The Gold That Changed the World
Friday January 24, 2020, will be the 172nd anniversary of the gold discovery in California. On a crisp winter day in 1848, a carpenter named James Marshall, who was constructing a sawmill on the South Fork of the American River for his employer John Sutter, spotted “something shiny” at the bottom of the mill’s tailrace…and by leaning down to pick it up, changed the course of history. He and Captain Sutter, who owned a trading post in the Sacramento Valley, tried to keep the discovery a secret until the mill was finished, but word seeped out this way and that, spreading via merchant ship around the Pacific Rim. By May, curious California residents were finding excuses to ride up to the mill site at Coloma. By July, men from Mexico, South America, and Hawaii were mining California’s rivers, and San Francisco was all but deserted. In August a St. Louis, Missouri, newspaper reported a rumored gold discovery in the far-away land the United States had recently acquired from Mexico. In December 1848, U.S. President James Polk publicly confirmed the existence of extensive, high-quality gold deposits in California’s foothills, sparking immediate gold frenzy on America’s East Coast. The Great California Gold Rush drew thousands from all over the globe—in fact, it was the greatest worldwide migration in peacetime history—propelled significant industrial and agricultural growth in California, and energized a flagging world economy.