James Wilson Marshall

Picture this... Sierra Nevada, California, January 1848

James Wilson Marshall, a carpenter building a water-powered sawmill found flakes of gold in the river.

“It made my heart thump,” Marshall recalled later.

His discovery sparked the Gold Rush.


Throughout 1849, thousands of would-be gold miners, known as ’49ers, 

spent their life savings or borrowed money to travel to California and chase the vision of fabulous wealth.

On the morning of January 24, 1848 Marshall was examining the channel below the mill when he noticed some shiny flecks in the channel bed. As later recounted by Marshall:

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 carpenter's 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," replied Scott, "That can't be."
I said,--"I know it to be nothing else."

The metal was confirmed to be gold after members of Marshall's crew performed tests on the metal—boiling it in a lye solution and hammering it to test its malleability. Marshall, still primarily concerned with the completion of the sawmill, permitted his crew to search for gold during their free time.

By the time Marshall returned to Sutter's Fort, four days later, the war had ended and California was about to become an American possession. Marshall shared his discovery with Sutter, who performed further tests on the gold and told Marshall that it was "of the finest quality, of at least 23 karat [96% pure]."


Marshall's cabin in Coloma, California.

News of the discovery soon reached around the world. The immediate impact for Marshall was negative. His sawmill failed when all the able-bodied men in the area abandoned everything to search for gold. Before long, arriving hordes of prospectors forced him off his land. Marshall soon left the area.


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