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Collection California as I Saw It: First-Person Narratives of California's Early Years, 1849 to 1900

The Discovery of Gold

In 1847, all waited restlessly for the fighting to end outside California. The soldiers from New York contented themselves with garrison duty and odd jobs until word came of peace, but the Mormons were discharged in the summer of 1847, and many went to work for Johann Sutter. With peace, Sutter could finally proceed with his plans to lay out a town near his fort to attract some of the expected hordes of American settlers who would now stream through the passes of the Sierras. A town would require lumber, and for this Sutter needed a nearby sawmill so that he could reap the profits of every process in creating "Sutterville."

Illustration XIV: Sutter's Fort, New Helvetia (1849). Lithograph by William E. Endicott from sketches by Joseph Warren Revere, U.S.N. From Revere's A Tour of Duty in California . . ., 1849. LC-USZ62-48148. #48289

Just when the Mormons appeared seeking employment, Sutter's partner James Marshall found a site for the proposed sawmill, a place called Coloma about 45 miles from Sutter's Fort on the south fork of the American River. Many of the Mormons Sutter hired that summer were assigned to follow Marshall to Coloma, where they finished the sawmill in January. Next they set to work deepening the stream so that the millrace would have adequate power. On January 24, 1848, Marshall went down to the river to inspect progress, and, as he later told the story: "My eye was caught by something shining in the bottom of the ditch. . . . I reached my hand down and picked it up; it made my heart thump, for I was certain it was gold. . . Then I saw another."

As word of the gold discovery spread, Sutter's and Marshall's workmen left their jobs to "dig" for gold along the American River and its tributaries, and Sutter's fort and fields were soon deserted. Still, large numbers of prospectors did not arrive until May, when word of the strike--and a sample of gold dust--were shown in San Francisco. Almost overnight, the port turned into a near ghost town as merchants, sailors, soldiers, and laborers rushed inland to the gold fields. It was not long before gold-seekers from all over the state, Hispanic Californians, Native Americans, Europeans and U.S. citizens joined them. As word spread outside California in the following months, new national and ethnic groups contributed their share to the fascinating mix of the gold fields: Mormons from Utah, farmers and trappers from nearby Oregon, experienced miners from Mexico and Chile, white sailors and merchants and native workers from Hawaii, and Chinese from the province of Kwangtung near Canton.

It was no accident that few of the immigrant "forty-eighters" came from the United States. Without telegraph lines or a railroad, news of the gold strike at Coloma had to travel to the Atlantic Coast by the ships that sailed south along the Pacific Coast, then "around the Horn" of South America or across the Isthmus of Panama to await another ship in the Caribbean, a journey that could consume six or seven months. On the other hand, the 7,000-mile journey by sea to China took only three months. Not only did news of the gold strike take longer to reach the eastern United States, but in 1848 it came in tentative, unconfirmed stories that tempted few to chance the long, difficult journey to California.

Thanks to a young Army officer named William Tecumseh Sherman, that situation would soon change. At the end of June 1848, Sherman persuaded his commander, California's military governor Colonel Richard Barnes Mason, to visit the gold fields himself to verify the tales of wealth along the American River. Governor Mason's report of that trip prompted President Polk to make an official announcement of the gold strike in his State of the Union message to Congress on December 5, 1848. This official confirmation of the news triggered a mass exodus to California. The "Forty Niners" were on their way.