California, The Discovery Of Gold

Discovery Of Gold In California
Author: Hittell, John S.

Discovery Of Gold In California


Before the time of the great gold discovery of 1848, the metal had been
found in California, but the mines from which it was taken were poor and
yielded small returns for years of working. The discovery in 1848 influenced
the whole world, giving new life to trade and industry everywhere. The first
published report of gold in California appeared in Hakluyt's account of Sir
Francis Drake's visit to the coast in 1579. The observations of Drake's men
are supposed by some to have been made at a point not far from San Francisco.
The Hakluyt statement, however, is disbelieved by many historians. The
Spaniards and Mexicans who later visited the coast are known to have found
gold at many places, and especially near the Colorado River, but they
discovered no mines worth working. Reports of great mineral wealth in
California were repeated up to the time of the American conquest, but they
commanded little confidence among mining experts.

Although gold was found in what is now San Diego County in 1828,
Alexander Forbes, the historian of California, wrote in 1835 that no minerals
of particular importance had been discovered in Upper California, nor any ores
of metals. About 1838 a gold placer was discovered in the canon of San
Francisquito, forty-five miles northwest of Los Angeles, and this was the
first California mine that produced any considerable amount of metal. It was
worked for ten years and then abandoned for richer diggings in the Sacramento
Valley. The average yield for the ten years was probably about six thousand
dollars. After the return of the Wilkes exploring expedition of 1842, James
D. Dana, its mineralogist, mentioned places in California at which he had
observed or inferred the existence of gold. But his report led to no
gold-hunting, and had only a scientific interest.

The great discovery of 1848, and its world-wide effects, are described in
the following account by Hittell, which forms a part of Hubert H. Bancroft's
voluminous History of the Pacific States.

As Edmund Hammond Hargraves is the hero of the Australian, so is James W.
Marshall of the California, gold discovery. Before giving the account of his
discovery, however, I will quote the following passage from a letter written
on May 4, 1846, by Thomas O. Larkin, then United States consul at Monterey,
California, to James Buchanan, Secretary of State:

"There is said to be black lead in the country of San Fernando, near San
Pedro [now Los Angeles County]. By washing the sand in a plate, any person
can obtain from one dollar to five dollars per day of gold that brings
seventeen dollars per ounce in Boston; the gold has been gathered for two or
three years, though but few have the patience to look for it. On the
southeast end of the island of Catalina there is a silver mine from which
silver has been extracted. There is no doubt but that gold, silver,
quick-silver, copper, lead, sulphur, and coal mines are to be found all over
California, and it is equally doubtful whether, under their present owners,
they will ever be worked."

James W. Marshall, in a letter dated January 28, 1856, and addressed to
Charles E. Pickett, gave the following account of the gold discovery: "Toward
the end of August, 1847, Captain Sutter and I formed a copartnership to build
and run a sawmill upon a site selected by myself (since known as Coloma). We
employed P. L. Weimer and family to remove from the Fort (Sutter's Fort) to
the mill-site, to cook and labor for us. Nearly the first work done was the
building of a double log cabin, about half a mile from the mill-site. We
commenced the mill about Christmas. Some of the mill-hands wanted a cabin
near the mill. This was built, and I went to the Fort to superintend the
construction of the mill-irons, leaving orders to cut a narrow ditch where the
race was to be made. Upon my return, in January, 1848, I found the ditch cut
as directed, and those who were working on the same were doing so at a great
disadvantage, expending their labor upon the head of the race instead of the

"I immediately changed the course of things, and upon the 19th of the
same month of January discovered the gold near the lower end of the race,
about two hundred yards below the mill. William Scott was the second man to
see the metal. He was at work at a carpenter's bench near the mill. I showed
the gold to him. Alexander Stephens, James Brown, Henry Bigler, and William
Johnston were likewise working in front of the mill, framing the upper story.
They were called up next, and, of course, saw the precious metal. P. L.
Weimer and Charles Bennett were at the old double log cabin (where Hastings
and Company afterward kept a store).

"In the mean time we put in some wheat and peas, nearly five acres,
across the river. In February the Captain (Captain Sutter) came to the
mountains for the first time. Then we consummated a treaty with the Indians,
which had been previously negotiated. The tenor of this was that we were to
pay them two hundred dollars yearly in goods, at Yerba Buena prices, for the
joint possession and occupation of the land with them; they agreeing not to
kill our stock, viz., horses, cattle, hogs, or sheep, nor burn the grass
within the limits fixed by the treaty. At the same time Captain Sutter,
myself, and Isaac Humphrey entered into a co-partnership to dig gold. A short
time afterward, P. L. Weimer moved away from the mill, and was away two or
three months, when he returned. With all the events that subsequently
occurred, you and the public are well informed."

