January 24 – Got the fever?

Today’s Factismal: James Marshall found gold at Sutter’s Mill 165 years ago.

In 1848, California was a sleepy little backwater. With fewer than 15,000 non-Native American inhabitants and with most towns located on or near the Mission Trail, there wasn’t much reason to go there unless you were interested in lumber. California had abundant old-growth forests full of big trees that were perfect for making ships (which is why the United States annexed the region at the end of the Mexican-American War in 1847). And lots of trees meant lots of sawmills. And one of those sawmills would soon transform California and the United States.

Sutter's Mill after it was abandoned by the workers (Image courtesy Books about California History and Culture)

Sutter’s Mill after it was abandoned by the workers (Image courtesy Books about California History and Culture)

While walking along the stream bed next to the mill that he owned with John Sutter, James Marshall saw a faint gleaming of gold. Though small amounts of gold had been found elsewhere in the state, this find was unusual for the size and number of nuggets. As a result the workers at the mill were soon in town, spreading word of the find. Like wildfire, news spread throughout California. Some historians estimate that 90% of the population of San Francisco left to join in on the gold rush.

And the gold fever wasn’t limited to California. People came from all over America, and from the Sandwich Islands (Hawai’i), Europe, China, and Mexico. More than 300,000 people came to California over the next five years. The territory’s huge population boom and sudden wealth forced Congress to grant California statehood in 1850, just three years after it had been annexed. And that wealth wasn’t just limited to the gold, silver, and other minerals. The needs of the miners led to the development of new types of clothing and new styles of lodging and new and better railroads. And the inherent lawlessness of the region led to the development of laws and strong police forces.

About the only people who didn’t do well from the gold rush were Sutter and Marshall. Their workers abandoned the mill to go prospecting, which left it vulnerable to squatters those that preyed on them. Sutter and Marshall ended up abandoning the mill and going their separate ways; both men died penniless.

Today there’s a gold rush of sorts but with the intent of safeguarding the history of the area. If you’d like to help, then take a look at FoundSF and contribute to the history of the gate to the gold rush:

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