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A Guide to the Mother Lode Country (1948) by C. Frank Brockman


GOLD IN CALIFORNIA BEFORE MARSHALL’S DISCOVERY

January 24, 1848, the California gold rush had its origin in the accidental discovery of the yellow metal on the south fork of the American River near the present town of Coloma (see page 40) by James Marshall who was supervising the construction of a sawmill there for John A. Sutter. Matters concerned with the event in American history are well known. But the fact that Marshall’s discovery was not the first evidence of gold in California is not so generally recognized by the average person.

To the early Spaniards, California was early linked with fabulous legends of gold, but these stories were the product of fancy rather than fact. Yet it seems rather amazing that Spain which controlled this area for so long and whose dominions were extended so largely through conquests aimed at the acquisition of gold, did not make some effort to explore the possibilities here. Had they done so and had the gold been discovered one can but speculate upon the changes in historical events that would have resulted.

Undoubtedly the Jesuit fathers at a number of the early Spanish Missions must have had an inkling of the presence of gold in this region for, it is said, numbers of their Indian converts occasionally brought in small quantities of gold dust for inspection. Yet, if this is the case, there is no evidence of such acts having elicited anything more than a disinterested response.

But in 1842 gold in California became a tangible reality. In that year a small placer deposit was discovered in San Francisquito Canyon not far from the Mission San Fernando. However, it was not rich enough nor extensive enough to last long and while it was worked for several years, and while a small amount of gold was even shipped to the Philadelphia mint, little more than local interest was aroused.

Another segment of this portion of the story relating to the pre-Marshall discoveries is also of interest. It is said that about 1844 John Bidwell had his chance at fame but unknowingly permitted the opportunity to go down in history as the spark for the great gold rush, to escape his grasp. Bidwell, like Marshall, was an employee of Sutter. He was highly regarded by his employer and, in fact, was Sutter’s right hand man in the management of his vast agricultural holdings. In the spring of the year one of Sutter’s Mexican employees, working under Bidwell, informed his immediate superior that gold was to be found in the Sierra Nevada. It must be recognized that many of the Mexican inhabitants of California at that time had come from Sonora, in Old Mexico, where mining was actively engaged in. These people had a practical understanding of the nature of this business. Bidwell was interested and checked further on the story but his informant insisted that he would require a “batea” in order to determine whether or not his supposition was correct. A “batea” was merely a wooden bowl which was used in washing gold bearing gravels as later American miners used the pan. But Bidwell, none too familiar with Spanish, thought a “batea” must be a complicated instrument and did not take action soon enough. Busy with his duties as an overseer for Sutter, he delayed. By the time he became aware of the significance of the term four years had passed and Marshall’s discovery had electrified the world.



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