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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

How They Found the Pacific Gold

By Hubert Howe Bancroft (1832–1918)

[Born in Granville, Ohio, 1832. Died in San Francisco, Ca., 1918. From History of the Pacific States of North America. Volume XXIII. 1888.]

TWOSCORE miles above Sutter’s Fort, a short distance up the south branch of American River, the rocky gateway opens, and the mountains recede to the south, leaving in their wake softly rounded hills covered with pine, balsam, and oak, while on the north are somewhat abrupt and rocky slopes, patched with grease-wood and chemisal, and streaked with the deepening shades of narrow gulches. Between these bounds is a valley four miles in circumference, with red soil now covered by a thin verdure, shaded here and there by low bushes and stately groves. Culuma, “beautiful vale,” the place was called. At times sunk in isolation, at times it was stirred by the presence of a tribe of savages bearing its name, whose several generations here cradled, after weary roaming, sought repose upon the banks of a useful, happy, and sometimes frolicsome stream. Within the half-year civilization had penetrated these precincts, to break the periodic solitude with the sound of axe and rifle; for here the saw-mill men had come, marking their course by a tree-blazed route, presently to show the way to the place where was now to be played the first scene of a drama which had for its audience the world.

Among the retainers of the Swiss hacendado at this time was a native of New Jersey, James Wilson Marshall, a man of thirty-three years, who after drifting in the western states as carpenter and farmer, came hither by way of Oregon to California. In July 1845 he entered the service of Sutter, and was duly valued as a good mechanic. By and by he secured a grant of land on Butte Creek, on which he placed some live-stock, and went to work. During his absence in the war southward, this was lost or stolen; and somewhat discouraged, he turned again to Sutter, and readily entered into his views for building a saw-mill.

The old difficulty of finding a site still remained, and several exploring excursions were now made by Marshall, sometimes accompanied by Sutter, and by others in Sutter’s service. On the 16th of May, 1847, Marshall set out on one of these journeys, accompanied by an Indian guide and two white men, Treador and Graves. On the 20th they were joined by one Gingery, who had been exploring with the same object on the Cosumnes. They travelled up the stream now called Weber Creek to its head, pushed on to the American River, discovered Culuma, and settled upon this place as the best they had found, uniting as it did the requisite water-power and timber, with a possible roadway to the fort Sutter resolved to lose no time in erecting the mill, and invited Marshall to join him as partner. The agreement was signed in the latter part of August, and shortly afterward Marshall set out with his party, carrying tools and supplies on Mexican ox-carts, and driving a flock of sheep for food. A week was occupied by the journey. Shelter being the first thing required on arrival, a double log-house was erected, with a passage-way between the two parts, distant a quarter of a mile or more from the mill-site. Subsequently two other cabins were constructed nearer the site. By New-Year’s day the mill-frame had risen, and a fortnight later the brush-dam was finished, although not till the fortitude of Marshall and his men had been tried by a flood which threatened to sweep away the whole structure….

They were a cheerful set, working with a will, yet with a touch of insouciance, imparted to some extent by the picturesque Mexican sombrero and sashes, and sustained by an interchange of banter at the simplicity or awkwardness of the savages. In Marshall they had a passable master, though sometimes called queer. He was a man fitted by physique and temperament for the backwoods life, which had lured and held him. Of medium size, strong rather than well developed, his features were coarse, with a thin beard round the chin and mouth, cut short like the brown hair; broad forehead and penetrating eyes, by no means unintelligent, yet lacking intellectuality, at times gloomily bent on vacancy, at times flashing with impatience. He was essentially a man of moods; his mind was of dual complexion. In the plain and proximate, he was sensible and skilful; in the obscure and remote, he was utterly lost. In temper it was so; with his companions and subordinates he was free and friendly; with his superiors and the world at large he was morbidly ill-tempered and surly. He was taciturn, with visionary ideas, linked to spiritualism, that repelled confidence, and made him appear eccentric and morbid; he was restless, yet capable of self-denying perseverance that was frequently stamped as obstinacy.

Early in the afternoon of Monday, the 24th of January, 1848, while sauntering along the tail-race inspecting the work, Marshall noticed yellow particles mingled with the excavated earth which had been washed by the late rains. He gave it little heed at first; but presently seeing more, and some in scales, the thought occurred to him that possibly it might be gold. Sending an Indian to his cabin for a tin plate, he washed out some of the dirt, separating thereby as much of the dust as a ten-cent piece would hold; then he went about his business, stopping a while to ponder on the matter. During the evening he remarked once or twice quietly, somewhat doubtingly, “Boys, I believe I have found a gold mine.” “I reckon not,” was the response; “no such luck.”

