Although Marshall's discovery of gold on the South Fork of the American Riv er has been called "the most momentous event in all of California History," it was not the first such discovery in California. Some historians maintain that as early as 1812, native Californians were working placer deposits near the Spanish mission of San Fernando. The first verifiable discovery of gold in California; however, occurred in 1842 when Don Fransisco Lopez discovered the precious metal at Placeritas Canyon in the San Fernando Valley, about forty miles northwest of Los Angeles.
While resting beneath a shady tree during a search for stray cattle, Lopez suddenly remembered his wife's request from early that morning. "Bring home some onions, 'Cisco," may or may not have been her exact words. Taking the knife from his belt, he went to a nearby slope and began to dig. Pulling the onions up from the ground,he noticed something glittering in their roots. He looked closer. It was gold. Within a few weeks, hundreds of people were engaged in washing and winnowing the placers of Placeritas Canyon, in what might be called the first gold rush in California history. The deposits were worked successfully for a number of years, but were eventually depleted and the mines forgotten.
The California Gold Rush truly began on January 24th, of 1848.
In a peaceful, gentle valley surrounded by fine stands of tall timber, James W. Marshall served as the construction superintendent of a sawmill being built for Captain John Sutter. As work on the mill neared completion, it was found that the water flowing through the tailrace was backing up, which prevented the waterwheel from turning properly. To solve this problem the tailrace had to be deepened to increase the flow of water and thereby create a stronger force to turn the wheel.
With the men working on deepening and widening the race during the day, it became Marshall's custom to raise the gate every evening to let the water wash out as much sand and gravel through the night as possible; in the morning, while the men were getting breakfast, he would walk down, shut off the water, and look along the race to see if any further work needed to be done. It was on one such morning that Marshall reached into history by picking up a few glittering flakes of gold, uncovered by the digging of the race and the action of the water, which washed away the rocks, gravel and sand, and left the gold.
Returning quickly to the mill, Marshall shouted to the men, "Boys, by God I believe I have found a gold mine!" And even after they tested the material - it was bitten, hammered, compared to a $5 gold piece, and boiled in lye - some still expressed their disbelief. Whereupon Marshall firmly replied, "I know it to be nothing else."
When next Marshall chanced to ride over to Sutter's Fort, he immediately asked to see the Captain alone in his private office. When Marshall was quite sure they were alone and that the door was locked, he pulled out of his pocket a white cotton rag. Opening the cloth he held it out to Sutter. It contained about an ounce and a half of gold-dust, flaky and in grains, the largest piece not quite so large as a pea. "I believe this is gold," said Marshall, "but the people at the mill laughed at me, and called me crazy." Sutter carefully examined it, and said, "Well, it looks so; we will try it." With information from a copy of the American Cyclopedia, they test it with aqua fortis and then checked the specific gravity of the yellow metal. The stuff stood the test and Sutter proclaimed to Marshall, "I believe this is the finest kind of gold."
Marshall and Sutter agreed that keeping the discovery secret would be in their best interests. Neither one of them wanted strangers wandering about the countryside, claiming the land, and disrupting work on the mill. Sutter asked the workers to keep the discovery secret until the mill was finished, which they agreed to do. But gold is a hard secret to keep and within days the news began to spread, and like a wildfire it soon swept across the state.
Within days of the discovery, Sutter himself mentioned the news in a letter: "I have made a discovery of a gold mine which, according to the experiments we have made, is extremely rich." A few days later Jacob Wittmer, a teamster in Sutter's employ, was given some gold by Jennie Wimmer after delivering supplies to the mill. Upon returning to the fort, he used the gold to buy some brandy and soon the whole fort knew about the gold.
A few miles downstream from the saw mill, a group of Mormon workers were building a flour mill for Sutter. They visited the saw mill on February 27th, in response to a letter written by Henry Bigler. After doing a bit of prospecting and finding some "color," they returned to their work site and noted the similarity of its riverbed and the gravel bars to those at the saw mill. Digging about, they found gold, tremendous amounts of gold, and the rich diggings at Mormon Island soon became famous as the news continued to spread.
Sutter's secret made it to San Francisco as early as March 15th, 1848. The news appeared in print for the first time as a small notice on the last page of the Californian:
GOLD MINE FOUND: "In the newly made raceway of the Saw Mill recently erected by Captain Sutter, on the American Fork, gold has been found is considerable quantities. One person brought thirty dollars worth to New Helvetia, gathered there in a short time. California, no doubt, is rich in mineral wealth, great chances here for scientific capitalists. Gold has been found in almost every part of the country."
This announcement alone didn't seem to have much effect on the population of San Francisco. What did get their attention was Sam Brannan arriving in town a few weeks later, waving a quinine bottle full of gold in the air, and shouting, "Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!" He was quickly surrounded as people rushed to see the gold and hear the news. Gold fever struck and within days the city was nearly empty. Mr. Buckelew, publisher of the Californian, suspended publication on May 29th as there were no readers left in town. In his last, curtailed issue he states: "The majority of our subscribers and many of our advertisers have closed their doors and places of business and left town...The whole country, from San Francisco to Los Angeles and from the seashore to the Sierra Nevada, resounds with the sordid cry of 'gold! Gold!! GOLD!!!' while the field is left half planted, the house half built, and everything neglected but the manufacture of shovels and pickaxes." Mr. Buckelew thence went upon the mountain to have a look around for his own prospecting self.
