James Wilson Marshall, the oldest of four children and the son of Philip Marshall, was born in Hopewell Township, Mercer County, on 8th October, 1810. When he was a child the family moved to Lambertville.
Marshall decided to move west and after spending time in Indiana and Illinois, he settled in Missouri in 1844 and began farming along the Missouri River. The following year he joined a wagon train heading for Oregon. He eventually reached Sutter's Fort in California in July 1845.
John Sutter had established the colony of Nueva Helvetia (New Switzerland), which became a centre for trappers, traders and settlers in the region. The venture was a great success and within a couple of years Sutter was a wealthy businessman. Sutter had tremendous power over the area and admitted: "I was everything, patriarch, priest, father and judge." The historian, Josiah Royce, has commented: "In character, Sutter was an affable and hospitable visionary, of hazy ideas, with a great liking for popularity, and with a mania for undertaking too much." Sutter purchasing 49,000 acres at the junction of the Feather and Sacramento rivers in 1841. This site dominated three important routes: the inland waterways from San Francisco, the trail to California across the Sierra Nevada and the Oregon-California road.
Sutter employed Marshall as a carpenter. He also helped him to buy some land on the north side of Butte Creek. He also sold him some cattle but his life as a farmer came to a halt with the outbreak of the Mexican War. Marshall joined the army and served under Captain John Fremont, the commander of the Californian Battalion.
Marshall returned to his ranch in 1847. After finding that all his cattle had disappeared he went back to work for John Sutter. He became his partner in building a sawmill on his property at Coloma, on the South Fork of the American River, upstream from his fort, about 115 miles northeast of San Francisco. Another man who worked for Sutter, John Bidwell, commented that "rafting sawed lumber down the cañons of the American river was a such a wild scheme... that no other man than Sutter would have been confiding and credulous to believe it practical."
On 24th January, 1848, Marshall noticed some sparkling pebbles in the gravel bed of the tailrace his men had dug alongside the river to move the water as quickly as possible beneath the mill. He later recalled: "While we were in the habit at night of turning the water through the tail race we had dug for the purpose of widening and deepening the race, I used to go down in the morning to see what had been done by the water through the night...I picked up one or two pieces and examined them attentively; and having some general knowledge of minerals, I could not call to mind more than two which in any way resembled this, very bright and brittle; and gold, bright, yet malleable. I then tried it between two rocks, and found that it could be beaten into a different shape, but not broken."
That night John Sutter recorded in his diary: "Marshall arrived in the evening, it was raining very heavy, but he told me he came on important business. After we was alone in a private room he showed me the first specimens of gold, that is he was not certain if it was gold or not, but he thought it might be; immediately I made the proof and found that it was gold. I told him even that most of all is 23 carat gold. He wished that I should come up with him immediately, but I told him that I have to give first my orders to the people in all my factories and shops."
The gold was then showed to William Sherman: "I touched it and examined one or two of the larger pieces... In 1844, I was in Upper Georgia, and there saw some native gold, but it was much finer than this, and it was in phials, or in transparent quills; but I said that, if this were gold, it could be easily tested, first, by its malleability, and next by acids. I took a piece in my teeth, and the metallic lustre was perfect. I then called to the clerk, Baden, to bring an axe and hatchet from the backyard. When these were brought I took the largest piece and beat it out flat, and beyond doubt it was metal, and a pure metal. Still, we attached little importance to the fact, for gold was known to exist at San Fernando, at the south, and yet was not considered of much value."
Marshall continued with building the saw-mill: "About the middle of April the mill commenced operation, and, after cutting a few thousand feet of lumber was abandoned; as all hands were intent upon gold digging." John Sutter later recalled: "Soon as the secret was out my laborers began to leave me, in small parties first, but then all left, from the clerk to the cook, and I was in great distress... What a great misfortune was this sudden gold discovery for me! It has just broken up and ruined my hard, restless, and industrious labors, connected with many dangers of life, as I had many narrow escapes before I became properly established."
Marshall was unable to find any significant amounts of gold and he left the area. He returned to Coloma in 1857 and eventually started a vineyard. After that failed he became a partner in a gold mine near Kelsey, California, but it was not a profitable venture and brought him close to bankruptcy.
James Wilson Marshall died on 10th August, 1885.
Being a millwright by trade, as there was a ready cash sale for lumber, I concluded to seek a location in the mountains and erect a mill, to supply the valley with lumber. Some time in April, 1847, I visited New Helvetia, commonly known as the "Fort" where I made my resolution known to John A. Sutter, sen., and requested of him an Indian boy, to act as an interpreter to the mountain Indians in the vicinity of the American river or Rio del los Americanos, as it was then called. At first he refused, because, he said that he had previously sent several companies, at various times and by different routes, for that purpose, all of whom reported that it was impossible to find a route for a wagon road to any locality where pine timber could be procured, and that it was the height of folly to attempt any such thing.
Capt. Sutter at length, however, promised me the desired interpreter, provided I would stock some six or eight plows for him first, of which he was in immediate want, which I readily agreed to do. While I was employed upon this job there was much talk at the Fort concerning my contemplated trip to the mountains; and Messrs. Gingery, P.L. Wimmer and McLellan having resolved also to take a trip with the same object in view, came where I was working and asked me where I expected to find a road and timber, and I promptly gave them my views and directions.
They departed, I believe in company, but finally separated, and P.L. Wimmer found pine timber and a road, on what is now known as the Sacramento and Diamond Springs road and about the 12th of May, Gingery and Wimmer commenced work about thirteen miles west of the (now called) Shingle Spring House.
