevada, resounds with the sordid cry of ‘Gold, gold, gold!’ while the field is left half planted, the house half built, and every thing neglected but the manufacture of picks and shovels, and the means of transportation to the spot where one man obtained a 128 dollars worth of the real stuff in one day’s washing; and the average for all concerned is 20 dollars per day.”
Towns and farms were deserted, or left to the care of women and children, while rancheros, wood-choppers, mechanics, vaqueros, and soldiers and sailors who had deserted, or obtained leave of absence, devoted all their energies to washing the auriferous gravel of the Sacramento River. Never satisfied, however great their profits, they were continually looking for new places which might yield them two or three times as much as they had made before. Thus the area of their labors gradually extended; and, at the end of 1848, miners were at work in every large stream on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, from the Feather River to the Tuolumne River (a distance of a 150 miles), and also at Reading’s diggings in the northwestern corner of the Sacramento Valley.