The news reached Monterey on May 29th. The Alcalde, Reverend Walter Colton, made note of it in his California Diary: "Our town was startled out of its quiet dreams to-day, by the announcement that gold had been discovered on the American Fork. The men wondered and talked, and the women too; but neither believed. The sibyls were less skeptical; they said the moon had, for several nights, appeared not more than a cable's length from the earth; that a white raven had been seen playing with an infant; and that an owl had rung the church bells." Colton dispatched a messenger to the mines to determine for himself and the people of Monterey if the astounding reports were true. And on June 20th, the messenger returned.
"He dismounted in a sea of upturned faces. As he drew forth the yellow lumps from his pockets, and passed them around among the eager crowd, the doubts, which had lingered till now, fled. All admitted they were gold, except one old man, who still persisted they were some Yankee invention, got up to reconcile the people to the change of flag. The excitement produced was intense; and many were soon busy in their hasty preparations for a departure to the mines...The blacksmith dropped his hammer, the carpenter his plane, the mason his trowel, the farmer his sickle, the baker his loaf, and the tapster his bottle. All were off for the mines, some on horses, some on carts, and some on crutches, and one went in a litter."
By early July the news had made it to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), and from there trading ships carried the word to Oregon. Settlers in the Willamette Valley, some just recently arrived from the States, began pulling up stakes and making preparations for the long trek south to the mines.
Military Governor Colonel Richard Mason and his chief of staff, Lieutenant William T. Sherman, arrived at the Mormon Island diggings on the 5th of July, 1848. On a mission to prepare a report on the placer mines for the War Department, the officers had come up from Monterey via San Francisco and Sonoma. Along their route they found everything abandoned. Mills were idle, crops left untended, houses empty. The mines were another story. At the Mormon Island diggings they found two hundred men working with pans and rockers, standing knee keep in icy water under the blistering summer sun. The next day Mason moved upstream to Coloma where he examined the various tributaries and innumerable gullies and ravines which, combined with the Mormon Island mines, were yielding an estimated $30,000 to $50,000 per day, to approximately four thousand miners, two thousand of whom were Indians. Before leaving the mines to return to Monterey, Mason purchased several specimens of gold to supplement the report he would later send to Washington.
On July 18th, Los Angeles received its first word of the discovery. To the soldiers stationed there, the lure of gold proved to be an irresistible temptation, and many men deserted their posts to race northwards for the mines. "Laboring men at the mines can now earn in one day more than double a soldier's pay and allowances for a month," Mason stated in his report. Army records show that 716 enlisted men deserted between July 1st of 1848 and December 31st of 1849.
News of the discovery reached "The States" by the end of July. On August 8th, a St. Louis newspaper reported from an article brought overland from San Francisco, that gold was being "collected at random and without any trouble" on the American River. Soon other major newspapers were printing similar letters and reports from "the gold regions." While these first few reports may have been enough to start a few adventurous spirits westward towards the gold mines, it's likely that most potential gold-seekers needed more tangible evidence to justify the dangers and expenses of the long journey to California. They would bide their time and await further developments.
While the States were watching and waiting for some kind of official confirmation to this California madness, back in the mines news of bigger and greater strikes seemed to surface every day, sending the growing population on a thorough search of the countryside. There wasn't a river, creek or tiny stream that wasn't prospected. Miners were everywhere. Gold was everywhere. Colton writes on August 16th, "Four citizens of Monterey are just in from the gold mines on Feather River, where they worked in company with three others. They employed about thirty wild Indians, who are attached to the rancho owned by one of the party. They worked precisely seven weeks and three days, and have divided seventy-six thousand, eight hundred and forty-four dollars, nearly eleven thousand dollars each. Make a dot there, and let me introduce a man, well known to me, who has worked on the Yuba river sixty-four days, and brought back, as a result of his individual labor, five thousand three hundred and fifty-six dollars. Make a dot there, and let me introduce a boy, fourteen years of age, who has worked on the Mokelumne fifty-four days and brought back three thousand, four hundred and sixty-seven dollars."
On August 17th, Colonel Mason's report of his visit to the mines was ready to be delivered to Washington. Mason selected Lieutenant Lucien Loeser to deliver the report and a Chinese tea caddy that contained slightly more than 230 ounces of California gold. Loeser arrived at New Orleans on November 23rd, whereupon he immediately telegraphed the War Department of his arrival and then set out for Washington.
After reviewing Mason's report and examining the dramatic evidence that accompanied it, President Polk was prepared to speak with authority on the question of gold in California. On December 5th, 1848, in his final address to Congress, Polk put the matter to rest: "The accounts of the abundance of gold in that territory are of such an extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by the authentic reports of officers in the public service..."
