James Marshall wasn’t feeling well. Malaria, the doctor told him. The doctor’s prescription: Move. It was 1844, and doctors didn’t have a cure. So that’s how Marshall — who had already packed up and moved thrice before from New Jersey to Indiana to Illinois and then to Missouri — packed up a fourth time and moved further west to Oregon.
Marshall’s story is a very American one: Hard work and restlessness in search of, well, something. He found something all right, but it didn’t do him much good, but we’re getting ahead of our story.
Marshall didn’t last long in Oregon. In the summer of 1845, he moved yet a fifth time — to a little place called Sutter’s Fort, California. Technically, he was no longer in the United States. California was owned by Mexico, but it didn’t feel owned by anyone. The main inhabitants were Native Americans, which meant most whites didn’t consider it contained anyone worth paying attention to. It was the type of place that attracted adventurers, and there were few as adventurous as John Sutter.
Sutter was born in Germany to a Swiss family. For a time, he ran a store, but mostly ran up debts. Faced with going to jail, he decided to go to America instead. However, he wound up in California. Sutter arrived with grand plans that he hoped would make himself rich: He saw himself as a real estate developer who would establish a community of Swiss immigrants. He presented his plans to the Mexican governor. The governor offered Sutter a deal: Become a Mexican citizen and Sutter could have free land in the great Central Valley where only Native Americans lived. That’s where Sutter was when Marshall showed up looking for work.
Let’s not mythologize Sutter. Contemporaries wrote that Sutter “keeps 600 to 800 Indians in a complete state of slavery” and raped girls as young as 12. He led a raid that massacred 20 Native Americans. When Mexico and the United States went to war, Sutter found his Mexican citizenship inconvenient — and thought about swearing allegiance to France. When U.S. troops showed up at Sutter’s Fort, he decided he was quite fine becoming an American instead. The troops let him get on with his business, which was building a new mill. And that’s what Marshall was doing for Sutter on the morning of Jan. 24, 1848, when he noticed something shining in the water.
Marshall later told the story this way: “I picked up one or two pieces and examined them attentively; and having some general knowledge of minerals, I could not call to mind more than two which in any way resembled this, iron, very bright and brittle; and gold, bright, yet malleable. I then tried it between two rocks, and found that it could be beaten into a different shape, but not broken.”
Marshall took four or five of the shiny rocks and showed them to one of the carpenters. “I have found it,” he declared.
“What is it?” the carpenter asked.
Four days later, Marshall went back to Sutter’s Fort and broke the news to his boss. Unsure what to do, they read an encyclopedia entry on gold and started running some primitive tests on the rocks. Sutter concluded it was 96% pure. For a man who now literally owned a gold field, Sutter was quite unhappy. He worried the discovery would interfere with his plans to build a grand city. Sutter and Marshall vowed to become partners — and to keep their find secret. It didn’t work. Marshall had already made the mistake of telling one of the carpenters. Soon the men working on the mill abandoned their work to pan for gold. One day a man went to Samuel Brannan’s store and paid for a bottle of brandy with three small pieces of gold. This was not a good way to keep a secret, because Brannan was a born huckster.
In May 1848, Brannan showed up in San Francisco, waving around a bottle of gold dust and shouting: “Gold! Gold! Gold! From the American River!” Brannan owned the only store between the harbor and the gold fields — and had taken care to buy up all the shovels, axes and pans he could find. He paid 20 cents apiece for the pans and sold them for $15. Soon some 4,000 prospectors overran Sutter’s Fort — trampling Sutter’s crops and butchering his cattle. Sutter’s New Helvetia venture failed; both he and Marshall were forced off their land. Sutter spent the rest of his life trying to make the government pay him for his losses. Neither he nor Marshall made any money on the gold. But Brannan sure did. He became California’s first millionaire.
All this was in the summer of 1848. But news travelled slowly in those days, and no one back East was sure how much to trust these distant rumors of gold. In December 1848, though, President James Polk delivered one of the most consequential State of the Union addresses in American history: He confirmed the discovery of gold in California. “The supply is very large,” he declared. And that’s when the Gold Rush really began. By the end of 1849, some 80,000 or more fortune-hunters were on their way to California. These were “the ’49ers,” for whom San Francisco’s National Football League team is named. We use the start of the NFL season to bring you this history lesson.
The gold flecks that Marshall found downstream from Sutter’s mill transformed California — and the nation. The gold rush hastened the settlement of the West Coast — and with a more diverse population than was found back east. Perhaps one-third of the ’49ers were from outside the United States. There were only a handful of people of Asian ancestry in the United States before the gold rush. By 1852, there were 25,000 Chinese immigrants in California. Today, nearly 15% of Californians are Asian-American — the largest percentage for any state other than Hawaii. You can trace all that back to the ’49ers.
Some also trace the origins of San Francisco’s gay culture to the gold rush. Less than 2% of the people who arrived in the city’s harbor in 1849 were women — and many of those were prostitutes. San Francisco was a “city of bachelors,” with all that might imply. San Francisco’s reputation was always somewhat, um, colorful.
Few of the ’49ers actually got rich. Jonathan Ramey of Scott County, Virginia, later wrote that he went west envisioning “wealth as dazzling as those described in Eastern story” but that most reports of gold “proved as unsubstantial as Aladdin’s palace and, like it, vanished into viewless air.” As for Brannan, who made the biggest fortune off the ’49ers — he lost much of it in a divorce and died so poor that his body lay unclaimed in a government vault for a year.