A Brief History of
California's Gold



Written by Timothy McNulty
Copyright 1993


The Origins of California's Gold
California Gold Discoveries prior to 1848
January 23th, 1848, James Marshall at Sutter's Mill
The First Gold Seekers of 1848
The Few Men Who Made Their Fortune
Hydraulic Mining in California
Credits and Citations



The Origins of California's Gold
More gold was taken from the American River and its tributaries than all other rivers and streams of California combined. Gold recovered from streams or rivers is called placer gold. The word placer originates from either a Spanish nautical term meaning "sandbank," or a more common usage meaning "pleasure." Both meanings seem to apply since it might be a much greater pleasure to extract gold from a placer sandbank then to crack it out of hard rock. The majority of California's placer gold was not mined from the present stream beds but was hydrauliced from the ancient (or Cenozoic) riverbeds sometimes called the "auriferous gravels." In fact, most of the gold found in the present stream beds actually came by way of these ancient gravels, where the modern streams eroded them away and reconcentrated their gold.

The Paleozoic seas once extended over the site of the present Sierra Nevada Mountains. Towards the end of the Mesozoic era the sediments of these seas were compressed and folded while the intrusion of granitic magmas forced them upwards to form an enormous mountain range. The tremendous forces that contorted and lifted the rocks also cracked them to create a multitude of fissures. This spaces then became filled with veins or seams of gold bearing quartz. Many millions of years followed while the forces of rain, wind, and ice wore these once great mountains down to gently rolling hills. The climate during those ancient times had much more rain then at present and great rivers scoured through the earth. The rivers carried the mountains to the sea and yet much of the gold those mountains remained trapped in those ancient river beds. A few million years ago the present Sierras were formed in another great push from below. The modern rivers formed and cut new paths to the sea. Whenever these canyon forming modern rivers cut through the ancient river gravels the gold they contained was released into the present rivers and concentrated anew (
Lindgren, 1911).


California Gold Discoveries prior to 1848
Gold was not first discovered in California in 1848, as is commonly believed. Even Sir Frances Drake, who touched on California's coast, in 1579, said that gold was "occurring in abundance" (
Wagner, 1970, p. 11). Though this may have been just wishful thinking on Drake's part, it is well documented that Spanish and Mexican settlers reported finding gold in southeastern California in 1775, 1812, 1814, 1824. But it was not until 1842 that it caused great public interest. Francisco Lopez was digging his knife after some wild onions on the great San Fernando Rancho, when he found what he thought to be gold clinging to the roots. Within weeks of the discovery, hundreds of gold seekers arrived from Los Angeles, about 35 miles distant. In all, it is estimated that in the next few years as much as $80,000 to $100,000 in gold was taken from those placers, much of it being transported to Mexico and some even to the mint in Philadelphia where it was being purchased at $19.00 per ounce (Wagner, 1970, p.12).


Jan 23, 1848, James Marshall at Sutter's Mill
Much has been written of the events surrounding the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill that day, so I'll only attend to a brief account. James Marshall had been employed by John Sutter to supervise the construction and operation of a saw mill at Coloma. The location had been picked because of the availability of water power to drive the wheel that sawed the local pine and ceder trees into lumber. There was a problem with the position of the wheel that needed his attention. It was placed too deeply into the millrace and was inefficient. Rather than raise the wheel it was determined to be the much easier solution to lower the millrace that supplied the water to the wheel. The millrace was periodically gated at the top and then released to allow the rushing water to scour away the debris that had accumulated after a brief digging and loosening of the rocks at the base of the millrace. Marshall called one of his Indian employees to fetch a tin plate from the sawyer James S. Brown. Brown had wondered why Marshall wanted the plate, and why he had been poking around in the race most of the afternoon. Brown went to a nearby cabin, retrieved the plate, and then accompanied the Indian back to where Marshall was futzing. "This is a curious rock," said Marshall to Brown (
Gay, 1967).


The First Gold Seekers of 1848
News of the discovery traveled about as fast as molasses in January, at least until Sam Brannan had made the trip to the hills and back from San Francisco (Yerba Buena). Brannan was an industrious Mormon in his late twenties that had come to California for adventure. He found it. While engaged in the business of publishing a newspaper in San Francisco, Brannan began to hear rumors of gold having been found at Sutter's Mill. Most all of the San Franciscans were a skeptical lot and would believe none of it. Brannan went to the hills to find out for himself. Finding the place crawling with frantic and now wealthy miners, Brannan took it upon himself to setup camp at a place called Mormon Island on the American River and demand "the Lord's tithes" from the pannings of all the miners that passed his way. A great deal of gold was thus collected until one of the miners, more suspicious than the rest, approached Colonel Mason (the military Governor of California at the time who had also come to investigate the excitement). The miner asked whether Brannan had the authority to demand and collect the tithes (10% of all the gold found). Mason replied, "He has a perfect right to collect them... as long as you are fools enough to pay!" Thus it was that Sam's tithe- taking days came to an end.

