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The forgotten source of California’s Gold Rush

The great California Gold Rush that began in 1848 is one of the major events in American history. It was the explosive spark that ignited the Western migration of millions of people from the East that still continues today. Yet, oddly, the spot where gold was first spotted, a place of great natural beauty, is today a rarely visited state park that is far off the beaten path. And even within the park itself, the very spot where gold was first discovered is marked by a mud-covered hard-to-read old sign that is ignored by most visitors.
The American River in Coloma National Park
There is no doubt that the 1848 discovery of gold in the Coloma Valley in California 45 miles east of Sacramento triggered a historic migration West that quickly led its admittance as a state two years later. The story is well known. John Sutter (1803-1880), an immigrant from Switzerland, owned a vast agricultural empire in the Sacramento Valley. He formed a partnership with one James. W. Marshall (1810-1885) to go into the lucrative lumber business. They selected a picturesque spot on the South Fork of the American River in the Coloma Valley to construct a mill. They chose this site because the fast-flowing river could provide the power and a nearby strand of ponderosa pine trees would supply the lumber. As equal partners, Sutter supplied the capital leaving Marshall the responsibility of constructing and operating the mill.

Marshall began construction of the mill in late 1847 with labor supplied by local Indians and soldiers from the U.S. Army Mormon Battalion. A low dam was built across the river to channel water into a small canal that ran through the mill to supply it with power. A tailrace then took the water from the mill back into the river. Unfortunately, the initial tailrace was too shallow, forcing the water in the canal to back up and depriving the mill the necessary power to operate smoothly. Marshall had his Indian laborers dig to deepen the tailrace which they did in January, 1848. When Marshall went to inspect the watercourse on January 24th, 1848, he discovered flakes of cold in the mud where the Indians had been digging. The news spread like wildfire and the gold rush was on.

The ruins of Coloma HallHundreds of prospectors descended on the region and a small city grew in the wilderness. By July 1848, the population had jumped to over 4,000, but by 1857, most of the gold had been dug out and virtually all the prospectors had moved on. The inundation of prospectors forced Sutter and Marshall to give up their mill and land by 1850. Marshall continued to farm and prospect the area around Coloma, but he died a poor man in 1885.

Word spread everywhere about Marshall’s discovery, even as far away as China. Oddly, it was in some respects easier and much faster for an immigrant from China to get to California than for a prospective miner from New York. The Chinese could board a steamship in Hong Kong and arrive in California in less than a month while a New Yorker had to spend up to six months or more riding in a wagon train across the continent, taking a ship around South America or making the deadly mosquito-infested trip through the jungle of what is now Panama. It is estimated that there were over fifty Chinese miners at any one time in Coloma.

Today the site of Marshall’s mill is commemorated by the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. It is a place of great natural beauty that differs very little from its pre-1848 appearance. Most of the original buildings were very simple structures that disappeared with the inevitable end of the initial gold rush in the 1850s, but enough of original Coloma survives to give the visitor some idea of the area in the mid-nineteenth century. The sluice where Marshall discovered the gold still wanders through dense brush along the river. The tumble-down ruins of the old jail serve as a stark reminder that troublemakers would find themselves in a dark cold cell and that a hangman’s noose awaited them just outside. Chinese shop, ColomaTwo Chinese-style buildings that were once small stores tell of the large Chinese presence in Coloma and California as a whole at the start of the gold rush. Small structures that served as a post office or a blacksmith’s shop survive as well. A replica mill sits at or near the site where Marshall constructed his first structure.

What I love most about Coloma is its natural beauty. The American River winds its way through Coloma in a splendid natural setting. The river curves in serpentine form, alternatively rushing through large rock formations in the water or slowing down in suddenly wide spots. The foothills of the towering High Sierra mountain range quite literally begin on the eastern shore of the river. The land west of the river is flat and rolling used mainly for farming. The eastern bank of the river looks up the steep sides of a chain of hills that are ablaze with flowers in the spring, but various shades of brown after a long dry summer. Since there are very few houses or other man-made structures visible along the banks of the river, one can truly enjoy the natural beauty of the area.

I am an avid fisherman and I spend many hours every year in the park fishing for trout and other game fish. The fish are smart and most avoid my tempting worms and other delectable treats, but last May I suddenly felt a huge tug on my line and after a lengthy struggle, I brought in a monster fish. It was more exhausted than I, but after having it pose for a picture, I sent it on its way down the river. The park is also very popular with kayakers and white water rafting enthusiasts. The current is tricky and I have often seen rafters topple into the water.

The primitive simplicity of the park is also appealing. One would think that the very spot where Marshall found the gold that triggered the settling of California would merit a major monument, but that is hardly the case here. If one follows a meandering dirt path along the river away from the park’s center, there is a steep embankment looking down at the muddy sluice that Marshall built along the river. At one spot there is a tiny beat-up old sign informing the visitor that it was right here that gold was first found. When I revisited the site in October, 2014, I beat a hasty retreat before my shoes began to sink in the mud.

The dusty plaque marking the first discovery of gold

The dusty plaque marking the first discovery of gold

I hope that Coloma will remain a secret and that hordes of tourists will never find their way here, but if one loves history as well as the beauty of the California countryside, bring your fishing pole and enjoy the quiet serenity of it all.

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