As Edmund Hammond Hargraves is the hero of the Australian, so is James W. Marshall of the Californian, gold discovery. Marshall, in a letter dated January 28, 1856, and addrest to Charles E. Pickett, gave the following account of the gold discovery:
"Toward the end of August, 1847, Captain Sutter and I formed a copartnership to build and run a sawmill upon a site selected by myself (since known as Coloma). We employed P. L. Weimer and family to remove from the Fort (Sutter's Fort) to the mill-site, to cook and labor for us. Nearly the first work done was the building of a double log cabin, about half a mile from the millsite. We commenced the mill about Christmas. Some of the mill-hands wanted a cabin near the mill. This was built, and I went to the Fort to superintend the construction of the mill-irons, leaving orders to cut a narrow ditch where the race was to be made. Upon my return, 1848, I found the ditch cut, as directed, and those who were working on the same were doing so at a great disadvantage, expending their labor upon the head of the race instead of the foot.
"I immediately changed the course of things, and upon the 19th of the same month of January discovered the gold near the lower end of the race, about two hundred yards below the mill. William Scott was the second man to see the metal. He was at work at a carpenter's bench near the mill. I showed the gold to him. Alexander Stephens, James Brown, Henry Bigler, and William Johnston were likewise working in front of the mill, framing the upper story. They were called up next, and, of course, saw the precious metal. P. L. Weimer and Charles Bennett were at the old double log cabin (where Hastings and Company afterward kept a store).
"In the mean time we put in some wheat and peas, nearly five acres, across the river. In February the Captain (Captain Sutter) came to the mountains for the first time. Then we consummated a treaty with the Indians, which had been previously negotiated. The tenor of this was that we were to pay them two hundred dollars, yearly in goods, at Yerba Buena prices, for the joint possession and occupation of the land with them; they agreeing not to kill our stock, viz., horses, cattle, hogs, or sheep, nor burn the grass within the limits fixt by the treaty. At the same time Captain Sutter, myself, and Isaac Humphrey, entered into a copartnership to dig gold. A short time afterward, P. L. Weimer moved away from the mill, and was away two or three months, when he returned. With all the events that subsequently occurred, you and the public are well informed."
This is the most precise and is generally considered to be the most correct account of the gold discovery. Other versions of the story have been published, however, and the following, from an article published in the Coloma Argus, in the latter part of the year 1855, is one of them. The statement was evidently derived from Weimer, who lives at Coloma:
"That James W. Marshall picked up the first piece of gold is beyond doubt. Peter L. Weimer, who resides in this place, states positively that Marshall picked up the gold in his presence; they both saw it, and each spoke at the same time, 'What's that yellow stuff?' Marshall, being a step in advance, picked it up. This first piece of gold is now in the possession of Mrs. Weimer, and weighs six pennyweights eleven grains. The piece was given to her by Marshall himself. The dam was finished early in January, the frame for the mill also erected, and the flume and bulkhead completed. It was at this time that Marshall and Weimer adopted the plan of raising the gate during the night to wash out sand from the mill-race, closing it during the day, when work would be continued with shovels, etc.
"Early in Februarythe exact day is not rememberedin the morning, after shutting off the water, Marshall and Weimer walked down the race together to see what the water had accomplished during the night. Having gone about twenty yards below the mill, they both saw the piece of gold before mentioned, and Marshall picked it up. After an examination, the gold was taken to the cabin of Weimer, and Mrs. Weimer instructed to boil it in saleratus water; but she, being engaged in making soap, pitched the piece into the soapkettle, where it was boiled all day and all night. The following morning the strange stuff was fished out of the soap, all the brighter for the boiling.
"Discussion now commenced, and all exprest the opinion that perhaps the yellow substance might be gold. Little was said on the subject; but every one each morning searched in the race for more, and every day found several small scales. The Indians also picked up many small thin pieces, and carried them always to Mrs. Weimer. About three weeks after the first piece was obtained, Marshall took the fine gold, amounting to, between two and three ounces, and went to San Francisco to have the strange metal tested. On his return he informed Weimer that the stuff was gold.
"All hands now began to search for the 'root of all evil.' Shortly after, Captain Sutter came to Coloma, and he and Marshall assembled the Indians and bought of them a large tract of country about Coloma, in exchange for a lot of beads and a few cotton handkerchiefs. They, under color of this Indian title, required one-third of all the gold dug on their domain, and collected at this rate until the fall of 1848, when a mining party from Oregon declined paying 'tithes' as they called it.
"During February, 1848, Marshall and Weimer went down the river to Mormon Island, and there found scales of gold on the rocks. Some weeks later they sent Mr. Henderson, Sydney Willis, and Mr. Fifield, Mormons, down there to dig, telling them that that place was better than Coloma. These were the first miners at Mormon Island."
Marshall was a man of an active, enthusiastic mind, and he at once attached great importance to his discovery. His ideas, however, were vague; he knew nothing about gold-mining; he did not know how to take advantage of what he had found. Only an experienced gold-miner could understand the importance of the discovery and make it of practical value to all the world. That goldminer, fortunately, was near at hand; his name was Isaac Humphrey. He was residing in the town of San Francisco, in the month of February, when a Mr. Bennett, one of the party employed at Marshall's mill, went down to that place with some of the dust to have it tested; for it was still a matter of doubt whether this yellow metal really was gold. Bennett told his errand to a friend whom he met in San Francisco, and this friend introduced him to Humphrey, who had been a gold-miner in Georgia, and was therefore competent to pass an opinion.