On the 16th of May, having completed my work for Capt. Sutter, I started with an Indian boy - Treador, and W.A. Graves (who is now residing in Butte county and who had assisted me in my work and heard the conversation between Gingery, Wimmer and McLellan) accompanied me for the purpose of seeing the mountains. On the 18th of May we entered the valley of Culluma [Coloma] and on the 20th Gingery joined our company. We then travelled up the stream now called Weber creek - the Indian name of which is Pul-Pul-Mul - to the head of the creek; thence higher in the mountains until we arrived at the South Fork of the American river where it divides into two branches of about equal size; from whence we returned by Sly Park and Pleasant Valley to the Fort.
On my arrival I gave Capt. Sutter an account of my trip, and of what I had discovered. He thereupon proposed to me a partnership; but before we were ready to commence operations, some persons who had tried in vain, to find Culluma, reported to Sutter that I "had made a false representation, for they could find no such place." To settle matters, Capt. Sutter furnished me with a Mission Indian, who was alcalde of the Cosumnes tribe, as an interpreter and guide, trusting partly to the Indian's report, as to the propriety of the proposed partnership.
The report which I had made on my first trip having been fully confirmed by observations on the second, the co-partnership was completed, and about the 27th of August we signed the agreement to build and run a saw-mill at Culluma. On the third day (I think) afterwards, I set out, with two wagons, and was accompanied by the following persons, employed by the firm of Sutter and Marshall, viz., P.L. Wimmer and family, James Barger, Ira Willis, Sidney Willis, Alex. Stephens, Wm. Cunce, James Brown, and Ezekiah Persons.
On our arrival in the Valley we first built the double log cabin, afterwards known as Hasting's & Co. store. About the last of September, as Capt. Sutter wanted a couple of capable men to construct a dam across the American river at the grist-mill - I sent the two Willis,' as the most capable; (Wm. Cunce being in feeble health left about the same time) and I received Henry Bigler, Israel Smith, Wm. Johnston and - Evans in return; and shortly afterwards I employed Charles Bennett and Wm. Scott, both carpenters. The above named individuals, with some ten Indians, constituted my whole force.
While we were in the habit at night of turning the water through the tail race we had dug for the purpose of widening and deepening the race, I used to go down in the morning to see what had been done by the water through the night; and about half past seven o'clock on or about the 19th of January - I am not quite certain to the day, but it was between the 18th and the 20th of that month - 1848, I went down as usual, and after shutting off the water from the race I stepped into it, near the lower end, and there, upon the rock, about six inches beneath the surface of the water, I discovered the gold. I was entirely alone at the time. I picked up one or two pieces and examined them attentively; and having some general knowledge of minerals, I could not call to mind more than two which in any way resembled this - sulphuret of iron, very bright and brittle; and gold, bright, yet malleable; I then tried it between two rocks, and found that it could be beaten into a different shape, but not broken. I then collected four or five pieces and went up to Mr. Scott (who was working at the carpenters bench making the mill wheel) with the pieces in my hand and said, "I have found it."
"What is it?" inquired Scott.
"Gold," I answered.
"Oh! no," returned Scott, "that can't be."
I replied positively, "I know it to be nothing else."
Mr. Scott was the second person who saw the gold. W.J. Johnston, A. Stephens, H. Bigler, and J. Brown, who were also working in the mill yard, were then called up to see it. Peter L. Wimmer, Mrs. Jan Wimmer, C. Bennet, and J. Smith were at the house; the latter two of whom were sick; E. Persons and John Wimmer (a son of P.L. Wimmer), were out hunting oxen at the same time. About 10 o'clock the same morning, P.L. Wimmer came down from the house, and was very much surprised at the discovery, when the metal was shown him; and which he took home to show his wife, who, the next day, made some experiments upon it by boiling it in strong lye, and saleratus; and Mr. Bennet by my directions beat it very thin.
Four days afterward I went to the Fort for provisions, and carried with me about three ounces of gold, which Capt. Sutter and I tested with nitric acid. I then tried it in Sutter's presence by taking three silver dollars and balancing them by the dust in the air, then immersed both in water, and the superior weight of the gold satisfied us both of its nature and value.
About the 20th of February, 1848, Capt. Sutter came to Coloma, for the first time, to consummate an agreement we had made with this tribe of Indians in the month of September previous, to wit: that we live with them in peace on the same land.
About the middle of April the mill commenced operation, and, after cutting a few thousand feet of lumber was abandoned; as all hands were intent upon gold digging. In December, 48, Capt. Sutter came again to Coloma, and some time in that month sold his interest in the mill to Messrs. Ragley and Winters, of which new firm I became a member. The mill was soon again in operation, and cut most of the lumber of which the town of Coloma was built.
The first piece of gold which I found, weighed about fifty cents. Mr. Wimmer, having bought a stock of merchandise some time about May or June, 1848; and Mrs. Wimmer being my treasurer, used four hundred and forty dollars of my money to complete the purch ase; and among which was the first piece of gold which I had found. Where that went or where it is now, I believe that nobody knows.
Marshall arrived in the evening, it was raining very heavy, but he told me he came on important business. After we was alone in a private room he showed me the first specimens of gold, that is he was not certain if it was gold or not, but he thought it might be; immediately I made the proof and found that it was gold. I told him even that most of all is 23 carat gold. He wished that I should come up with him immediately, but I told him that I have to give first my orders to the people in all my factories and shops.