Happy Gold Discovery Day!
January 24, 1848 is the date usually given for the discovery of gold at Coloma on the American River, where James Marshall found those first few flakes of gold in the millrace. It may have been a few days earlier, or a few days later, but January 24 is the date most generally accepted. And everyone knows that James Marshall was the man who discovered gold and touched off the California Gold Rush.
But how many know the names of Peter and Jennie Wimmer? 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, and knew gold when she saw it. In fact, she had been telling the men for some time that the shiny specks in the water were gold. But what would a woman know about that?
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 two children. After his death, she married widower Peter Wimmer, who had five children of his own. In 1845 they joined a wagon train headed for California. Peter went to work for 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, that first spotted gold in the tailrace of the mill. Marshall liked to take sole credit, but Peter Wimmer claimed he allowed James Marshall the credit since Marshall was the one who picked up the little nugget.
But there is no doubt that Jennie Wimmer was the first to test it. Although others were skeptical, thinking it might be 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 left it overnight. After she took off the soap, the nugget of gold was found in the bottom of the kettle the next morning, even more bright and yellow than when it had gone in.
No one could doubt it. There was gold in the American River, and soon gold fever would sweep the nation.
That first little nugget of gold remained in James Marshall’s possession after he showed it to John Sutter. In gratitude for her assistance, he gave it to Jennie Wimmer. She carried it in a leather bag around her neck for the next 40 years.
Today it is on display at The Bancroft Library at the University of California Berkeley campus. The little nugget is about the size of the end of my thumb.
The fortunes of the Wimmer family fluctuated through the years, as did those of so many pioneer families. They lived in various locations in California. Three more children were born into the Wimmer family, bringing the total to ten. Jennie Wimmer died in San Diego County in 1885.