Several weeks elapsed after the January 1848 gold discovery before people started believing it was genuine…and then events started happening fast. In early May, ordinary business throughout northern California ceased as towns emptied of gold-fevered, adult men who rushed to the discovery site, a small valley in the Sierra Nevada foothills called Coloma. On May 16 a Frenchman named Claude Chana, traveling a direct route across unexplored country from his home on the Bear River to Coloma’s higher elevation, stopped for the night some 20 miles from his destination—and discovered gold in a nearby ravine. Hordes of fortune-seekers quickly swarmed to an area that produced impressive riches for a few months, until miners stripped away the surface ore and moved on. Chana’s find, though, had convinced everyone that the foothills were full of gold: soon, even larger strikes were made elsewhere as prospectors fanned out across the region. Chana himself quickly moved on too, but others who remained at the ravine established a mining camp known as North Fork Dry Diggings, which eventually developed into the city of Auburn.
Claude Chana was one among hundreds of newcomers who had entered California in covered wagons in 1846. A cooper by trade, he had emigrated to New Orleans from his native France in 1839 as a 28-year-old bachelor, then relocated to Missouri in 1841. Upon arrival in California in October 1846, then 35 and still single, Chana went to work for, and moved in with, fellow Frenchman P. T. Sicard. Pierre Theodore Sicard, a former sailor who had been the manager of John Sutter’s Feather River farm for a year in 1842-43, had received a Mexican land grant and established the Nemshas Rancho on the Bear River. Together, Sicard and Chana established peach and almond orchards on Sicard’s land. From time to time Chana also worked for John Sutter, manufacturing wooden barrels at Sutter’s frontier trading post near the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers. The original gold discovery at Coloma had occurred at the building site of a lumber mill John Sutter had commissioned.
Years later Chana purchased the Rancho Nemshas, presumably with the gold he had mined at various places. He became a fruit rancher, successfully cultivating grapes, peaches, apples, and plums, winning awards for his produce at state fairs. He was also one of the state’s first winemakers. Chana, who never married, died in Wheatland in 1882, at age 71. Today a 45-ton statue sculpted by Auburn resident Ken Fox, which stands near the place where it is believed the Frenchman once found gold, pays tribute to Claude Chana.