Up betimes next morning, according to his custom, he walked down by the race to see the effect of the night’s sluicing, the head-gate being closed at daybreak as usual. Other motives prompted his investigation, as may be supposed, and led to a closer examination of the debris. On reaching the end of the race a glitter from beneath the water caught his eye, and bending down he picked from its lodgment against a projection of soft granite, some six inches below the surface, a larger piece of the yellow substance than any he had seen. If gold, it was in value equal to about half a dollar. As he examined it his heart began to throb. Could it indeed be gold! Or was it only mica, or sulphuret of copper, or other ignis fatuus! Marshall was no metallurgist, yet he had practical sense enough to know that gold is heavy and malleable; so he turned it over, and weighed it in his hand; then he bit it; and then he hammered it between two stones. It must be gold! And the mighty secret of the Sierra stood revealed!

Marshall took the matter coolly; he was a cool enough man except where his pet lunacy was touched. On further examination he found more of the metal. He went to his companions and showed it to them, and they collected some three ounces of it, flaky and in grains, the largest piece not quite so large as a pea, and from that down to less than a pin-head in size. Half of this he put in his pouch, and two days later mounted his horse and rode over to the fort….

It was late in the afternoon of the 28th of January when Marshall dismounted at New Helvetia, entered the office where Sutter was busy writing, and abruptly requested a private interview. The horseman was dripping wet, for it was raining. Wondering what could have happened, as but the day before he had sent to the mill all that was required, Sutter led the way into a private room. “Are you alone?” demanded the visitor. “Yes,” was the reply. “Did you lock the door?” “No, but I will if you wish it.” “I want two bowls of water,” said Marshall. Sutter rang the bell and the bowls were brought. “Now I want a stick of redwood, and some twine, and some sheet copper.” “What do you want of all these things, Marshall?” “To make scales.” “But I have scales enough in the apothecary’s shop,” said Sutter; and he brought a pair. Drawing forth his pouch, Marshall emptied the contents into his hand, and held it before Sutter’s eyes, remarking, “I believe this is gold; but the people at the mill laughed at me and called me crazy.” Sutter examined the stuff attentively, and finally said: “It certainly looks like it; we will try it.” First aqua-fortis was applied; and the substance stood the test. Next three dollars in silver coin were put into one of the scales, and balanced by gold-dust in the other. Both were then immersed in water, when down went the dust and up the silver coin. Finally a volume of the “American Encyclopædia,” of which the fort contained a copy, was brought out, and the article on gold carefully studied, whereupon all doubts vanished.

Marshall proposed that Sutter should return with him to the mill that night, but the latter declined, saying that he would be over the next day. It was now supper-time, and still drizzling; would not the visitor rest himself till morning? No, he must be off immediately; and without even waiting to eat, he wrapped his serape about him, mounted his horse, and rode off into the rain and darkness. Sutter slept little that night. Though he knew nothing of the magnitude of the affair, and did not fully realize the evils he had presently to face, yet he felt there would soon be enough of the fascination abroad to turn the heads of his men, and to disarrange his plans. In a word, with prophetic eye, as he expressed himself to me, he saw that night the curse of the thing upon him.

On the morning of the 29th of January Sutter started for the saw-mill. When half-way there, or more, he saw an object moving in the bushes at one side. “What is that?” demanded Sutter of his attendant. “The man who was with you yesterday,” was the reply. It was still raining. “Have you been here all night?” asked Sutter of Marshall; for it was indeed he. “No,” Marshall said, “I slept at the mill, and came back to meet you.” As they rode along Marshall expressed the opinion that the whole country was rich in gold. Arrived at the mill, Sutter took up his quarters at a house Marshall had lately built for himself, a little way up the mountain, and yet not far from the mill. During the night the water ran in the race, and in the morning it was shut off. All present then proceeded down the channel, and jumping into it at various points began to gather gold. With some contributions by the men, added to what he himself picked up, Sutter secured enough for a ring weighing an ounce and a half, which he soon after exhibited with great pride as a specimen of the first gold. A private examination by the partners up the river disclosed gold all along its course, and in the tributary ravines and creeks.

Sutter regarded the discovery as a misfortune. Without laborers his extensive works must come to a stop, presaging ruin. Gladly would he have shut the knowledge from the world, for a time, at least. With the men at the mill the best he could do was to make them promise to continue their work, and say nothing of the gold discovery for six weeks, by which time he hoped to have his flour-mill completed, and his other affairs so arranged as to enable him to withstand the result. The men, indeed, were not yet prepared to relinquish good wages for the uncertainties of gold-gathering.

If only the land could be secured on which this gold was scattered—for probably it did not extend far in any direction—then interloping might be prevented, mining controlled, and the discovery made profitable. It was worth trying, at all events. Mexican grants being no longer possible, Sutter began by opening negotiations with the natives, after the manner of the English colonists on the other side of the continent. Calling a council of the Culumas and some of their neighbors, the lords aboriginal of those lands, Sutter and Marshall obtained from them a three years’ lease of a tract some ten or twelve miles square, on payment of some shirts, hats, handkerchiefs, flour, and other articles of no great value, the natives meanwhile to be left unmolested in their homes. Sutter then returned to New Helvetia, and the great discovery was consummated.