On a chilly winter day 174 years ago this month, a construction site foreman named James Marshall picked up a few small flakes of gold from the tailrace of the sawmill he was building for his employer. The date was January 24, 1848; and on that day, it didn’t seem like such a big thing to either Marshall or his small crew. But then, the gold deposits around the mill site on the South Fork of the American River proved to be richer and more abundant than anyone had guessed. By May of 1848, Marshall’s find had touched off the greatest gold rush the world had ever seen.
In the months and years to come fortunes were made, although seldom by those early, independent treasure-seekers wielding picks, pans, and shovels. Extracting the precious gold quickly became a capital-intensive, commercial enterprise that ultimately diverted every stream in the Sierra, and washed down whole cliff sides with high-pressure hoses. Through it all James Marshall, the man who had unwittingly discovered the path to other men’s riches, remained an independent miner, a loner who roamed the back country in search of the big strike he never found.
Marshall’s discovery brought him fame; but also threats, litigation and disillusionment. Fortune seekers dogged his every move, certain he would lead them to riches, and when he couldn’t, they got angry. After failing at several ventures over the following years, James Marshall spent his last days eking out a living as a blacksmith in Kelsey, a few miles from the original gold discovery site at Coloma. When he died there in August 1885, his friends had to auction his meager belongings to raise enough money to bury him.