On January 24, 1848, James W. Marshall discovered gold on the property of Johann A. Sutter near Coloma, California. A builder, Marshall was overseeing construction of a sawmill on the American River.
“Just when we had got partly to work…Mr. Marshall with his old wool hat in hand…exclaimed, ‘Boys, I have got her now,’” James S. Brown recalled:
I…jumped from the pit and stepped to him, and on looking in his hat discovered say ten or twelve pieces of small scales of what proved to be gold. I picked up the largest piece, worth about fifty cents, and tested it with my teeth, and as it did not give, I held it aloft and exclaimed, “gold, boys, gold!” At that they all dropped their tools and gathered around.
Previous claims of gold in California had proven disappointing, and Marshall’s find was met with skepticism at first. The Gold Rush began in earnest only after President James Polk endorsed the discovery in December 1848. Prospectors heading to California the following year were dubbed “forty-niners.”
Nearly 100,000 people arrived in California in 1849. Although many intended to make fortunes in gold, others capitalized on the miners themselves. Stores, saloons, laundries and other enterprises sprang up overnight in California boomtowns. For example, between 1848 and 1850 Charles F. Hotchkiss earned $23,000 selling merchandise in San Francisco and Stockton. Stephen Chapin Davis ran general stores and a boardinghouse in mining camps, Mrs. J.W. Likins sold books and prints, Daniel Knower vended prefabricated houses, Mrs. D. B. Bates undertook hotelkeeping, and Albert Peabody brought a cargo of foodstuffs and tools to the gold camps. All this activity heralded the settlement of California.
“Clementine,” performed by John McCready, Groveland, California, August 2, 1939. California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties
- California As I Saw It: First-Person Narratives of California’s Early Years, 1849-1900 contains many accounts of the Gold Rush era. Search on the keywords first find, gold discoveries, gold rush, forty-niner or the name Johann A. Sutter. For more information on the history of California settlement generally and the gold rush specifically, see the special presentation Early California History: An Overview. Search on the keywords gold and gold rush in The Chinese in California, 1850-1925 External and Music for the Nation: American Sheet Music.
- In the 1930s, Sidney Robertson Cowell documented songs of the gold rush era as well as songs of later immigrants to California for the WPA California Folk Music Project. Search on gold mines in the collection California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties, 1938-1940 to find old favorites such as “Clementine” and “Days of the Forty-Nine.”
- Today in History features focusing on California history include the first European sighting of California in 1542, the Missions of Old California, and the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Search Today in History on California for these stories and many more related to the Golden State.