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California Gold Rush

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California Gold Rush: by Lauren Burt

James Wilson Marshall was a skilled carpenter trained by his wheelwright father

in New Jersey. Marshall was building a sawmill for California land developer John Sutter

in Coloma Valley near Sacramento when he observed something glittering in the new

millrace that had been allowed to flow overnight. He described the nugget as "half the

size and shape of a pea." "It made my heart thump," he later recalled, "for I was certain it

was gold." Examining the nugget, he exclaimed to his fellow workmen, "Boys, by God, I

believe I have found a gold mine."

The impact of Marshall's find that afternoon at Sutter's Mill in the Sierra Nevada

foothills was enormous, and became known worldwide. Although Marshall's discovery

occurred in 1848, the electrifying news did not reach the East Coast and other parts of the

world until a year later, triggering the Gold Rush of '49, the greatest stampede of gold

seekers in history.

The only hope was to keep the discovery quiet. Sutter and Marshall swore

the mill workers to secrecy, but word got out. When Jacob Wittmer took two

wagons up to the mill on February 9, the Wimmer children apparently told him of

the gold. When he scoffed at the story, it was confirmed by Mrs. Wimmer and the

other adults. Wittmer brought the news back to the fort, and even used some of

the gold to buy a bottle of brandy at the fort store. The store operator sent word to

his partner in San Francisco, the enterprising Sam Brannan. Henry Bigler shared

the news with three of his fellow Mormons who were working on the new flour

mill near Sutter's Fort. They visited Coloma and then on the way back to Sutter's

Fort prospected at a spot that shortly became the rich diggings of Mormon Island.

On February 10, Sutter himself wrote his impatient creditor, General

Mariano Vallejo: "My sawmill is finished and I have made a discovery of a gold

mine ... which is extraordinarily rich." As the word seeped out, Sutter was soon

openly telling visitors to the fort about the discovery.

The first printed notice of the discovery was in the March 15 issue of "The

Californian" in San Francisco. Shortly after Marshall's discovery, General John Bidwell

discovered gold in the Feather River and Major Pearson B. Reading found gold in the

Trinity River. The Gold Rush was soon in full sway.

By ship, horse and wagon, and on foot, hundreds of thousands of men and women

with their families poured into California, leading to the territory's early statehood, and

extending the United States from coast to coast. Thus began one of the largest human

migrations in history as a half-million people from around the world descended upon

California in search of instant wealth. They came in droves, pans in hand, hoping to find

a gleaming spot of yellow beneath the dirt. A few flakes of gold bought dinner and a

place to sleep; a strike could set them up for life.

The 49ers, as they came to be known for the massive migration westward that

started in 1849, after word of the gold discovery had filtered back East, may have

represented some of the hardiest travelers ever. But they hardly knew it at the time. From

farmers to aristocrats who traveled in style, few understood the nature of the trip they

were embarking upon, and many gave up after only a day or two on the trail, earning

themselves the humiliating sobriquet of "backed out Californians" as they backtracked to

their homes and farms. For the hardy thousands who persevered and made it, the trip

alone was as educational as the arrival in the strange land called California. Many took

what they assumed was the easy way, the migration by sea that continued from 1849 for a

decade. The trips typically began anywhere along the Atlantic Coast with ships sailing

southward around Cape Horn and back up to San Francisco. Others sailed only as far

south as Panama, where travelers disembarked, then made a three-day trip by mule and

canoe across land to the Pacific side, where they boarded another ship for the trip north to

San Francisco.

At first the only people who came to look for gold were men from the

coastal towns and ranches, sailors whose ships had brought cargo to San

Francisco, or soldiers loosed in the aftermath of the Mexican War. Only the

best equipped brought tents. Most settled in brush shelters or just laid out their

blankets on the ground. Marshall tried to keep them away from the mill and his

own claims, directing them up and down the river and to tributary streams. Gold

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