Born in Lambertsville, New Jersey, on October 8th of 1810, James Marshall left home for good at the young age of twenty-four. Missouri was his first stop; there he settled down along the banks of the Missouri River and took to farming. Several years later he caught one of the malarial fevers that plagued the residents of the low-lying bottom lands. His recovery was slow but when he felt well enough to travel, he decided it was time to head west to seek a healthier climate.
Joining an emigrant train on its way to the Oregon Territory in 1844, Marshall was not content with his destination and upon arriving decided to set out once again, this time for California. He arrived at Sutter’s Fort in 1845, at the age of thirty-four, and was immediately hired as a handyman by Captain Sutter. Anxious to get back to farming, Marshall bought a ranch on Butte Creek but continued to work for Sutter.
Marshall fought in the Mexican War, serving in Captain John Fremont’s California Volunteers for one year. When he returned to Sutter’s Fort in 1847, he was dismayed to find that all his livestock had either strayed off or been stolen. He had no choice but to go back to work for Sutter.
Sutter’s expanding agricultural empire needed lumber, but there were no stands of timber in the vicinity. As a result, the Captain sent Marshall off on a tree quest, which turned out to be quite successful. Located about forty-five miles away from the fort, the Cullomah Valley was the perfect spot. It was accessible, the South Fork of the American River would provide power for a sawmill, and it was heavily forested with good stands of a variety of trees. John Bidwell, one of Sutter’s clerks, drew up a contract for the two men on or about August 27th of 1847. Marshall would build and supervise the operation of the mill, while Sutter would find provisions, teams, tools, and pay for the workmen’s wages.
Marshall and his men set out for the millsite that September. Their first task was to build a double cabin to house the millworkers and the Wimmers; Peter, Jennie (the camp cook), and their children. Another cabin was then built for Marshall. Some forty local Indians were hired to excavate the millrace and to build the diversion dam. The more skilled men set to felling trees and whipsawing them into timbers for the mill.
When the day finally arrived to test the mill, Marshall and his men held their breath as the wooden headgate opened and the “clear mountain torrent leaped gurgling and foaming along its new cut channel.” A heavy, collective sigh escaped from the men. The wheel turned, but it moved too slowly. It would never power the saw. Marshall quickly determined the problem; the lower end of the tailrace needed deepening to prevent the water from backing up. Additional boring and blasting solved the problem; the water flowed through quickly and the wheel turned with speed.
Meanwhile, Marshall Discovered the Gold. But what most would consider a fortuitous event proved to be the beginning of bad fortunes for Marshall. The once serene Coloma Valley changed forever as miners overran the millsite, staking, claiming, and taking every piece of land in sight. Marshall tried for a short time to hold onto his land but was soon pushed off by the ever increasing hordes. Many of the miners believed he possessed some kind of supernatural powers and virtually forced him to find gold for them, threatening him with hanging if he didn’t deliver. He finally left the area in disgust, to wander and prospect about the state, but was never able to locate another rich strike. In order to pay off old debts, Marshall was forced to sell his ranch on Butte Creek.
Marshall eventually returned to Coloma in 1857 with intentions of settling down. After purchasing some land, he started a vineyard and went on to produce prize-winning wines and brandies in the early 1860s. Towards the end of the decade; however, a lessening demand for fruit, high taxes and increased competition combined to end his career as a vintner. Once again, Marshall turned to prospecting. He later became a partner in a mine near Kelsey, and as its development proved expensive, he hit the lecture tour to raise funds. The mine turned out to be a humbug and left Marshall virtually impoverished.
In 1872 the State Legislature passed a bill which awarded Marshall a pension, good for two years, in honor of his important role in California history. The pension was renewed twice but was allowed to lapse in 1878, to which Marshall himself may be partly to blame. Legend has it that when he visited the 1878 assembly in person, a brandy bottle dropped out of his pocket and rolled along the floor, causing a somewhat bad impression.
James Wilson Marshall died in Kelsey in 1885, penniless. Taken back to Coloma, he was buried on an acre of his vineyard land, on a hill overlooking the town and the South Fork of the American River. In 1890 the state erected a monument over his grave, atop of which stands a bronze statue of Marshall, pointing to the spot where he made the discovery that electrified the world.