I just found out where James Marshall’s gold nugget is today. Along with many other great American artifacts, like Lincoln’s top hat and the Star-Spangled Banner, it is in the National Museum of American History, part of the Smithsonian Institution.
When James Marshall picked up that first flake of gold from the tailrace of the sawmill he was building for John Sutter, he touched off a mass movement that would transform California, and indeed, the entire United States. He took the little nugget to Sutter, and they tested it: bit it, weighed it, hammered it, and boiled it in lye. Later that same day Sutter called his business manager, John Bidwell, into his office and asked his opinion. Bidwell agreed: it looked like gold. Sutter sent him to San Francisco with the sample to have it assayed, and Marshall high-tailed it back to Coloma to protect his find.
Soon the word was out: Gold in the California hills! But what became of that first flake of gold from the American River? According to the National Museum of American History:
- In June of 1848, Colonel Sutter presented Marshall’s first-find scale of gold to Capt. Joseph L. Folsom, U.S. Army Assistant Quartermaster at Monterey. Folsom had journeyed to Northern California to verify the gold claim for the U.S. Government.
- The gold samples then traveled with U.S. Army Lt. Lucien Loesser by ship to Panama, across the isthmus by horseback, by ship to New Orleans, and overland to Washington. A letter of transmittal from Folsom that accompanied the packet lists Specimen #1 as “the first piece of gold ever discovered in this Northern part of Upper California found by J. W. Marshall at the Saw Mill of John A. Sutter.”
- By August of 1848, as evidence of the find, this piece and other samples of California gold had arrived in Washington, D.C., for delivery to President James K. Polk and for preservation at the National Institute. Within weeks, President Polk formally declared to Congress that gold had been discovered in California.
In 1861 the gold nugget entered the Smithsonian Institution, where it remains to this day.