Originally created 04/12/98

Travel: Gold Rush to Statehood



COLOMA, Calif. -- If you scoot down a sandy bank along the South Fork of the American River, you reach an oval, rock-lined puddle and a modest marker.

It describes a day 150 years ago that changed California from a pastoral wilderness into the innovative, materialist state of today.

"Here on a chilly morning in January 1848, carpenter James Marshall picked up the small pieces of gold that touched off one of the largest, most frenzied mass migrations in history," it reads.

"Within a year of Marshall's discovery, 6,000 gold seekers swarmed onto the western slope of the Sierra Nevada. Thousands more who followed completely changed what had been a quiet, remote Mexican province."

The discovery ensured that California had no quiet transition to statehood, and it has remained a place that does most things faster and first.

The California myth was created.

Now under way, a 33-month California Gold Discovery to Statehood Sesquicentennial celebration, begun in January, has had a noisy transition of its own, including a slow start, complaints from Latinos, Indians, and other groups whose ancestors were abused in the wake of the Gold Rush, and charges of misusing state funds allotted to the project.

Naturally, initial events centered at Coloma, the tiny El Dorado County community 45 miles northeast of Sacramento, where Marshall found those shining rocks in the tailrace of a sawmill he was building for John Sutter.

In 1848, California had just been acquired by the United States as part of the settlement of the Mexican-American War. The non-Indian population was about 14,000. Pioneer wagons had just started coming to the territory, which generally had the sleepy flavor of its agriculture-oriented Californios settlers.

One pre-Gold Rush pioneer was John Sutter, who was building an agricultural empire in Northern California based at his Sutter's Fort in what is now Sacramento. He needed lumber for his construction projects and hired Marshall to build a sawmill in the foothills.

Marshall selected Coloma, an Indian settlement on the South Fork of the American River about 45 miles east of the fort, because it was the closest spot that had a river for power and a large stand of pine trees.

By January, 1848, the mill was ready, except for one problem: the tailrace to carry the water away from the mill and back to the river was too shallow. Workers every day dug out the dirt and let water wash away the debris at night.

On the morning of Jan. 24, Marshall inspected the tailrace and spotted some shining rocks. He and other mill workers tried several tests and concluded the rocks were gold.

Four days later, he took the samples -- wrapped in a handkerchief -- to Sutter, who did more tests. Worried about his own investments, Sutter tried to keep the find a secret.

It didn't work.

The news took nearly a year to percolate to the East Coast and other countries, but then the '49er rush began. By the end of 1848, the non-Indian population was 20,000. It soared to 100,000 by the end of 1849 and to 223,000 in 1852. Over the next 50 years, 125 million ounces of gold were taken from the hills of California, worth $50 billion in today's dollars.

And it changed the area forever.

"Within 20 years it developed a type and style of civilization, especially in San Francisco and adjacent areas, resembling nothing else in the Far West: urban, cosmopolitan, reminiscent in a provincial sort of way of the Atlantic states and parts of Southern Europe," writes historian Kevin Starr.

In the process, the low-key Californios culture based on cattle-raising and agriculture was overrun and the Indian tribes were destroyed.

Those harsh facts won't be ignored in the sesquicentennial celebrations, state officials say. "We're not talking about an event that hides some of the facts of the Gold Rush," says Matthew Sugarman, superintendent of Marshall Gold Discovery State Park in Coloma. "There was a lot of negative stuff going on."

"We're not going to go into denial that Native Americans who had lived here for hundreds of years and Mexicans and Chinese and all the others were abused," says Robert Elsner, executive director of the state's sesquicentennial planning commission.

But he adds: "We're not going to wring our hands. We're going to acknowledge they were not treated well and they have a part of Gold Rush history. We're saying, 'Commemorate the past; celebrate the future."'