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.

John Stone With Gold Mining Pan. August, 1939. California Gold–Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties: Collected by Sidney Robertson Cowell. American Folklife Center

“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.

California Gold; An Authentic History of the First Find…, by James Stephens Brown. [New York: Reprinted W. Abbatt, 1933]. [Image 8] California As I Saw It: First-Person Narratives of California’s Early Years, 1849 to 1900. General Collections

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 David 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. American Folklife Center

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