America's gold rushes: California finds dwarf earlier Appalachian gold finds

Shaping U.S. history from Georgia to California and north to Alasska
By , Special to Coin World
Published : 07/18/15
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While the Appalachian gold strikes were the first in the United States, they were dwarfed by the California Gold Rush, which began with James W. Marshall’s Jan. 24, 1848, discovery of gold in the tailrace or water channel of a water-powered sawmill he was building for John Sutter about 35 miles northeast of Sacramento, Calif. 

Marshall later recalled: “One morning in January — it was a clear, cold morning; I shall never forget that morning — as I was taking my usual walk along the race after shutting off the water, my eye was caught with the glimpse of something shining in the bottom of the ditch. There was about a foot of water running then. I reached my hand down and picked it up; it made my heart thump, for I was certain it was gold. The piece was about half the size and of the shape of a pea. Then I saw another piece in the water.”

While Marshall and Sutter tried to keep the find quiet, news quickly spread. “Soon the whole country was in a bustle,” Marshall recalled. 

“I had scarcely arrived at the mill again till several persons appeared with pans, shovels, and hoes, and those that had not iron picks had wooden ones, all anxious to fall to work and dig up our mill; but this we would not permit. As fast as one party disappeared another would arrive, and sometimes I had the greatest kind of trouble to get rid of them. I sent them all off in different directions, telling them about such and such places, where I was certain there was plenty of gold if they would only take the trouble of looking for it. At that time I never imagined that the gold was so abundant. I told them to go to such and such places, because it appeared that they would dig nowhere but in such places as I pointed out, and I believe such was their confidence in me that they would have dug on the very top of yon mountain if I had told them to do so.”

Fortune seekers flooded into the area, first from California, then beyond. A San Francisco paper, the Californian, took up the story March 15, with a one-paragraph article declaring, “Gold has been found in considerable quantities.” 

Mormons from the Mormon Battalion that fought for the Unites States in the Mexican-American War, settlers from Oregon’s Willamette Valley and even Hawaiians who learned of the strike from trading ships, pulled up stakes and made their way to California.

Tales of easy wealth started appearing in Eastern newspapers that summer. Those who could afford steamship passage around South America arrived in the gold fields that year. The masses of ’49ers, though, were young men without such wherewithal.

They waited until the Rocky Mountain passes were free of snow the following spring and set out by steamboat to St. Joe and overland trail by wagon train to the gold fields.

President James K. Polk’s State of the Union speech Dec. 5, 1848, fueled the fever. He said, “The accounts of the abundance of gold in that territory are of such an extraordinary character as would scarcely command belief were they not corroborated by the authentic reports of officers in the public service who have visited the mineral district and derived the facts which they detail from personal observation.”

In addition to personal observations, the federal government also had gold, real California gold straight from the diggin’s. On Dec. 9, 1848, the Philadelphia Mint received 228 ounces of California gold from Secretary of War William L. Marcy. The gold was used to strike 1,389 1848 Coronet $2.50 quarter eagles with the abbreviation CAL. on the reverse. The scarce coins, arguably the first U.S. commemorative coins, are highly sought after, with even damaged pieces commanding $25,000 and Uncirculated ones starting at $75,000.

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