This week marks the anniversary of the discovery of gold in California, which sparked the legendary Gold Rush that resonated the world over — and changed California and the West, pretty much overnight. (CR)
The other day, something made me start to wonder…what ever happened to James Marshall after the California gold rush?
James Marshal was a 35-year old carpenter employed by his friend John Sutter. Marshall went to Coloma, California to build a sawmill for Sutter. It was on a January morning in 1848 , as Marshall was inspecting the sawmill, that he spotted those first flakes of gold that changed history.
Marshall told Sutter right away and hoped the discovery would be the end of his money problems. But the discovery of gold had to remain a secret between the two friends until Sutter could lay claim to the area where the flakes had been found. Unfortunately, rumors began to spread around San Francisco about gold being found in the American river. One man from San Francisco, Sam Brannan , heard the rumors and went to see if they were true. He found gold and returned to San Francisco. He ran through the streets yelling “Gold! Gold! Gold! A bonanza of gold on the south fork. Gold!”
The Gold Rush was on. People from all over the world started coming to California.
For Marshall, a lot changed. The newness and excitement wore off and he was no longer praised for the tremendous find in Coloma. He went back went back to working for Sutter, then to mining. Unable to find much “color” himself, Marshall sometimes took credit for other miners’ finds.
Later, Marshall served as a guide for government inspection parties in the gold fields. He was also formally recognized as the discoverer of gold in California. But with his fame, Marshall found himself trying to escape from gold hungry miners following his every move.
After a short time, Gold Rush miners had found very few riches. Some people, stranded and bitter, actually threatened to hang Marshall if he did not show them where they could find gold!
Marshall was part owner of a lumber mill, but the business failed. He went back into mining and found no success. He was granted a pension by the California legislature, and continued prospecting for the rest of his life.
Living on the edge of poverty, Marshall was reduced at times to selling his autograph for 25 cents. He died in 1885.
Marshall was famous, then forgotten, then famous again — but he never became the great man he’d hoped to be. We remember Marshall, but his life was a common story in the Gold Rush. As with most Argonauts, the dream was all too real, while the reality was all too harsh.