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The Discovery of Gold in California


Coloma and Marshal Gold Discovery
State Historic Park

The discovery of gold in California was an event that rocked the world and changed the shape of a nation! And it happened in the most unlikely way!

Sometimes things happen by pure chance - such as the site chosen to build John Sutter's sawmill along the American River.

No one had an inkling that there was gold in that river until a glint of something sparkly caught James Marshall's eye!

Actually, we probably need to qualify the statement, "no one had an inkling."

It's highly likely that Native Americans had seen the shiny metal in the rivers and streams of their lands.

But it's just as likely that they would not have valued it in the same way the white pioneers and settlers did, so James Marshall and John Sutter still get credit for discovering the gold that set off the California Gold Rush.

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The Story of Sutter's Mill and the Discovery of Gold

Sutter's Mill at Coloma
Sutter's Mill at Coloma;
Photo by Wolf Rosenberg

The Coloma Valley, along the South Fork of the American River, is where James Marshall was instructed to build the lumber mill that John Sutter desperately needed to continue the expansion of the empire he was building in what was then the Mexican territory known as Alta California.

Unbeknownst to either Sutter or Marshall, their site choice was to change the world as they knew it and ultimately spoil their plans for an agricultural settlement.

The reason? The discovery of gold in the mill's tailrace!

It wasn't long before Sutter's own workers had abandoned their posts at his various enterprises to head for the hills to find gold. It's a bit difficult to build an empire without any staff!

In the end, as many as 300,000 people invaded the sleepy settlements of 1848 San Francisco and New Helvitia (Sutter's Fort), before spreading out across the foothills and mountains of Northern California in search of gold, bringing the influx of civilization and rapid growth on their coattails!



Visiting Coloma and Marshall Gold Discovery SHP Today

The Old Bekeart's Gun Shop;
Photo by Suzi Rosenberg

The town that grew up around Sutter's lumber mill was christened Coloma, an adulterated version of the Nisenan Indian word for the valley - Cullumah.

Today, Coloma is a more or less a ghost town (although about 530 people still live in the census-designated place called Coloma), but it's largely encompassed by Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park and contains over 20 historic buildings for you to enjoy, as well as a museum commemorating the discovery of gold and the peoples who shaped the Coloma Valley.

It's not hard to imagine yourself back in the days of the 49ers as you explore the Park! Visit the life-sized replica of Sutter's Mill, meander around and through the historic buildings, study the historic gold mining equipment, and try your hand at panning for gold in the American River!

Participate in the daily interpretive programs at the sawmill during the summer, or plan your visit to coincide with one of the Live History Days that occur throughout the year, or come participate in the very special activities that are always planned around the January 24th anniversary of James Marshall's discovery of gold!

Spend the day, have a picnic lunch, pan for gold - and enjoy a little piece of California's Gold Rush history!



Want to learn more about the Gold Rush? Keep reading!

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