Today, January 24, 2024, is the anniversary of the California gold discovery, an event that changed the known world 176 years ago. On a crisp winter day in 1848, a carpenter named James Marshall, who was constructing a sawmill in a little valley named Coloma, on the South Fork of the American River, spotted “something shiny” at the bottom of the mill’s tailrace . . . and by leaning down to pick it up, changed the course of history.
Unsure of exactly what he had found, Marshall submitted the samples to various tests at the campsite—biting them, pounding them thinner, even throwing one sample into the camp laundresses’ boiling, lye-filled soap kettle—growing more excited as each test seemed to “prove” that those shiny pieces were really gold and not common iron pyrite, or “fool’s gold.” Four days later, on January 28, Marshall rode down from the mill site to confer with John Sutter, owner of a Sacramento Valley trading post some 40 miles downriver called Sutter’s Fort, the man who was Marshall’s employer and partner in the sawmill project.
Sutter was surprised to see him, not only because Marshall had ridden down to the fort during a torrential rainstorm, but also because Marshall appeared extremely unsettled, insisting on talking with Sutter in complete privacy behind locked doors before he would reveal his reason for coming. Finally secured in Sutter’s private apartments, Marshall pulled a white cotton rag from his pants pocket that he had wrapped around some specimens. Consulting Sutter’s Encyclopedia Americana, the two made further tests with a set of balances and some nitric acid, and finally Sutter pronounced the shiny flakes as definitely “auriferous,” probably of very high quality.
Sutter and Marshall swore the mill crew to secrecy— at least until the mill was finished and operable—but the secret was too delicious to keep. Word seeped out this way and that, spreading via merchant ship around the Pacific Rim. By May, curious northern California residents were finding excuses to ride up to the mill site. By July, men from Mexico, South America, and Hawaii were mining California’s rivers. The big stampede from America’s Atlantic Coast, and Europe, began almost immediately after December 5, 1848, when President James Polk publicly confirmed what had heretofore just been an electrifying rumor: that indeed extensive, high-quality gold deposits existed in California’s foothills, that far-away land the United States had recently acquired from Mexico at the end of the Mexican-American War.
The California Gold Rush, which drew thousands upon thousands from all over the globe, was the greatest worldwide migration in peacetime, to a specific destination, ever known up to that time; and it all began when a carpenter picked up some shiny objects from the bottom of a ditch 176 years ago today.