In this post, I wrote that the first gold nugget found by James Marshall is now in the Smithsonian Institution. Certainly they have one of the first pieces of gold found at Coloma. But another piece of gold has an equally good claim, and that is the Wimmer Nugget, now at the Bancroft Library.
I saw the Wimmer Nugget in its display case recently when I went to the Bancroft to do some research. It is about the size of the end of my thumb.
Everyone knows the name of James Marshall, discoverer of gold at Coloma. But how many know the names of Peter and Jennie Wimmer? Yet they have just as good a good claim to be gold discoverers, and Jennie was the only person in the camp who actually had experience in gold mining.
Elizabeth Jane “Jennie” Cloud Wimmer was born In Virginia in 1822. In 1838, when she was 16 yeas old, her family moved to north Georgia where Jennie helped her mother run a boarding house for miners. In her free time Jennie went out with her gold pan to do a little prospecting for herself. She developed a good eye for the signs of gold-bearing ore.
She moved to Missouri with her first husband, and after his death, she and Peter Wimmer married and in 1845 joined a wagon train headed for California. Peter was hired by John Sutter and became James Marshall’s assistant in the building of the sawmill at Coloma. Jennie was hired to cook for the men.
There is some debate whether it was Marshall by himself, or Marshall and Wimmer together, or some other combination that first spotted gold in the tailrace of the mill. But there seems to be no doubt that Jennie Wimmer was the first to test it. Although others were doubtful, thinking that it was only iron pyrites that had been found, she recognized the first nugget as true gold. In an interview published in the San Francisco Bulletin in 1874 she stated: “I said, ‘this is gold, and I will throw it into my lye kettle, and if it is gold, it will be gold when it comes out.'”
Jennie was making soap that day, with lye she had made from wood ashes. She threw the nugget in the kettle with the mixture of lye and grease, and after she took off the soap, the nugget of gold was found in the bottom of the kettle the next morning, just as bright and yellow as when it had gone in.
The fortunes of the Wimmer family fluctuated through the years as those of so many pioneer families. They lived in various locations in California and Jennie Wimmer died in San Diego County around 1885. If you want to read more about her, there is information at a variety of Gold Rush internet sites, such as the Oakland Museum and the Gold Rush Gallery.