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The Last of the California Rangers (1928) by Jill L. Cossley-Batt


With three thousand dollars in his possession, a suit of new clothes and a good revolver, William J. Howard set out on his Indian pony for Sacramento. His gold dust was stowed safely in a sack, which was rolled in deer hide, tied at each end like a roly-poly pudding, and adjusted to his saddle.

The young man was on business bent; he had heard that land was being staked in and around Mariposa. Now, if only he could buy some good mules at a reasonable price, fit up a pack-train, and run it between Stockton and Mariposa, with a tent-store in one of these two towns, he could make lots of gold without the laborious task of mining.

With this great object in mind, he scarcely glanced at the beautiful scenery or at the peculiar characters that passed him on the trail. The country was sparsely populated, and he passed wild-oat fields dotted with stately oaks; rippling streams edged with tall, pale, cottonwood trees; lakes with long branches trailing over the

James W. Marshall, the Discoverer of California Gold

Copyright by Phil. B. Beckeart, San Francisco

[click to enlarge]

surface, and bordered by forest, mountain, and sea, with not a city to break the harmony. Occasionally he stopped to gather wild fruits ripening under the golden sun. On completing half the journey he put up at a small hotel, where they fed him on hot biscuits and good coffee, in addition to giving his pony some fresh food and water.

When William arrived in Sacramento, the town presented an interesting sight, for it looked like a small island. It was built close to the river, and a backwater had worked its way around the houses, so that they were standing on marshy land. The inhabitants went right up to the doors of their homes in row-boats and canoes.

Sacramento was the trading center for the mines of Eastern California, and it was here that William met James W. Marshall, the man who had made history by discovering the precious metal that put California on the map. He was a man of medium height, dressed in a rough shirt, pants tucked in his boots, and a large black hat. He was then about forty years old, wore a heavy beard, and had a wonderful head of hair. Marshall’s face was kind and gentle, but to Howard he seemed to have the strangest-looking eyes. Judging from his conversation and actions, he had a very ingenious and constructive mind. He at once honored the young man with his complete confidence, gave him several good points about hunting in the vicinity, and advised him to guard his interests, as incoming prospectors were trying to rob many of the older miners of their land and claims.

According to history, James Wilson Marshall was born at Round Mountain Farm, Hunterdon County, New Jersey, October 8, 1810. His mother’s maiden name was Sarah Wilson, and his paternal grandmother, Rebecca Hart, was a daughter of John Hart, one of the men who put their signatures to the Declaration of Independence. Marshall’s father was a wheel-wright. He gave his son James a very good education, and taught him the wheelwright trade, also how to shoot the flintlock rifle.

Soon after his twenty-first birthday, filled with the spirit of adventure, Marshall had bade his father, mother and sisters good-by, and had fared westward, a soldier of fortune, working at his trade as he followed the setting sun. Little did he dream, when commencing this journey, that it would end by linking his name with one of the world’s greatest discoveries; neither did he have any conception of the possibility of being the direct cause of the wildest excitement that the modern world had ever known.

His first stop was at Crawfordsville, Indiana, where he worked as a carpenter in order to provide funds for further westward travel. Passing through Illinois, he eventually found himself in Missouri, where he located a homestead, planted grain, and worked occasionally at trapping and carpentering; at the same time he cultivated a close friendship with the Blackfeet Indians. After several years of misery, due to ague and fever, he decided to move farther West, and joined an emigrant train bound for California.

This train, with four hundred members in the party, and with more than one hundred wagons, left Platte Purchase on May 1, 1844. The emigrants traveled along the North Fork of the Platte River, reaching Fort Hall, a frontier post near the Snake River, in the fall, where they were obliged to rest for the winter. This trail proved an extremely hard one. It had been explored the previous year by Captain John Frémont.

Early in 1845, the party separated; some headed for California, while Marshall and forty others without wagons decided to go to Oregon. Being well mounted and well armed, they made the trip to the Willamette River without any hostile encounter with the Indians. Then Marshall joined Captain Clyman’s band of adventurers, composed of plainsmen, trappers and settlers, who in the spring of 1845 started for California. Traveling through the Willamette valley, then east toward Klamath Lake, crossing the Siskiyous, they followed the Klamath River, passing Mount Shasta and Sutter Buttes, and finally making their camp at Cache Creek, about forty miles above Sutter’s Fort. Here the party broke up; some went to Yerba Buena, but Marshall and a few others went to Sutter’s Fort, arriving early in July, 1845. Dressed entirely in buckskin, and possessing first-hand knowledge of good trading methods, he was a welcome addition to Captain John Sutter’s colony, where he was hired immediately, being paid with cattle, horses and ammunition. Accumulating some livestock, he bought two leagues of land on the north side of Little Butte Creek, where he planted grain and commenced stockraising.

