“I shall never forget that morning ... My eye was caught with the glimpse of something shining in the bottom of the ditch. I reached my hand down; it made my heart thump, for I was certain it was gold.”
James Wilson Marshall (October 8, 1810 – August 10, 1885) was an American carpenter and sawmill operator, who reported the finding of gold at Coloma on the American River in California on January 24, 1848, the impetus for the California Gold Rush.
The mill property was owned by Johan (John) Sutter who employed Marshall to build his mill. The wave of gold seekers turned everyone’s attention away from the mill which eventually fell into disrepair and was never used as intended. Neither Marshall nor Sutter ever profited from the gold find.
On the morning of January 24, 1848 Marshall was examining the channel below the mill when he noticed some shiny flecks in the channel bed. The metal was confirmed to be gold after members of Marshall’s crew performed tests on the metal—boiling it in a lye solution and hammering it to test its malleability. Marshall, still primarily concerned with the completion of the sawmill, permitted his crew to search for gold during their free time.
By the time Marshall returned to Sutter’s Fort, four days later, the war had ended and California was about to become an American possession. Marshall shared his discovery with Sutter, who performed further tests on the gold and told Marshall that it was “of the finest quality, of at least 23 karat [96% pure].”
News of the discovery soon reached around the world. The immediate impact for Marshall was negative. His sawmill failed when all the able-bodied men in the area abandoned everything to search for gold. Before long, arriving hordes of prospectors forced him off his land. Marshall soon left the area.
Marshall returned to Coloma in 1857 and found some success in the 1860s with a vineyard he started. That venture ended in failure towards the end of the decade, due mostly to higher taxes and increased competition. He returned to prospecting in the hopes of finding success.
He became a partner in a gold mine near Kelsey, California but the mine yielded nothing and left Marshall practically bankrupt. The California State Legislature awarded him a two-year pension in 1872 in recognition of his role in an important era in California history. It was renewed in 1874 and 1876 but lapsed in 1878. Marshall, penniless, eventually ended up in a small cabin.
Marshall died in Kelsey on August 10, 1885.