This is the most precise and is generally considered to be the most
correct account of the gold discovery. Other versions of the story have been
published, however, and the following, from an article published in the Coloma
Argus, in the latter part of the year 1855, is one of them. The statement was
evidently derived from Weimer, who lives at Coloma:

"That James W. Marshall picked up the first piece of gold is beyond
doubt. Peter L. Weimer, who resides in this place, states positively that
Marshall picked up the gold in his presence; they both saw it and each spoke
at the same time, 'What's that yellow stuff?' Marshall, being a step in
advance, picked it up. This first piece of gold is now in the possession of
Mrs. Weimer, and weighs six pennyweights eleven grains. The piece was given
to her by Marshall himself. The dam was finished early in January, the frame
for the mill also erected, and the flume and bulk-head completed. It was at
this time that Marshall and Weimer adopted the plan of raising the gate during
the night to wash out sand from the mill-race, closing it during the day, when
work would be continued with shovels, etc.

"Early in February - the exact day is not remembered - in the morning,
after shutting off the water, Marshall and Weimer walked down the race
together to see what the water had accomplished during the night. Having gone
about twenty yards below the mill, they both saw the piece of gold before
mentioned, and Marshall picked it up. After an examination, the gold was
taken to the cabin of Weimer, and Mrs. Weimer instructed to boil it in
saleratus-water; but she, being engaged in making soap, pitched the piece into
the soap-kettle, where it was boiled all day and all night. The following
morning the strange piece of stuff was fished out of the soap, all the
brighter for the boiling.

"Discussion now commenced, and all expressed the opinion that perhaps the
yellow substance might be gold. Little was said on the subject; but everyone
each morning searched in the race for more, and every day found several small
scales. The Indians also picked up many small thin pieces, and carried them
always to Mrs. Weimer. About three weeks after the first piece was obtained,
Marshall took the fine gold, amounting to between two and three ounces, and
went to San Francisco to have the strange metal tested. On his return he
informed Weimer that the stuff was gold.

"All hands now began to search for the 'root of all evil.' Shortly after,
Captain Sutter came to Coloma, and he and Marshall assembled the Indians and
bought of them a large tract of country about Coloma, in exchange for a lot of
beads and a few cotton handkerchiefs. They, under color of this Indian title,
required one-third of all the gold dug on their domain, and collected at this
rate until the fall of 1848, when a mining party from Oregon declined paying
'tithes' as they called it.

"During February, 1848, Marshall and Weimer went down the river to Mormon
Island, and there found scales of gold on the rocks. Some weeks later they
sent Mr. Henderson, Sydney Willis and Mr. Fifield, Mormons, down there to dig,
telling them that that place was better than Coloma. These were the first
miners at Mormon Island."

Marshall was a man of an active, enthusiastic mind, and he at once
attached great importance to his discovery. His ideas, however, were vague;
he knew nothing about gold-mining; he did not know how to take advantage of
what he had found. Only an experienced gold-miner could understand the
importance of the discovery and make it of practical value to all the world.
That gold-miner, fortunately, was near at hand; his name was Isaac Humphrey.
He was residing in the town of San Francisco, in the month of February, when a
Mr. Bennett, one of the party employed at Marshall's mill, went down to that
place with some of the dust to have it tested; for it was still a matter of
doubt whether this yellow metal really was gold. Bennett told his errand to a
friend whom he met in San Francisco, and this friend introduced him to
Humphrey, who had been a gold-miner in Georgia, and was therefore competent to
pass an opinion.

Humphrey looked at the dust, pronounced it gold at the first glance, and
expressed a belief that the diggings must be rich. He made inquiries about
the place where the gold was found, and subsequent inquiries about the
trustworthiness of Mr. Bennett, and on March 7th he was at the mill. He tried
to induce several of his friends in San Francisco to go with him; they all
thought his expedition a foolish one, and he had to go alone. He found that
there was some talk about the gold, and persons would occasionally go about
looking for pieces of it; but no one was engaged in mining, and the work of
the mill was going on as usual. On the 8th he went out prospecting with a
pan, and satisfied himself that the country in that vicinity was rich in gold.
He then made a rocker and commenced the business of washing gold, and thus
began the business of mining in California.

Others saw how he did it, followed his example, found that the work was
profitable, and abandoned all other occupations. The news of their success
spread; people flocked to the place, learned how to use the rocker, discovered
new diggings, and in the course of a few months the country had been
overturned by a social and industrial revolution.

