GOLD
CHAPTER 14

The American conquest of California was soon followed by a world-class event that would shape the very future of the province. On January 24, 1848, James Wilson Marshall, a Scotsman from New Jersey, was busy supervising some day laborers whom he, an impressive figure dressed in buckskin and a bright Mexican serape, had ordered to dig a millrace for Sutter on some red mud flats located on the south fork of the American River. California’s history was about to change forever.

At a place the Indians called Collomah (today’s Coloma), Marshall glimpsed some gold flakes alongside the sawmill his men were building. He gathered up samples and took them back to Sutter at New Helvetia. They tested the nuggets with Aqua Fortis, which confirmed that they were real gold. Neither man yet realized that Marshall had discovered a new El Dorado.

This was not the first discovery of California gold. Many years earlier, mission Indians had unearthed small quantities of the metal. When they brought the gold to the padres, the friars cautioned them not to divulge the location of their discovery. The missionaries did not want to see the province further inundated by money-mad foreigners.

During 1842, in southern California’s San Feliciano Canyon, near today’s Newhall, Francisco Lopez, who lived nearby, used a sheaf knife to dig up some wild onions. When he pulled the plants from the ground, he noticed bright yellow flakes clinging to their roots. It was gold. After nearby settlers heard the news, several hundred of them headed up the canyon. The American trader Abel Stearns sent twenty ounces of the gold they brought out from Los Angeles to the Phildelphia mint. Unfortunately, the San Feliciano lode “played out” within only a few months.

Then came the greatest of all gold discoveries. The principal figure in this event was clearly Marshall. Back in 1844, equipped with only a flintlock rifle and training as a coach and wagon builder, he had arrived in California by

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