The Discovery of Gold

Today marks the 162nd anniversary of the discovery of gold in California by James Marshall, an incident which touched off the California Gold Rush and changed the course of history.

James Marshall in old age

John Bidwell was intimately involved in the discovery of gold. As John Sutter’s business manager, Bidwell drew up a contract between Sutter and James Marshall for the building of a saw mill in August of 1847.  Sutter had a need for plenty of lumber to build his new project, a town he planned to call Sutterville, located a few miles south of Sutter’s Fort. He contracted with Marshall to supply him with lumber and Marshall selected the site at  Coloma on the south fork of the American River for a mill. The idea was to float the lumber 45 miles down the river to Sutterville.

John Bidwell had looked the location over in the summer of ’47 and didn’t think much of it. He was sure that the river was too wild and dangerous to make the transport of lumber practicable,  but Robert Semple, who was with him on this inspection tour, thought the plan was feasible.

In January of 1848 the mill was nearly completed. On the morning of January 24th  Marshall went out to inspect the tailrace and noticed some bright sparkles under the water. He gathered up the tiny pieces. They looked like gold, and he quickly set out for Sutter’s Fort to show his find to Sutter.

Sutter and Marshall tested the metal. They bit it, hammered it, weighed it against silver, and dropped it in nitric acid. It passed all the tests. Sutter didn’t want the news to get out until after his crops were planted, so he swore James Marshall to secrecy.

Other than Marshall’s workmen, who certainly had an idea that something was up, the next man to find out about the gold discovery was Bidwell.  In January 1848 he was at his new property on Little Butte Creek, digging an irrigation ditch and planning a fruit orchard. Wanting to acquire some fruit trees and grapevines, he set out for Mission San Rafael by way of Sutter’s Fort.

“The very spring that gold was discovered, I was preparing to set out my farm, and had dug the first irrigating ditch in the Sacramento valley. As soon as I got my ditch ready and the ground prepared, I went over to San Rafael and Sonoma to get my trees. I crossed over to San Francisco and reported the discovery of gold. I believe I was the first man to tell the news in San Francisco.”

This was not the first time John Bidwell had heard about gold in California. Stay tuned to learn more about Bidwell’s search for gold, and how he missed out on being the man who discovered gold in California.

About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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