In the spring of 1846, Marshall was one of twenty men who, with a number of friendly Indians, helped to protect Sutter’s Fort by a march against the Mokelumne red men. Later he joined the Bear Flag party, and fought with the California Battalion to the end of the first year of the Mexican War. Receiving his discharge at San Diego in March, 1847, he made his way on foot to Sutter’s Fort, where he arrived after an absence of one year, barefooted and in a very sorry plight, as did many others who volunteered with the Bear Flag party. He never received one cent of payment for his services in this war, and on returning to his ranch found

Where California's Wealth of Gold was Discovered: Tail-race of Sutter's sawmill at Columa, in which James Wilson Marshall found the first rich nuggets, January 24, 1848.

Copyright by Phil. B. Bekeart, San Francisco

[click to enlarge]
Tail-race of Sutter’s sawmill at Coloma, in which James Wilson Marshall found the first rich nuggets, January 24, 1848. Painted by E. G. Holdredge about 1870 from a sketch made in 1849.

nearly all his stock strayed or stolen, and himself left penniless. He was obliged to sell his ranch, and later in life often referred to the ingratitude of the stay-at-homes and newcomers, who robbed him while he was away fighting for California.

Sutter, being in need of a sawmill to supply Yerba Buena and the Sandwich Islands with timber, sent the old woodman and hunter into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains to locate a suitable place for it. Marshall wandered over the hills and canyons until he struck what he considered the ideal spot; plenty of pine and hemlock, and a river that ran like a mill-race. The river was the South Fork of El Rio Americano, and the place was one that he made historic. Returning to the Fort, he reported to Sutter, drawing a rough sketch of the valley, the trees, the river and a proposed mill-site. This sketch and a drawing of the proposed mill are in the State Library, Sacramento, to which they were presented by John Sipp of Kelsey, one-time partner of Marshall in the Grey Eagle mine.

On August 19, 1847, in the presence of Samuel Kyburz, a contract was drawn up, in which Sutter agreed to furnish the capital for the erection of a sawmill at Coloma, and Marshall agreed to superintend the building and running of the mill, while both were to share equally in the profits.

On being supplied with pack-trains, tools and workmen, Marshall with his men left Sutter’s Fort, September 27, 1847, carrying with them all necessary equipment for the mill. They were several days reaching the valley, for in some places they had to cut roads. Peter Wimmer and his wife were in the party; she to cook for the hands, and Peter to act as foreman. Marshall was the selected superintendent, for he had the knack of conciliating the Indians with presents, and feeding them on better stuff than acorns, pine-nuts or grasshoppers.

It did not take them long to split pine-slabs and shakes for cabins and houses, to hew timber and framework for the mill, and to excavate the tail-race to Marshall’s satisfaction. About this time the entire party at the sawmill consisted of: James W. Marshall; Peter L. Wimmer, his wife Elizabeth Jane, and their two sons, John and Martin Wimmer; Charles Bennett; William Scott, and six young Mormons recently discharged from the Mormon Battalion, namely, Henry W. Bigler, Azariah Smith, James S. Brown, William Johnson, H. Stephens and James Berger. There were also ten Indians on the place, some of whom could speak Spanish. History is very clear respecting. the fact that there were no other white men in the vicinity of Coloma at the time of Marshall’s gold discovery.

While testing the wheel, Marshall found that the mill-race was not deep enough; therefore he had the flood-gate opened, permitting the water to run through the race all night in order to widen and deepen the channel. Early every morning the water was shut off and the Indians would throw out the boulders that the water left bare. When opening the flood-gate on the evening of January 23, 1848, Marshall observed yellow specks, and mentioned to some of the men that he believed he had found a gold mine. Then he went to his cabin and retired for the night, little dreaming that the next day was to mark an event that would send the whole world wild and make the United States the richest country on the globe.

If the Mexican Government had only foreseen this great discovery, they would not have parted with California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Utah as readily as they did for the sake of peace and a few millions in gold.

On the morning of January 24, Marshall arose early, as usual, and while the hands were still at breakfast, wandered down to the mill, where he took a good look at the tail-race to see the effect of the night’s rush of water. Near the lower end of the race, on a rock about six inches under the water, he picked up a flake of yellow metal, the historical first piece of California gold. It was shaped like a small melon seed, and was worn very thin and smooth, like all river gold. Being alone at the time, he picked up a few more flakes, and bit the largest piece, trying to ascertain what it was. Then hammering it with a stone on a flat rock, and finding it malleable, he was satisfied that it was gold.

The first man to whom he showed the flakes was William Scott. Johnson, Bigler, Stephens and Brown were the next to see it, but they had not the slightest conception that it was real gold. After they had examined it, Marshall took it to Mrs. Wimmer; she was busy making soap and boiled the flake in strong lye. The next morning, when cut out of the cold soap in the bottom of the kettle, it showed no signs of discoloration. He then took the flake to Charles Bennett and instructed him to beat it as thin as possible on the blacksmith’s anvil, which again proved its malleability.

