Sutter’s Mill, Where the Californian Gold Rush Began

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"Photomechanical reproduction of the 1850(?) daguerreotype by R. H. Vance shows James Marshall standing in front of Sutter's sawmill, Coloma, California, where he discovered gold." Person depicted is most likely not actually Marshall.

Sutter’s Mill on the American River near Coloma, the early months of 1848. California was about to erupt with gold fever.

The basic story is rather well known. John Sutter was a pioneering businessman in Sacramento who had land holdings on the American River nearby. On 24 January 1848 at Sutter’s new lumber mill beside the river, his foreman James Marshall was inspecting the nearly completed construction.

Marshall noticed some specks of shiny metal in the water that was coursing through the millrace. He had some knowledge of gold and was aware of the quartz in the surrounding hills that indicated its likely presence. He had immediate suspicions.

Gold is Discovered in California

When Marshall reported his discovery to Sutter they ascertained that the substance was indeed gold. This did not please the businessman at all. He had other plans for the land, and could foresee the disruption the find would cause when word got out. It soon did.

Sutter’s gang of workmen clamored for the precious metal amid great excitement. They had not been paid for their work on the mill to date and agreed to complete the job before staking any gold claims. But as they wandered the riverbank and found more gold outside Sutter’s land, they pressed ahead to secure the first easy pickings. The mill was forgotten, and word of the riches began to spread.

The discovery of gold on the American River hit the headlines in March 1848. San Francisco entrepreneur Samuel Brannan took a gamble on the rumours that were circulating and set up shop to sell gold prospecting supplies. To advertise his new venture, Brannan appeared on the San Francisco streets holding aloft a vial of gold and shouting “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!” That did it. The California gold rush was on.

The Fortunes of John Sutter

John Sutter conducted business out of his complex known as Sutter’s Fort, located in what is now urban Sacramento. It was there that on 28 January 1848 Sutter and Marshall conferred on the discovery of the gold. Sutter’s initial fears that the find would ruin his business plans were already being realised. His workers had gone. His lands would soon be invaded by squatters who would help themselves to his crops and livestock. Shortly after the discovery of gold upriver, Sutter’s Fort was abandoned.

Sutter’s employees had arrived in California as members of the Mormon Battalion, who were originally sent to California to defend settlers agains Indian attacks. Once they had exhausted the surface deposits that were there for the taking, they moved on to settle in Utah with their brethren who had begun arriving there in 1847. The first site of real gold fever on the American River was a short way downstream of Sutter’s Mill, at a site known as Mormon’s Island.

John Sutter had been raised in Switzerland and emigrated to America in 1834. After five years of travelling the continent and getting as far as Hawaii, he settled in Sacramento. The territory was still under Mexican rule then. Sutter became a supporter of the California Republic until the United States annexed California in 1847 and he set about planning a farming and construction empire. That all changed when gold was discovered on his land.

After a long and fruitless battle for compensation over losses caused by the disruption to his business and property in the gold rush, Sutter died almost penniless in 1880.

Visiting These Historic Sites

Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park is located on Highway 49 in Coloma. The mill that stands today is a replica of the original building. Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park is located in mid-town Sacramento between K and L Streets and 26th and 28th Streets.

References:

  1. California Gold
  2. Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, and Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park
  3. Sutter’s Mill, by Dan Fogelberg, from High Country Snows (1985)