A millwright named James Marshall discovers gold along the banks of Sutter’s Creek in California, forever changing the course of history in the American West.
A tributary to the South Fork of the American River in the Sacramento Valley east of San Francisco, Sutter’s Creek was named for a Swiss immigrant who came to Mexican California in 1839. John Augustus Sutter became a citizen of Mexico and won a grant of nearly 50,000 acres in the lush Sacramento Valley, where he hoped to create a thriving colony. He built a sturdy fort that became the center of his first town, New Helvetia, and purchased farming implements, livestock, and a cannon to defend his tiny empire. Copying the methods of the Spanish missions, Sutter induced the local Indians to do all the work on his farms and ranches, often treating them as little more than slaves. Workers who dared leave his empire without permission were often brought back by armed posses to face brutal whippings or even execution.
In the 1840s, Sutter’s Fort became the first stopping-off point for overland Anglo-American emigrants coming to California to build farms and ranches. Though sworn to protect the Mexican province from falling under the control of the growing number of Americans, Sutter recognized that his future wealth and influence lay with these Anglo settlers. With the outbreak of the Mexican War in 1846, he threw his support to the Americans, who emerged victorious in the fall of 1847.
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With the war over and California securely in the hands of the United States, Sutter hired the millwright James Marshall to build a sawmill along the South Fork of the American River in January 1848. In order to redirect the flow of water to the mill’s waterwheel, Marshall supervised the excavation of a shallow millrace. On the morning of January 24, 1848, Marshall was looking over the freshly cut millrace when a sparkle of light in the dark earth caught his eye. Looking more closely, Marshall found that much of the millrace was speckled with what appeared to be small flakes of gold, and he rushed to tell Sutter. After an assayer confirmed that the flakes were indeed gold, Sutter quietly set about gathering up as much of the gold as he could, hoping to keep the discovery a secret. However, word soon leaked out and, within months, the largest gold rush in the world had begun.
Ironically, the California gold rush was a disaster for Sutter. Though it brought thousands of men to California, the prospectors had no interest in joining Sutter’s despotic agricultural community. Instead, they overran Sutter’s property, slaughtered his herds for food, and trampled his fields. By 1852, New Helvetia was ruined, and Sutter was nearly wiped out. Until his death in 1880, he spent his time unsuccessfully petitioning the government to compensate him for the losses he suffered as a result of the gold rush he unintentionally ignited.