Knowing that Sutter was a gentleman of great scientific knowledge, he took the flake to him and had it tested with acid, also by specific gravity. John Sutter proclaimed it gold, and later it was sent by Captain Folsom, with a covering letter, dated August 29, 1848, to the National Institute, Washington, D. C., and we should be thankful that Folsom had the foresight to preserve

Agreement for Purchase of Slaves
From a Photograph by Phil. B. Beckeart.
the first flake of the gold which made California known to the remotest antipodes.

“Mein Gott!” cried Captain Sutter, in his Swiss-German accent, to Marshall, “if the boys find out that there is gold here there’ll be no work done at the mill—it will be all up—gone to the dyfel! Marshall, you must keep it secret until the mill is all finished.”

But it was impossible to keep such a secret for any length of time. The “boys” soon learned of the discovery and went mining. Sutter was left alone with his Indian horse-soldiers, for all the inhabitants of the hide-and-tallow shanties made off by skiff, horse or foot for the South Fork. The fields went to waste, and the golden ripe wheat was allowed to rot in the drenching rain.

The news traveled down the coast of Mexico to Central America, Peru, Chile; out to the Sandwich Islands and Australia; and riff-raff from these countries arrived in large numbers. It took longer for the news to reach the Atlantic shores, but when the President announced in Congress that gold in large quantities had been found in California, the whole country became stirred, and the mad rush which followed, ruined both Marshall and Sutter. Men and women braved the hazards of the wilderness, the desert and the Rocky Mountains to build a new empire; they took from the State two billion dollars in gold. With the arrival of the advance guard of the “forty-niner” Argonauts, Sacramento became a city almost overnight—the outfitting post for the mines. While fifty stages a day left for the diggings, hotels and stores were built in large numbers. California’s population and wealth grew so rapidly that on September 9, 1850, it was admitted as a State without first becoming a Territory.

Timber was sawed in the mill until the latter part of 1848 by Sutter and Marshall, and afterward by Marshall, Ragley and Winters, who bought out Sutter’s interest. In 1849 they were selling lumber for five hundred dollars per thousand feet, and timber eventually became so scarce that all the available trees near Coloma were cut down by the miners. Some of the unscrupulous ones stole logs and boards from the sawmill, which was obliged to stop working. They paid no attention to the notices of ownership of land and stock, which Marshall posted all over the valley, but took anything and everything that filled their immediate needs. When poor Marshall brought suit, he was invariably beaten in the courts; in fact, on two occasions his life was threatened. He was driven out of Coloma, his cabin burned, and his property stolen.

General John A. Sutter was born of Swiss parentage in Kandern, in the Grand Duchy of Baden. He was a man of small stature, loved flattery, but had a big heart and a confiding nature, believing that everyone was honest. Many newcomers to California received food and comfort at his hands when they arrived at New Helvetia, hungry or in want, after a hard trip across the continent. With a little band of Kanakas, in three whale-boats, Sutter had landed on August 12, 1839, near where the American River empties into the Sacramento. The Indians in this particular section were quite hostile, so as a source of protection Sutter and his men built an adobe fort, which stands to-day and was recently restored by the Native Sons and Daughters. It is a much-visited California landmark.

As the years passed, both these pioneers died in a somewhat impoverished condition; the Government made them a small allowance, but historians agree that neither of them received the consideration from the people or the reward from the Government that was really due them. It is said that later in life Marshall felt extremely bitter on account of this treatment. On one occasion he remarked to Captain Howard: “All that I can call my own is my likeness, and the sale of it may yet keep me from starvation, buy me a dose of medicine in time of sickness, or pay my funeral expenses.”

This famous discoverer, toward the end of his life, did not have a fertile farm to call his own. How strange to think that a man who had conferred such a great benefit upon the State was so sadly neglected in his old age! During his last years he drank quite heavily, altho no one ever saw him under the influence of liquor. In early manhood he must have had a wonderful constitution, for he thought nothing of enduring privations, and subsisted for days at a time on very little food. Some one has said that he died of starvation, but this is not true, for there was plenty of food in his cabin at the time of his death. He passed away quite suddenly August to, 1885, at Kelsey, whither he had moved in 1867. One of his best friends to the end was Miss Margaret Kelly, who conceived the idea of Marshall’s Museum in this California town. He was a friend of the Indians, and they remained faithful to him until the end.

We are told that Marshall usually wore a black Prince Albert suit, with a large soft black hat to match. He seemed very moody, and from his conversation one could not help observing that he was inclined to brood over things. Captain Howard had several long talks with him in San Francisco about spiritualism.

Next: 10. Pack TrainContentsPrevious: 8. Nursed by Indians

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Online Library: Title Author California Geology History Indians Muir Mountaineering Nature Management