Humphrey looked at the dust, pronounced it gold at the first glance, and exprest a belief that the diggings must be rich. He made inquiries about the place where the gold was found, and subsequent inquiries about the trustworthiness of Mr. Bennett, and on March 7th he was at the mill. He tried to induce several of his friends in San Francisco to go with him; they all thought his expedition a foolish one, and he had to go alone. He found that there was some talk about the gold, and persons would occasionally go about looking for pieces of it; but no one was engaged in mining, and the work of the mill was going on as usual. On the 8th he went out prospecting with a pan, and satisfied himself that the country in that vicinity was rich in gold. He then made a rocker and commenced the business of washing gold, and thus began the business of mining in California.
Others saw how he did it, followed his example, found that the work was profitable, and abandoned all other occupations. The news of their success spread; people flocked to the place, learned how to use the rocker, discovered new diggings, and in the course of a few months the country had been overturned by a social and industrial revolution.
About the middle of March, P. B. Reading, an American, now a prominent and wealthy citizen of the State, then the owner of a large ranch on the western bank of the Sacramento River, near where it issues from the mountains, came to Coloma, and after looking about at the diggings, said that if similarity in the appearance of the country could be taken as a guide there must be gold in the hills near his ranch; and he went off, declaring his intention to go back and make an examination of them. John Bidwell, another American, now a wealthy and influential citizen, then residing on his ranch on the bank of Feather River, came to Coloma about a week later, and he said there must be gold near his ranch, and he went off with expressions similar to those used by Reading. In a few weeks news came that Reading had found diggings near Clear Creek, at the head of the Sacramento Valley, and was at work there with his Indians; and not long after, it was reported that Bidwell was at work with his Indians on a rich bar of Feather River, since called "Bidwell's Bar."
Altho Bennett had arrived at San Francisco in February with some of the dust, the editors of the townfor two papers were published in the place at the timedid not hear of the discovery till some weeks later. The first published notice of the gold appeared in the Californian (published in San Francisco) on March 15th, as follows: "In the newly made raceway of the sawmill recently erected by Captain Sutter, on the American Fork,2 gold has been found in considerable quantities. One person brought thirty dollars' worth to New Helvetia, gathered there in a short time. California, no doubt, is rich in mineral wealth; great chances here for scientific capitalists. Gold has been found in almost every part of the country."
It was not until more than three months after Marshall's discovery that the San Francisco papers stated that gold-mining had become a regular and profitable business in the new placers. The Californian of April 26th said: "From a gentleman just from the gold region we learn that many new discoveries of gold have very recently been made, and it is fully ascertained that a large extent of country abounds with that precious mineral. Seven men, with picks and spades, gathered one thousand six hundred dollars worth in fifteen days. Many persons are settling on the lands with the view of holding preemptions, but as yet every person takes the right to gather all he can without any regard to claims. The largest piece yet found is worth six dollars."
The news spread, men came from all the settled parts of the territory, and as they came they went to work mining, and gradually they moved farther and farther from Coloma, and before the rainy season had commenced (in December) miners were washing rich auriferous dirt all along the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, from the Feather to the Tuolumne River, a distance of one hundred fifty miles; and also over a space of about fifteen miles square, near the place now known as the town of Shasta, in the Coast Mountains, at the head of the Sacramento Valley. The whole country had been turned topsy-turvy; towns had been deserted, or left only to the women and children; fields had been left unreaped; herds of cattle went without any one to care for them. But gold-mining, which had become the great interest of the country, was not neglected. The people learned rapidly and worked hard.
In the latter part of 1848 adventurers began to arrive from Oregon, the Sandwich Islands, and Mexico. The winter found the miners with very little preparation, but most of them were accustomed to a rough manner of life in the Western wilds, and they considered their large profits an abundant compensation for their privations and hardships. The weather was so mild in December and January that they could work almost as well as in the summer, and the rain gave them facilities for washing such as they could not have in the dry season.
In September, 1848, the first rumors of the gold discovery began to reach New York; in October they attracted attention; in November people looked with interest for new reports; in December the news gained general credence, and a great excitement arose. Preparations were made for a migration to California by somebody in nearly every town in the United States.3 The great body of the emigrants went across the plains with ox or mule teams or around Cape Horn in sailing-vessels. A few took passage in the steamer by way of Panama.
Not fewer than one hundred thousand men, representing in their nativity every State in the Union, went to California that year. Of these, twenty thousand crossed the continent by way of the South Pass; and nearly all of them started from the Missouri River between Independence and St. Joseph, in the month of May. They formed an army; in daytime their trains filled up the roads for miles, and at night their campfires glittered in every direction about the places blest with grass and water. The excitement continued. from 1850 to 1853; emigrants continued to come by land and sea, from Europe and America, and in the last-named year from China also. In 1854 the migration fell off, and since that time until the completion of the Union Pacific Railroad California received the chief accessions to her white population by the Panama steamers.
1 Printed in Hubert Howe Bancroft's "West American History."Given here by permission of Mr. Bancroft.
2 The American river is tributary to the Sacramento, and has three ForksNorth, Middle, and South Forks.
3 This is no exaggeration. The New York Tribune in those days had a standing headline, "The Golden Chronicle," followed each day by about two columns of small items telling of companies formed all over the country and going to California to find gold.
THE CLAY COMPROMISE