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James Wilson Marshall was a skilled carpenter trained by his wheelwright father
in New Jersey. Marshall was building a sawmill for California land developer John Sutter
in Coloma Valley near Sacramento when he observed something glittering in the new
millrace that had been allowed to flow overnight. He described the nugget as "half the
size and shape of a pea." "It made my heart thump," he later recalled, "for I was certain it
was gold." Examining the nugget, he exclaimed to his fellow workmen, "Boys, by God, I
believe I have found a gold mine."
The impact of Marshall's find that afternoon at Sutter's Mill in the Sierra Nevada
foothills was enormous, and became known worldwide. Although Marshall's discovery
occurred in 1848, the electrifying news did not reach the East Coast and other parts of the
world until a year later, triggering the Gold Rush of '49, the greatest stampede of gold
seekers in history.
The only hope was to keep the discovery quiet. Sutter and Marshall swore
the mill workers to secrecy, but word got out. When Jacob Wittmer took two
wagons up to the mill on February 9, the Wimmer children apparently told him of
the gold. When he scoffed at the story, it was confirmed by Mrs. Wimmer and the
other adults. Wittmer brought the news back to the fort, and even used some of
the gold to buy a bottle of brandy at the fort store. The store operator sent word to
his partner in San Francisco, the enterprising Sam Brannan. Henry Bigler shared
the news with three of his fellow Mormons who were working on the new flour
mill near Sutter's Fort. They visited Coloma and then on the way back to Sutter's
Fort prospected at a spot that shortly became the rich diggings of Mormon Island.
On February 10, Sutter himself wrote his impatient creditor, General
Mariano Vallejo: "My sawmill is finished and I have made a discovery of a gold
mine ... which is extraordinarily rich." As the word seeped out, Sutter was soon
openly telling visitors to the fort about the discovery.
The first printed notice of the discovery was in the March 15 issue of "The
Californian" in San Francisco. Shortly after Marshall's discovery, General John Bidwell
discovered gold in the Feather River and Major Pearson B. Reading found gold in the
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By ship, horse and wagon, and on foot, hundreds of thousands of men and women
with their families poured into California, leading to the territory's early statehood, and
extending the United States from coast to coast. Thus began one of the largest human
migrations in history as a half-million people from around the world descended upon
California in search of instant wealth. They came in droves, pans in hand, hoping to find
a gleaming spot of yellow beneath the dirt. A few flakes of gold bought dinner and a
place to sleep; a strike could set them up for life.
The 49ers, as they came to be known for the massive migration westward that
started in 1849, after word of the gold discovery had filtered back East, may have
represented some of the hardiest travelers ever. But they hardly knew it at the time. From
farmers to aristocrats who traveled in style, few understood the nature of the trip they
were embarking upon, and many gave up after only a day or two on the trail, earning
themselves the humiliating sobriquet of "backed out Californians" as they backtracked to
their homes and farms. For the hardy thousands who persevered and made it, the trip
alone was as educational as the arrival in the strange land called California. Many took
what they assumed was the easy way, the migration by sea that continued from 1849 for a
decade. The trips typically began anywhere along the Atlantic Coast with ships sailing
southward around Cape Horn and back up to San Francisco. Others sailed only as far
south as Panama, where travelers disembarked, then made a three-day trip by mule and
canoe across land to the Pacific side, where they boarded another ship for the trip north to
At first the only people who came to look for gold were men from the
coastal towns and ranches, sailors whose ships had brought cargo to San
Francisco, or soldiers loosed in the aftermath of the Mexican War. Only the
best equipped brought tents. Most settled in brush shelters or just laid out their
blankets on the ground. Marshall tried to keep them away from the mill and his
own claims, directing them up and down the river and to tributary streams. Gold
seemed to be everywhere. Some $30,000 to $50,000 worth of gold was being
gathered every day.
In July, shortly after news of the gold discovery reached Hawaii, the
shipping crossroads of the Pacific, whole boatloads of gold-seekers began arriving
from the Islands. In August, word got to Oregon, and settlers began drifting down
to investigate. Soon people began arriving from the ranches and towns of
Southern California, then from Sonora and other provinces of northern Mexico,
and later in the fall from Chile and Peru.
Most overlanders began their journey on the Mormon or Oregon trails. The major
trailheads for these routes were in Council Bluffs, Iowa, St. Joseph, Mo., or
Independence, Mo. The overland trip typically took five to six months. Ten to 15 miles of
travel in one day would be a good day.
Many people came to California in search of gold from Asia too. They traveled by
ship. Many ships went as far out as the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii) before finding the
wind currents needed to get them to California. There were several problems with
traveling by sea with illnesses like yellow fever, malaria, cholera, scurvy, and dysentery.
There was also problems with their food like salt meat went bad, wine turned to vinegar,
bottles of fruit juice blew up, candles melted near the equator, rats ate cheese, and
weevils got into flour, rice and hard bread.
Historians have painted colorful Gold Rush landscapes peopled with scruffy,
flinty men and a sprinkling of easy, frowsy women. But something is wrong with that
picture. Missing are the wives, daughters, sisters and single women who with courage
and a high sense of adventure joined that army of men and carved out gold. A smart
woman can do very well in this country. ... It is the only country I ever was where a
woman received anything like a just compensation for work."-- A woman pioneer
Mary Jane "Jenny" Megquier, a 40-year-old woman of spunk and endurance, and
her husband, Thomas, came to California in 1849 intending to stay two years, make some
money and return to Maine, where they had left their three teenagers with relatives. Jenny
and Thomas, a physician, envisioned getting rich by opening a pharmacy and medical
practice in remote mining towns. When that plan failed, they moved to San Francisco,
where Jenny ran a boardinghouse. She gave this account of her day: Upon arising made
coffee, biscuit, fried potatoes, broiled three pounds each of steak and liver. Baked six
loaves of bread, four pies, cooked all day for dinner, made beds, washed, ironed.
Life was exhilarating for women cut loose from the social constraints of the East.
One pioneer lady wrote: “A smart woman can do very well in this country. True, there
are not many comforts and one must work all the time and work hard, but there is plenty
to do and good pay. ... It is the only country I ever was where a woman received anything
like a just compensation for work."
A financial panic back East had spread to Northern California, plunging the
region's fledgling banking system into chaos. A week of bedlam -- one San Francisco
banker recalled a lobby full of "women shrieking and crying, men swearing" –
culminated Friday, Feb. 23, 1855. Miners, merchants and others stampeded the banking
houses to withdraw their deposits. Fortunes disappeared; two of the leading San
Francisco banks collapsed
Unlike the forty-niners who rode covered wagons or came by ship or on foot 150
years ago, today's prospectors drive motor homes, wear wet suits and suck up river
bottoms with $3,500 gas-fueled dredges. The miners of old are legendary: Fortune
seekers who sold family farms in Missouri and Kansas, they expected to find untold
fortunes in gold-lined banks of the American and Yuba rivers.
Today's gold diggers typically are a more realistic lot. The vast majority are
escaping "real" jobs in the cities for a weekend of panning or are retirees who need a new
passion to fill their free time.
The admission of California as a free state in 1850, a direct result of the Gold
Rush, forever tipped the scales in favor of the Union as the nation slipped toward the
Civil War. The Gold Rush spurred long-delayed congressional approval of the proposal
for a transcontinental railroad. For all the state's lasting racial and ethnic prejudices, the
diversity caused by the Gold Rush contributed to an infusion of ideas and spirit.