Gathering his loot and returning to San Francisco as quickly as he could, Brannan rushed into the town streets yelling, "Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!" Sam had been the first to tell San Francisco of the discovery on May 12, 1848 (
Bancroft, p. 56). At least he was the first to do so as loudly, and by flashing a flask of gold dust. Skeptical San Francisco had been occupied by several hundred people at that moment, but so effective was Sam's proclamation that by the end of the next day only seven remained. The rest had followed Sam back into the hills (Scherer, p. 52).


The Few Men Who Made Their Fortune
Brannan was not the only one demanding a share of the miner's gold. James Marshal was also collecting a healthy 20% from the miners working in the Coloma area. Many of these men sought other streams and rivers nearby and found gold in them also. So rich were these also that a man armed only with a butcher knife could dig out almost a pound of gold per day (worth about $50 at the going rate of $4 to $5 per troy ounce). Very few tools were needed to extract the gold from these virgin streams, and few of these men had any practical experience in gold mining. A knife was all that was needed to pry apart the rocks in a small crevice in the bedrock of a stream, and hands and fingers alone were needed to place the gold that was found into a leather pouch. Gold seekers soon arrived from San Francisco, San Jose, Monterey, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and San Diego to the gold fields and by end of the summer of 1848 many were present with prior gold mining experience, men from Chili, and men who had worked the gold rush of Georgia in the early 1830's. These Georgia miners brought with them the skills of gold panning and constructing gold sluices and rockers (
Nelson, p. 274). These instruments greatly enhanced mining efficiency.

Not everyone ultimately became rich with the gold they found. Ships arriving to Sacramento from Hawaii were selling potatoes for $1 a pound, and a blanket could fetch $50 to $100. Eggs cost $12 per dozen, breakfast $5, and dinner $10, all when an ounce of gold could rarely bring more than $5 (Scherer, p. 66). One man that did find and keep his riches collected from California's gold fields was Leland Stanford. Much of his wealth came not from finding gold but from supplying the appetites of the miners hungry for beans, pork, and mining supplies. Arriving to the gold fields in 1852, Stanford set up shop in the town of Michigan Bluff near Auburn. He soon acquired a claim to a very rich ancient gravel bank and employed men to the diggings. The tunnel had penetrated about six hundred feet when it struck the richest gravel. Getting word of the discovery, Stanford went to inspect the find with his foreman. The men grabbed a small pick and a gold pan before entering and upon reaching the rich looking place in the tunnel the foreman said, "I think this is quite rich." Filling the pan with gravel taken from the edge of the tunnel the men returned to pan their find. There were seventy-six ounces of gold in that one pan alone, more than six pounds! In a space of not more than twelve feet from that spot more than $50,000 in gold was recovered (Bancroft, p. 14).



Hydraulic Mining in California
The invention of hydraulic mining is generally attributed to Edward E. Matteson near Nevada City, California in February of 1852 (
May, Philip: 1970). Within 5 years of this invention the mining engineers of the Sierra Nevada had constructed five thousand miles of ditches and flumes to supply the water needed to power the monstrous hydraulic monitors (nozzles). About 26 million ounces of gold was recovered by the process of hydraulic mining in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, but at the cost of thirteen billion cubic yards of earth (about 2.4 cubic miles!) being washed away (McPhee, John: 1993). Though irreparable harm was done to the mountain streams and fertile farm land valleys of the American and Yuba Rivers, great good was also brought about. By the end of the American Civil War, seven hundred and eighty-five million dollars had come from California's gold fields. Quoted from the memoirs of the early Californian pioneer John Bidwell:

It is a question whether the United States could have stood the shock of the great rebellion of 1861 had the California gold discovery not been made. Bankers and business men of New York in 1864 did not hesitate to admit that but for the gold of California, which monthly poured its five or six millions into the financial center, the bottom would have dropped out of everything. These timely arrivals so strengthened the nerves of trade and stimulated business as to enable the government to sell its bonds at a time when its credit was its life-blood and the main reliance by which to feed, clothe, and maintain its armies. Once our bonds went down to thirty-eight cents on the dollar. California gold averted a total collapse and enabled a preserved Union to come forth from the great conflict (McPhee, John: 1993).


Credits and Citations:

Bancroft, Hubert: "Leland Stanford, a Character Study", Biobooks, 1952. Also, "History of California" 1848.

Gay, Theressa: "James W. Marshall - The Discoverer of California Gold", The Talisman Press, 1967.

Lindgren, Waldemar: "Tertiary Gravels of the Sierra Nevada of California", Washington [D.C.] Government Printing Office, 1911.

Nelson, Maidee: "California, Land of Promise", Caxton Printers, Ltd., 1962

Scherer, James: "The First Forty-niner", Minton, Balch & Co., 1925

Wagner, Jack: "The First Fortyniners", Howell-North Books, 1970.





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