Mr. Humphrey had not been at work more than three or four days before a
Frenchman, called Baptiste, who had been a gold-miner in Mexico for many
years, came to the mill, and he agreed with Humphrey that California was very
rich in gold. He, too, went to work, and, being an excellent prospector, he
was of great service in teaching the newcomers the principles of prospecting
and mining for gold - principles not abstruse, yet not likely to suggest
themselves at first thought to men entirely ignorant of the business. Baptiste
had been employed by Captain Sutter to saw lumber with a whipsaw, and had been
at work for two years at a place, since called Weber, about ten miles eastward
from Coloma. When he saw the diggings at the latter place, he at once said
there were rich mines where he had been sawing, and he expressed surprise that
it had never occurred to him before, so experienced in gold-mining as he was;
but he afterward said it had been so ordered by Providence, that the gold
might not be discovered until California should be in the hands of the

About the middle of March, P. B. Reading, an American, now a prominent
and wealthy citizen of the State, then the owner of a large ranch on the
western bank of the Sacramento River, near where it issues from the mountains,
came to Coloma, and after looking about at the diggings, said that if
similarity in the appearance of the country could be taken as a guide there
must be gold in the hills near his ranch; and he went off, declaring his
intention to go back and make an examination of them. John Bidwell, another
American, now a wealthy and influential citizen, then residing on his ranch on
the bank of Feather River, came to Coloma about a week later, and he said
there must be gold near his ranch, and he went off with expressions similar to
those used by Reading. In a few weeks news came that Reading had found
diggings near Clear Creek, at the head of the Sacramento Valley, and was at
work there with his Indians; and not long after, it was reported that Bidwell
was at work with his Indians on a rich bar of Feather River, since called
"Bidwell's Bar."

Although Bennett had arrived at San Francisco in February with some of
the dust, the editors of the town - for two papers were published in the place
at the time - did not hear of the discovery till some weeks later. The first
published notice of the gold appeared in the Californian (published in San
Francisco) on March 15th, as follows: "In the newly made raceway of the
sawmill recently erected by Captain Sutter, on the American Fork, gold has
been found in considerable quantities. One person brought thirty dollars'
worth to New Helvetia, gathered there in a short time. California, no doubt,
is rich in mineral wealth; great chances here for scientific capitalists. Gold
has been found in almost every part of the country."

Three days later the California Star, the rival paper, gave the following
account of the discovery: "We were informed a few days since that a very
valuable silver-mine was situated in the vicinity of this place, and, again,
that its locality was known. Mines of quicksilver are being found all over
the country. Gold has been discovered in the northern Sacramento districts,
about forty miles above Sutter's Fort. Rich mines of copper are said to exist
north of these bays."

Although these articles were written two months after the discovery, it
is evident that the editors had heard only vague rumors, and attached little
importance to them. The Star of March 25th says: "So great is the quantity of
gold taken from the new mine recently found at New Helvetia that it has become
an article of traffic in that vicinity."

None of the gold had been seen in San Francisco; but at Sutter's Fort men
had begun to buy and sell with it.

The next number of the Star, bearing date April 1, 1848, contained an
article several columns long, written by Doctor V. J. Fourgeaud, on the
resources of California. He devoted about a column to the minerals, and in
the course of his remarks said: "It would be utterly impossible at present to
make a correct estimate of the mineral wealth of California. Popular
attention has been but lately directed to it. But the discoveries that have
already been made will warrant us in the assertion that California is one of
the richest mineral countries in the world. Gold, silver, quicksilver, iron,
copper, lead, sulphur, saltpetre, and other mines of great value have already
been found. We saw a few days ago a beautiful specimen of gold from the mine
newly discovered on the American Fork. From all accounts the mine is
immensely rich, and already we learn the gold from it collected at random and
without any trouble has become an article of trade at the upper settlements.
This precious metal abounds in this country. We have heard of several other
newly discovered mines of gold, but as these reports are not yet authenticated
we shall pass over them. However, it is well known that there is a placer of
gold a few miles from Los Angeles, and another on the San Joaquin."

It was not until more than three months after Marshall's discovery that
the San Francisco papers stated that gold-mining had become a regular and
profitable business in the new placers. The Californian of April 26th said:
"From a gentleman just from the gold region we learn that many new discoveries
of gold have very recently been made, and it is fully ascertained that a large
extent of country abounds with that precious mineral. Seven men, with picks
and spades, gathered one thousand six hundred dollars worth in fifteen days.
Many persons are settling on the lands with the view of holding preemptions,
but as yet every person takes the right to gather all he can without any
regard to claims. The largest piece yet found is worth six dollars."

