WHERE CALIFORNIA BECAME AN EMPIRE
Elevation: 764 feet
WHAT TO DO IN COLOMA
Some Favorites From Our Expeditions
See where the Gold Rush started at Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. Take time to find the actual spot where the first gold was found. It’s a swampy-looking place less impressive than the various exhibits, but it changed the course of history.
Make a pilgrimage to John Marshall’s statue and decide if he’s pointing the right direction toward the gold discovery site.
Tour the Gold Discovery Museum and Visitor Center to see one of John Marshall’s autograph cards and a macabre Indian rattle made from the head of a duck.
See what Gold Rush-era Chinese merchants were selling at the Wah Hop Store Exhibit. Pigs and roosters hanging from the ceiling, incense, Chinese neck yokes and more.
On January 24, 1848, the course of American history changed when gold was found in a sawmill ditch along the South Fork of the American River. The man responsible was James W. Marshall, an employee of John Sutter, a Swiss immigrant who came to California in 1839 and built a fort near what is now Sacramento.
New Helvetia: Sutter’s California Dream
Sutter sought to start an agricultural colony and began by securing a land grant in what was then Mexican territory from governor Juan Bautista Alvarado. (California wouldn’t become part of the United States until 1848, and Sutter went so far as to become a Mexican citizen to land the deal.) His outpost was called New Helvetia (New Switzerland), and its core was Sutter’s Fort. Surrounded by farmland, in time it would include a grain mill, bakery, blanket factory, and carpet and blacksmith shops in addition to living quarters.
Sutter would come to be regarded as diplomatic and willing to lend a helping hand to those in need. He developed good relationships with the Maidu Indians who were living in the area when he arrived, to the point that they were among those who helped him build his vision. And for the settlers who struggled across the Sierra, his fort was a welcome light at the end of an arduous tunnel. He also organized attempts to rescue the Donner Party when they became stranded by snow in the mountains near Truckee. Life before gold was good for Sutter as he became a wealthy and influential leader in the new frontier.
Destiny Intervenes: Gold in the American River, Verified with Soap Kettle & Encyclopedia
A sawmill was part of Sutter’s expansion vision for New Helvetia; he was exhausting the lumber around his fort and needed more building material. Marshall was chosen as contractor to oversee the mill’s construction. The two men scouted the surrounding foothills, chose an area some 50 miles from Sutter’s Fort that the Indians called “Cullumah” and got to work in late 1847. As construction continued into the following year, workers discovered that the ditch to bring water from the nearby river to the mill was too shallow. Once they made it deeper, water began flowing through and washing away dirt and lighter sediment to expose a surprise: gold.
Marshall was the first to discover the flakes and pea-sized nuggets, telling a few of the millworkers about his suspicions and being met with disbelief and some ridicule. Before he showed his boss, he wanted to be sure he hadn’t picked up fool’s gold. Jennie Wimmer, the wife of one of Sutter’s workers and also cook for the Coloma camp, was the only one around who knew anything about gold at the time. Her father had been a miner in Georgia so she’d seen it before. Thus she was the resident expert and knew how to test it. She dropped it into a kettle of lye that she was using to make soap and when it didn’t corrode, pronounced it the real thing.
Marshall then took the gold to Sutter, who consulted an encyclopedia as part of his own examination. He also concluded that the metal from the mill was indeed highly precious. He would eventually have a ring made from Sutter Mill gold, having the inside inscribed “The first gold, discovered in January, 1848.”
Sutter and Marshall wanted to keep news of the gold quiet to avoid disrupting Sutter’s operations and asked any workers who knew of the goings-on to remain mum for six weeks. The secret wasn’t kept.
Samuel Brannan: An Unexpected Midas
News like that couldn’t be contained, and it passed like a game of telephone from Coloma workers to family, friends and associates. By March, it made the San Francisco newspapers, but readers were skeptical that a hoax was afoot. Word was out, but things were still quiet.
Enter Samuel Brannan. The former Mormon elder had a store at Sutter’s Fort and went to investigate the rumors for himself. After confirming that there looked to be ample mineral riches for the taking, he set himself up as a supplier to prospectors, supplementing his merchandise by buying up all the goods he thought they would need.
It was May when he set out for San Francisco to gather his customers. Bringing a bottle of gold dust as proof, he took to the streets shouting “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!” while waving it in the air. The promoter had effectively launched the Gold Rush. By June, San Francisco’s residents had largely abandoned it for the Sierra foothills. Brannan would go on to become California’s first millionaire.
