On this day in 1847, James Wilson Marshall discovered the gold which would spark the California Gold Rush. This is not a story of fame, fortune and happily ever after. James profited not one bit from his precious find. If anything, it made his life considerably worse.
James Marshall was born in 1810 in New Jersey, but his life wasn’t going so well and, in 1834, he headed west. He settled for a while in Missouri, but contracted malaria while farming along the Missouri River. His doctor advised him to move further west for the sake of his health and, in 1845, he wound up in California working as a carpenter for a man called John Sutter. Sutter was a Swiss settler who had established an agricultural and trading colony, called Sutter’s Fort, a few years earlier. In 1847, Marshall convinced Sutter that it would be a good idea to build a sawmill, about forty-five miles away in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, on the south fork of the American River. The mill would be powered by a large waterwheel. Marshall was put in charge of the project.
In order for the wheel to turn, they needed to dig a large channel, called a tail race, that would let the water flow more quickly. In order to speed up the process, overnight, Marshall and his men would divert the course of the river to wash away the soil. Every morning, Marshall would make an inspection of the channel to see how things were going. It was on the morning of the 24th that he saw something shining in the bottom of the channel. He took a closer look and, as he knew a bit about minerals, he knew it was either iron pyrite or gold. He knew that iron pyrite was brittle, so he tried to crush it. He found that it was quite malleable, so he was sure it must be gold.
Sutter seems to have been none too happy about the discovery of gold on his property and tried to keep it quiet. He may have known it spelt trouble. The workers at Sutter’s Mill continued their building work, but spent their spare time searching for gold. The secret didn’t keep for long. Some of his workers visited a store owned by Sam Brannan and paid for their goods with their gold. It didn’t take Sam long to find out where the gold had come from and May 1848 found him running through the streets of San Fransisco with a bottle of gold dust crying “Gold, gold from the American River.” The cat was out of the bag. Within days half the town’s population had left for the hills and more would soon follow.
People’s lust for gold was so strong that Marshall and Sutter were soon overrun and most of their property destroyed. They were unable to hang onto their claim to the land. They had no more gold and no sawmill either. It was at this point that Marshall, for some unknown reason, decided to claim that he had supernatural powers that could lead him to the richest deposits of gold. This was not a smart move. When he either couldn’t or wouldn’t help the prospectors, they turned on him. He found it very difficult to get work. Everyone knew him to be the first person to find the gold and possibly they just assumed he was rich because they felt that, if anything, he should be employing them. Poor James Marshall. He lost all his property and no one would give him a job. He was forced to hide out in the hills with nothing but rice to eat. Unsurprisingly, he felt extremely badly done by and became a very bitter man. He did eventually receive a government pension of $200 a month for his contribution in 1872. Two years later it was halved, and two years after that, stopped altogether. He lived the rest of his life, until 1885, doing odd jobs and selling his autograph at 50c a time.
Marshall was not the first person to find gold in California. He was just unlucky that the story of his find spread so quickly and so far, thanks to Sam Brannen. He did not profit from the California Gold Rush and neither did many of the 300,000 prospectors who tuned up in California in search of their fortunes. It was a lawless place and around one in twelve of them would die trying to hang onto their claim. Most shamefully of all, it led to the virtual genocide of Native American tribes who had lived in the area for 14,000 years. Greed is a terrible thing.
The people who were on the periphery of the gold rush, offering goods and services were the ones who really made a profit. Guess who the first millionaire of the California Gold Rush was. It was Sam Brannan. He owned the only store between San Francisco and the California gold fields. He bought up all the picks shovels and pans he could lay his hands on. At the height of the rush in 1849, he was making $150,000 a month. He made his fortune selling hope, at a huge premium.
With such a trail of death, misfortune and wily entrepreneurs, it might be hard to see why any of this is brilliant. But the gold discovered in California contributed the equivalent of tens of billions of dollars to the economy. This new wealth created a high demand for pretty much everything and stimulated economic growth worldwide. It led to serious settlement in the west and the building of the First Transcontinental Railroad. In San Francisco alone the population rose from just 500 in 1847 to 150,000 by 1870. California came to be perceived as a place of new beginnings, where great fortunes could be made in return for hard work. People still follow the ‘California Dream’ only now they are more likely to be hoping for a career in Hollywood.