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On This Day: Gold Discovered at Sutter’s Mill in California

Last updated: April 15, 2023

On Jan. 24, 1848, James W. Marshall discovered gold in a river near Sutter’s mill, sparking the California Gold Rush.

“I Discovered the Gold”

Capt. John A. Sutter owned about 48,000 acres in the great Central Valley of California and collaborated with millwright James W. Marshall to build a sawmill in the nearby outpost of present-day Coloma. It was while building the mill that Marshall discovered flakes of gold in the American River.

“I went down as usual, and after shutting off the water from the race I stepped into it, near the lower end,” Marshall described, “and there, upon the rock, about six inches beneath the surface of the water, I discovered the gold.”

Sutter swore the mill laborers to secrecy, but word got out and others soon arrived. Mormon businessman Sam Brannan is credited with spreading the news of the gold; after visiting the mill, he ran down the streets of San Francisco shouting, “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!”

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People traveled to California by land and boat on journeys filled with danger and uncertainty. President Polk heightened the excitement with his December 1848 State of the Union address, in which he stressed the importance of California’s commerce.

The discovery of gold in California was an epoch-making event,” writes the California Historical Society. “News of the discovery attracted to California hundreds of thousands of gold-seekers from across the country and around the world. Their coming transformed not only the economic history of California, but much of its social, cultural, and political history as well.”

Key Players: Marshall, Sutter and Brannan

Sources in this Story

James W. Marshall
James W. Marshall is credited with finding the first of pieces of gold in California as he was checking progress at a site of a timber mill. The California Gold Country Web site states that the discovery happened as he dipped his hand into the six inches of water, known as the mill race, which would be expanded to provide the power to turn the mill’s wheel.

His discovery happened to be a curse for Marshall. The rush of gold miners forced him off his land and he moved on to other parts of California, finding little success. He died penniless in 1885.

John A. Sutter
When James Marshall came across gold, he was working with John A. Sutter, a Swiss-born businessman who arrived in California by a roundabout route in 1839. He wrote about the events leading to the discovery of gold and its effects on his plans for building an empire by supporting the needs of a growing state.

Samuel Brannan
Sam Brannan, a highly successful San Francisco businessman, visited the gold mines and publicized what he had seen. Like Marshall, he too would end his days in penury, according to Sierra Foothill Magazine.

Reference: California and the Gold Rush

PBS’ American Experience documentary “The Gold Rush” focuses on the experiences of five people from different backgrounds who migrated to California during the Gold Rush. Its Web site features descriptions of the Gold Rush, biographies of important figures, primary source materials, maps, and a transcript of the film.

Source: PBS

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