The newspapers reported the President's words and added to the growing excitement by citing reports of immense gold nuggets and rich paying claims. Letters home from the mines were reprinted which told how easy it was to find gold in California. On December 6th, the Hartford Daily Courant wrote, "The California gold fever is approaching its crisis...By a sudden and accidental discover, the ground is represented to be one vast gold mine. Gold is picked up in pure lumps, twenty-four carats fine. Soldiers are deserting their ranks, sailors their ships, and everybody their employment, to speed to the region of the gold mines."
The President's confirmation of the richness of the gold fields and the wild, imaginative reporting of the newspapers combined to banish any remaining skepticism concerning the gold mines. Now it was time to go. Companies and associations were formed, businesses were closed, men said good-bye to their families. Setting sail or breaking trail, it didn't matter how you traveled or when you arrived since there was gold enough for everyone. The Gold Rush was on!
With the northern Sierra passes snowed in, no one could reach the mines that way in winter. Therefore, the first few gold seekers began to trickle into California via the Santa Fe Trail, making their way across the southern deserts and up through the small town of Los Angeles, thence northwards to the mines. But something special was waiting for those who had chosen the sea route. On February 28th of 1849, the Steamship California passed through the Golden Gate with a shipload of argonauts, and was greeted by a thunderous salute from Commodore Jones and his Pacific Naval Squadron which was anchored in the Bay. They were the first 49'ers to arrive in California. And before the year was out, they would be joined by better than one hundred thousand other gold seekers, all in search of their own private El Dorado.
The gold that Marshall discovered, some six or eight miles west of the actual Mother Lode, was placer gold, eroded from the lode and washed down the watercourse of the South Fork of the American River. It was rich placers like these scattered throughout the Gold Country which first attracted the 49'ers, giving rise to literally thousands of mining camps during the first two decades of the Gold Rush.
Prentice Mulford, one of the best narrators of the Gold Rush, wrote: "The California mining camp was ephemeral. Often it was founded, built up, flourished, decayed, and had weeds and herbage growing over its site and hiding all of man's work inside of ten years." Once the gold played out, there was no reason for anyone to stay, and the buildings and camps were left to the elements and the stray ghost or two. But if a mining camp chanced to be located on rich gold deposits, or had some reason other than gold to exist, perhaps being a supply center, or located at an important crossroads or river crossing, it may have been able to maintain a continuous existence and have survived to this day.
There was one thing that all the mining camps had in common, whether they lasted a month, five years, or to the present day. And that was people. The people who discovered, settled, and built the mining camps of the Gold Rush. They were of the same breed, tough and resourceful, pioneers in a new land. They brought the attention of the world to a place called California.
This site is their story, the saga of those early prospectors and miners, the storekeepers and innkeepers, the tradesmen, the bankers, the doctors, the lawyers, the express agents, the teachers, the preachers, the printers, the lawmen and the badmen, and all the others who made their mark during the Gold Rush by what they did and what they built. And while we can read about their deeds, we can still see some of what they built. For even though the years have taken their toll on the buildings, mines, and camps of the Gold Rush, there are still many sites, building and places of historical interest to be seen today, if you know where and how to look for them.
Of the thousands of mining camps which arose during the years of the Gold Rush, the greater number have long since disappeared, often without a trace. We know their names today, names such as Hell-out-for-Noon City, Slumgullion, Delirium Tremens, Bogus Thunder, Graveyard, Mugfuzzle Flat, Hell's Delight, only as memories from the pages of old diaries and newspapers, and the maps drawn during those years. However, the mining camps that will be described so vividly here on this site are places that exist today, places with items of historic or esoteric interest demanding your presence. It may be a pile of rusty old mining machinery, an unrecognizable ruin, a building from the 1850s, or a simple stone monument. Regardless, each has its story and must be visited soon, before they disappear. And they are disappearing at an alarming rate, so don't delay.
The best route for visiting the mining camps of the Gold Country is via State Highway 49, officially named the "Mother Lode Highway" by the State Legislature in 1921. From Oakhurst in the south to Sierra City in the north, Hwy 49 crosses eleven counties, traveling through some of the most beautiful and historic areas of the state, including La Veta Madre, California's Mother Lode.
As the mining camps, towns and sites described herein generally surround Hwy 49 on its route north, so will they be posted on this site. Along with the story of each of the mining camps and their citizens, their surviving buildings and historic sites, directions will also be given when necessary. Many of the interesting Gold Rush locales are located right along Hwy 49, making them easy to locate. Others may be situated some distance off the main roads, reached via quieter byways. Reaching these "remote" towns can prove to be an adventure in itself as side roads often take the visitor through spectacular scenery otherwise missed. Twisting mountain roads, sheer granite walls, precipitous drops to swiftly moving rivers, these are a few of my favorite things. And often times these less traveled towns will have a greater number of original buildings and ruins to explore as compared to those towns situated near the main highways, giving one a better feel for what it was like back in the Days of '49.
Let's go see what we can find.