The news spread, men came from all the settled parts of the territory,
and as they came they went to work mining, and gradually they moved farther
and farther from Coloma, and before the rainy reason had commenced (in
December) miners were washing rich auriferous dirt all along the western slope
of the Sierra Nevada, from the Feather to the Tuolumne River, a distance of
one hundred fifty miles; and also over a space of about fifteen miles square,
near the place now known as the town of Shasta, in the Coast Mountains, at the
head of the Sacramento Valley. The whole country had been turned topsy-turvy;
towns had been deserted, or left only to the women and children; fields had
been left unreaped; herds of cattle went without anyone to care for them. But
gold-mining, which had become the great interest of the country, was not
neglected. The people learned rapidly and worked hard.

In the latter part of 1848 adventurers began to arrive from Oregon, the
Sandwich Islands, and Mexico. The winter found the miners with very little
preparation, but most of them were accustomed to a rough manner of life in the
Western wilds, and they considered their large profits an abundant
compensation for their privations and hardships. The weather was so mild in
December and January that they could work almost as well as in the summer, and
the rain gave them facilities for washing such as they could not have in the
dry season.

In September, 1848, the first rumors of the gold discovery began to reach
New York; in October they attracted attention; in November people looked with
interest for new reports; in December the news gained general credence and a
great excitement arose. Preparations were made for a migration to California
by somebody in nearly every town in the United States. The great body of the
emigrants went either across the plains with ox or mule teams or round Cape
Horn in sailing-vessels. A few took passage in the steamer by way of Panama.

Not fewer than one hundred thousand men, representing in their nativity
every State in the Union, went to California that year. Of these, twenty
thousand crossed the continent by way of the South Pass; and nearly all of
them started from the Missouri River between Independence and St. Joseph, in
the month of May. They formed an army; in daytime their trains filled up the
roads for miles, and at night their camp-fires glittered in every direction
about the places blessed with grass and water. The excitement continued from
1850 to 1853; emigrants continued to come by land and sea, from Europe and
America, and in the last named year from China also. In 1854 the migration
fell off, and since that time until the completion of the Union Pacific
Railroad California received the chief accessions to her white population by
the Panama steamers.

The whole world felt a beneficent influence from the great gold yield of
the Sacramento Basin. Labor rose in value, and industry was stimulated from
St. Louis to Constantinople. The news, however, was not welcome to all
classes. Many of the capitalists feared that gold would soon be so abundant
as to be worthless, and European statesmen feared the power to be gained by
the arrogant and turbulent democracy of the New World.

The author of a book entitled Notes on the Gold District, published in
London in 1853, thus speaks of the fears excited in Europe on the first great
influx of gold from the Californian mines: "Among the many extraordinary
incidents connected with the Californian discoveries was the alarm
communicated to many classes and which was not confined to individuals but
invaded governments. The first announcement spread alarm; but as the cargoes
of gold rose from one hundred thousand dollars to one million dollars, bankers
and financiers began seriously to prepare for an expected crisis. In England
and the United States the panic was confined to a few; but on the Continent of
Europe every government, rich or poor, thought it needful to make provision
against the threatened evils. An immediate alteration in prices was looked
for; money was to become so abundant that all ordinary commodities were to
rise, but more especially the proportion between gold and silver was to be
disturbed, some thinking that the latter might become the dearer metal. The
Governments of France, Holland, and Russia, in particular, turned their
attention to the monetary question, and in 1850 the Government of Holland
availed themselves of a law, which had not before been put in operation, to
take immediate steps for selling off the gold in the Bank of Amsterdam, at
what they supposed to be the highest prices, and to stock themselves with

"Palladium, which is likewise a superior white metal, was held more
firmly, and expectations were entertained that it would become available for
plating. The stock, however, was small. The silver operation was carried on
concurrent with a supply of bullion to Russia for a loan, a demand for silver
in Austria, and for shipment to India, and it did really produce an effect on
the silver market, which many mistook for the influence of Californian gold.
The particular way in which the Netherlands operations were carried on was
especially calculated to produce the greatest disturbance of prices. The
ten-florin pieces were sent to Paris, coined there into Napoleons, and silver
five-franc pieces drawn out in their place.

"At Paris the premium on gold in a few months fell from nearly 2 per
cent. to a discount, and at Hamburg a like fall took place. In London, the
great silver market, silver rose, between the autumn and the new year, from
five shillings per ounce to five shillings one and five-eighths pence per
ounce, and Mexican dollars from four shillings ten and one-half pence to four
shillings eleven and five-eighths pence per ounce; nor did prices recover
until toward the end of the year 1851, when the fall was as sudden as the

In the spring of 1849 Reading crossed the Coast Range with a party of his
Indians, and discovered rich diggings in the valley of the Trinity. In the
summer of the same year Colonel Fremont discovered the mines on his ranch, in
the valley of the Mariposa.

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