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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24 responses to “Riches to Rags: The Men Who Found Gold

  1. Golly, who knew, Andrea? Those poor guys – especially Marshall – getting pushed aside after all his honesty and hard work. Great history lesson. A new perspective I’d not thought of before.

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  2. Andi, great post. Thanks. It always fascinates me to find out how much gets lost in the historical margins. I’m heads down researching a project on Bleeding Kansas that has a tap root that reaches Sutter’s Mill or at least the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Keep up the good stuff.

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  3. It turned out that most men who got rich from the gold rush were either lucky enough to have been in California in 1848 and so got to the easily gotten gold first … or those who were shrewd enough to see that they had better chances of getting rich by mining the gold miners than a mine.

    My next book but one is a picaresque adventure, about a young man who comes to California with a Texas cattle herd, and knocks around for about two years, never striking it rich – but having some interesting adventures. In the mid-1850s a lot of later-famous people were there; the actor Edwin Booth, William T. Sherman, Judge Roy Bean, and Texas Ranger captain John Coffee Hays – just to name a few.

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    • Thanks for your input, Celia; we’ll look forward to your book.

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      • Look for it around and about November, 2015 – The Golden Road is the working title – and likely the final title.

        Another bit of trivia – there is still a lot of gold in California; some reckon that the amount taken out in the Gold Rush was really only about a sixth of what was there. Alas, the remaining gold is much, much harder and more expensive to get at … but there are still people working little claims today.

        There was gold found in Southern California, too – growing up, we heard the story of a local Californio cattle rancher, who was out riding in the hills on some cattle-ranching errand in the mid-1840s, and had some cold tortillas for his lunch. He sat down to eat them around midday, and noticed some wild onions growing nearby. He pulled up a wild onion to have with the tortillas … and there was a humongous gold nugget caught in the roots. But he and his family stayed very, very quiet about their little gold-mining operation, so it did not set off a mad stampede as the Sutter discovery did.

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  4. Wonderful post Andrea! I’m sort of a Gold Rush nut, so I really appreciate this. By the way, do you mind sharing your source for the public domain photos you used? Thanks.

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    • Glad you enjoyed this, Brigid. For the photos I simply googled gold rush public domain photos and a bunch came up; be sure to check that EACH photo says it’s in the public domain. Most of them came off a site called Schmoop. If you have trouble finding them, get back to me via email. Good luck!

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      • Thank you! I’m usually pretty good at those Google searches, but I wasn’t thinking of “public domain.” as a key phrase. I bookmarked the Shmoop page. I actually just bought some Gold Rush images from Weebly, but they did sell me the jpeg file and I can use those as much as I want.

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      • And they’re probably more interesting than the ones I got, which seem to be all over the place…

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  5. Andi, this is so informative. Things like that seemed to happen often. Why only certain folks get noticed and others do not I’m sure is as political as it was then, as it is now. Great history lesson. Thanks.

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    • Carmen, politics certainly came into play. The mere fact the government decided not to recognize Sutter’s Mexican land claim was certainly political. I believe that, even under US law, he would have had squatter’s rights to at least some of the property anyway.

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  6. I did some research years ago about Sutter and his mill, but hadn’t thought about it for ages. Interesting. Another example of life isn’t always fair.

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    • That’s certainly true, Eunie. Can you imagine what it must have felt like to see all these people around you, on what you considered your property, meeting rich and digging up your gold…

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  7. Great post! Growing up in California, I remember we studied California history in fourth grade. The history book had about Sutter and Marshall, but they never told what happened to them. Just said how the property was over run.

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  8. I loved this. So much of history is lost or skewed. I knew the Mormons were involved but never knew the whole story. Thanks for posting this!

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  9. Fascinating account. I just joined a local genealogy club here in Glendale, AZ and I intend to see what I can find on Sutter and Marshall in the large library the group owns. Your posting has given me my first research project. Thanks.

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  10. As always, Andi, you do impeccable research and what you share is so valuable for historical writers. History has a way of being very fickle when it comes to detailed information on important subjects. I always appreciate your posts. Keep it up. I’ve been working in Kansas history for the Victorian series where they founded the town of Victoria from a railroad grant for the land. Interesting stuff there too. The second book will be out Oct. 24, Rowena’s Hellion.

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    • Thanks for your very kind words, Velda. I wrote a little about the Victoria colony in a post somewhere–an interesting venture. Too bad that, looking out on that beautiful expanse of prairie, poor Grant couldn’t envisage what a locust or grasshopper infestation could do! Good luck with Rowena’s Hellion–we’ll all look forward to reading it!

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