Word Travels…Not So Fast
While those who were in California dropped what they were doing, it would take six more months for the Gold Rush to pick up its full steam. The western frontier was far removed from the rest of the country it wasn’t yet part of, and even when word of what was happening reached there, it was difficult to substantiate rumors from that far away.
But President James Polk had a grand announcement for his State of the Union address on December 5, 1848: it was true — California had gold. And 300,000 people from around the world would come to look for it.
No Riches, Only Ruin
While the Gold Rush made Brannan (and others) rich, it didn’t do the same for Sutter and Marshall.
Sutter Loses Control & Land Rights
Not only would Sutter’s employees abandon their jobs for prospecting, but thousands of new argonauts would swarm his settlement. These were a different breed than the pioneers he’d welcomed before. They hadn’t come to build new lives by farming or some other trade; many cared only about the gold in the American River and would do whatever it took to get at it.
They took up in Sutter’s utopia as squatters and also destroyed his crops and looted his businesses. And there would be no aid to deal with it because just after Marshall spied gold at Sutter’s Mill, California became a new United States territory under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican War. Sutter’s settlement was caught between an old and new regime and New Helvetia was over-run.
Even worse, he had no claim to the gold found at the mill because he didn’t own the land. Coloma was beyond the boundary of his grant. Though he tried to secure ownership, this would have likely been an impossible task. In a transition period like this, real estate transactions weren’t high on the list of priorities. Left with no one to run or protect what he had created, Sutter would lose control of all of it.
Bad decisions and habits (drinking) would derail both Sutter and Marshall. The same year gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill, Sutter’s Fort was sold to pay off debt. Litigation over Sutter’s land rights would bring further financial ruin and bankruptcy by 1952. The Supreme Court would eventually deny the validity of the Mexican land grant in the new United States territory and deny him damages from the destruction caused by squatters. (Sutter would spend the rest of his life fighting — unsuccessfully — for those rights.)
He and Marshall were both awarded small pensions from the state of California for their roles in launching the Gold Rush, but this was the only financial gain either would get for the discovery in Coloma. Sutter would be a poor man when he left for the East Coast and remain one until he died there in 1880. Though he wouldn’t receive the recognition he sought, Sutter was immortalized in the 1985 Dan Fogelberg song “Sutter’s Mill.”
John Marshall, Autograph Peddler
John Marshall would fare no better. After he and Sutter were unable to claim ownership of the mill, Marshall grew strange. He claimed to have mysterious powers that allowed him to locate gold, and when he wasn’t able to produce results, he had to flee Coloma in fear of his safety. He would return, but other failed mining and business ventures would follow. He briefly made his living giving lectures about his role in California history, but the eccentricity stayed with him. It was perhaps fueled in part by his notorious drinking problem. Eventually Marshall resorted to selling autographs and like Sutter, would finish his life in poverty.
Back & Better Than Ever: Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park
Both Sutter’s Fort and his mill in Coloma fell into ruin, but years later were restored to former glory in state parks. The gold discovery site became California’s first state historical park in 1890, making it the oldest in the current state park system. (Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove were the first, though; the Yosemite Land Grant in essence made them the first state park in 1864 before the National Park Service came into being.)
Visitors at Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park can now tour a replica of the mill and more than 20 other historic buildings, including a Chinese general store called Wah Hop Herb & Dry Goods Store. John Marshall’s final resting place is marked by the monument that started the park. A statue of him stands atop it, pointing to the place he found gold. In a parallel to his later (untrue) claims about prowess in prospecting, his aim is slightly off and seems directed toward the Gold Trail Grange building or the Coloma bridge. The actual site shouldn’t be confused with the huge marker that shows where the original mill once stood. Rather, it’s a murky stretch of water that almost looks more like a place where one might dump a body versus the origin of California’s growth.
Also interesting is that though the Sutter Mill and some of its surroundings were restored, the rest of Coloma is very much like the ghost town it quickly became after the gold was played out. The state park represents 70% of the town, and there are only a few hundred residents (compared to roughly 12,000 at the height of the Gold Rush).
Cosmic Treasure: Mega-Metorites
Coloma once again captured the world’s attention in 2012 when a meteorite the size of a minivan plunged through the Earth’s atmosphere and into the Coloma-Lotus Valley. Fortune-hunters came to Coloma once again, this time for space rock. The fragments scattered about were extremely rare and dated back billions of years, thus they had a sale price higher than the going rate for gold.
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