The discovery of gold in California probably did as much to jump start the westward migration of Americans as any other single factor. Beginning with the 1804-06 Lewis and Clark expedition, people in the eastern United States began to learn of a vast expanse of unsettled territory to their west. A trickle of the more adventurous moved toward the setting sun. But the full rush westward commenced in 1849, with thousands drawn there by a lust for the precious golden metal.

Some found their fortunes in the California gold fields; some did not.

The Finders

James Marshall, born in New Jersey in 1810, traveled west while still in his twenties. He eventually landed in California in 1845 at the age of 35. Here, Marshall settled in with John Sutter, who had established a fort on the American River. Sutter's Fort lay some 85 miles northeast of the sleepy little Spanish village of Yerba Buena.

In 1847 Marshall and Sutter decided to form a partnership to operate a sawmill. They reasoned that the growing need for it would make the production of lumber an increasingly profitable enterprise. Among the necessary components of the new mill, they included a tailrace, or sluiceway, to carry water away from the mill's waterwheel.

One frigid January morning in 1848, James Marshall walked slowly along the tailrace to check the flow of water. His eye caught an interesting glitter. Without hesitation, Marshall plunged a work-worn hand into the ice cold water and extracted a gold nugget later valued at fifty cents.

With this simple act, James Marshall became the man whose chance discovery led to the first and possibly the wildest gold rushes in American history.

Quoting James MarshallCredit: Lane Olinghouse

When Marshall showed the nugget to Sutter, however, the latter spoke vehemently against broadcasting the news. He told Marshall an onslaught of uncontrollable gold-seekers would spell ruin to his holdings. Sutter feared frantic gold diggers would turn his land into useless heaps of slag and kill or run off his livestock.

Sutter's premonitions turned out to have zeroed in right on the mark.

The Keepers

Initially, little excitement actually developed back east over the news of the discovery of gold in far-off California. Most easterners yawned at the whole idea, ranking the story with some of the outlandish tales of the western wilderness they had already heard. Then, in December, President Polk mentioned the discovery in an otherwise dry and unremarkable speech. This sparked a sudden interest in California, and men of every age and from every social background stampeded west to make their fortune.

The smarter ones of the new arrivals remained in settlements such as Yerba Buena and set up businesses there. Outfitting stores, hotels, restaurants and saloons sprang up overnight like dandelions in early spring. These enterprises managed to fleece the gold seekers coming and going. They charged exorbitant prices for picks, shovels, goldpans and other mining and camping necessities to those heading for the gold fields. For food, lodging, entertainment and whiskey, they plucked the pockets and pokes of those returning from the hills who had met with a modicum of success.

A very few of the more successful miners managed to keep their new found wealth. Some invested in local real estate and built homes to become California residents. Some banked their wealth or secreted it back east. A few gave up prospecting altogether and made their living buying and selling established and productive mining claims.

For a while, these tales of success overshadowed the failures and kept the California gold rush fever alive and well.

The Losers

As related, of all the would-be gold miners who streamed into the hills of California, only a handful found anything amounting to success. Most prospectors suffered triple defeats: played out, pushed out and starved out. These sorrowful souls either returned to their homes back east or trickled into nearby towns to add to the swelling populations there. In the meantime, Yerba Buena, which had boasted but a few hundred residents in 1847, became an overnight boomtown and changed its name to San Francisco.

Replica of Sutter's MillCredit: Wikimedia Commons

Sutter's mill, of course, had become a veritable magnet for prospectors armed with picks and shovels and $1 iron pans that had cost them as much a $20 each. Since the first discovery of gold had occurred on Sutter soil, a sort of reasonless logic told the gold seekers the mill and the surrounding area must contain the very lodestone of this golden treasure. They dug for it, they panned for it and they fought for it.

As for James Marshall, the man everyone credited with the original discovery, many gold-seeking prospectors assumed he knew the whereabouts of the precious metal's source. They followed his every step, hounding him and insisting that he reveal to them the gold's location. At one point, maddened by frustration, some of the miners threatened to hang Marshall if he did not comply with their demands.

James MarshallCredit: Wikimedia Commons

Marshall eventually decided to relinquish any idea of prospering as a millwright and betook himself to the gold fields to dig and pan with the rest of the mob. As a prospector, however, he met with the same level of success as the vast majority of the California Forty Niners. He hardly bettered his first half-dollar find.

James Marshall finally abandoned the gold fields. He instead eked out a meager living at odd, low-paying jobs. He took to drink for solace. He died in 1885. He left an estate estimated at $218.82.