Riches to Rags: The Men Who Found Gold

1849 poster ad for ship to California Gold Rush

1849 poster ad for ship to California Gold Rush

Anyone who has ever studied history of the United States will associate the words, ‘Sutter’s Mill,’   in connection with the California Gold Rush of 1849.   They may know John Sutter as owner of that mill, and they may even know that it was James W. Marshall, Sutter’s foreman at the mill, who made the actual discovery of gold. After that, most history books go off into the gold rush itself, and its effect on the expansion of the United States, and the development of California in particular. Sutter and Marshall, now as then, get pushed aside.   And the truth of the matter is the men who went into the history books, who really made money out of the gold rush, were the merchants who supplied the 49ers—men like Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins and Levi Strauss. Sutter and Marshall just got trampled on…

John Sutter, a German Swiss immigrant, had made money in trade and received a large land grant from the Mexican government, who had possession of California at the time. Making a deal with the disbanding Russian colony at Fort Ross, Sutter obtained various livestock and implements, and built his own fort called New Helvetia.   With dreams of starting an agrarian community, he employed a decommissioned battalion of Mormons, who had come to California with the army of General Kearny.

James W. Marshall at Sutter's Mill, 1850

James W. Marshall at Sutter’s Mill, 1850, from a daguerrotype by R.H. Vance

He set them to work building a sawmill on the south fork of the American River under the management of his foreman, James W. Marshall, to whom he purportedly gave a half-interest in the mill.

On 24th January, 1848, Marshall discovered what he believed to be gold. Being a good partner and faithful employee, he showed the metal to Sutter, the men ran tests, and they ascertained that the metal was, indeed, gold. Shortly after, on 2 February, 1848, the United States and Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, thereby bringing the Mexican American War to an end, giving the U.S. half of all Mexican territories including, of course, California, and eventually ruining the two men’s lives.

Although Sutter obtained promises from his Mormon workforce to keep the gold a secret, it wasn’t long before they discovered they could make more money mining the gold than the wages Sutter was paying them. Naturally, rumors spread and, despite the spread being rather slow in those pre-telecommunication days, and the rumors somewhat enhanced with the telling, the California Gold Rush had begun.

Anglo and Chinese miners  circa 1852. Daguerrotype by J. B. Starkweather

Anglo and Chinese miners circa 1852. Daguerrotype by J. B. Starkweather

Forty per cent of enlisted men in California deserted, two-thirds of homes in San Francisco stood empty and John Sutter’s land was invaded.   And this is where the history books veer off into American expansionism, fortunes won and lost, wagon trains heading across the great plains, and possibly even the building of the Panama Canal—or at least the building of the Panama Railway, which preceded it. But what happened to Sutter and Marshall?

Sutter’s agrarian community was decimated by the influx of miners, who killed his livestock for food and stole everything in sight. When he appealed to the courts for restoration of his land, the title was declared invalid because it was a Mexican land grant. Three years later, in debt, Sutter retired to his Hock Farm and deeded the remains of his land grant to his son (who would subsequently initiate the building of Sacramento). He did eventually receive a stipend of $250 a month for the taxes he had paid, and moved to the Moravian community in Pennsylvania. He continued to petition the United States government for fifteen years; in fact, two days before his death, Congress adjourned without action on yet another bill that would have given him reparation.

James W. Marshall

James W. Marshall

As for Marshall, who actually discovered the gold, he, too, had his land claim overrun and his belongings stolen. He, too, sought restitution through the courts to no avail and ended up with just the clothes he stood up in. Joining the hordes looking for gold, crowds would surround him when he would try to find another lode because they believed he had powers of divination. This apparently went on for some seven years until he returned to the small town near his lost mill and earned money by doing odd jobs. Eventually, he was able to own land again and started growing grapes, but such a high tax was levied on the resulting wine that he went bankrupt. In 1871, Marshall started a lecture tour, which eventually took him to Salt Lake City. There, Brigham Young declared he was a liar because it was in the Church records that Mormons had discovered the gold… The California State legislature did, in time, give him a small pension, which they discontinued two years later due to his drinking. Marshall lived until 1885, existing by woodworking and carpentry.

Panning for gold, California, 1850. Photo by L.C. McClure.

Panning for gold, California, 1850. Photo by L.C. McClure.

Of course, as the Present has a way of making cack-handed amends for the Past, the Society of California Pioneers and the Native Sons of the Golden West buried Marshall on a hill overlooking the original site of Sutter’s Mill. They spent a great deal of money for a monument to the man no one supported in life, and now pay a salary to a caretaker for this important site. And Sutter? Over the years, various streets, schools and other geographic places—as well as a rose—have been named after him. And California rebuilt his vandalized fort for the tourists—and maintain it, no doubt, at great cost.


Main source: Brown, Dee: The Westerners, London, 1974

All photos are public domain






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Map in my possession showing the village on its 300th anniversary, 1948

Map in my possession showing the village on its 300th anniversary, 1948

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Paul Colt

Paul Colt

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