In January of 1848, James Marshall discovered gold in California’s American River.
At the time, Marshall was employed to build a saw-mill by wealthy, German-born John Sutter. Marshall’s discovery set a gold rush in motion. In the first two months following the discovery, 90 ships sailed for California. By 1854, 300,000 people had caught gold fever.
Sutter later wrote an account of the day Marshall informed him of the discovery.
“It was a rainy afternoon when Mr. Marshall arrived at my office in the Fort, very
wet. I was somewhat surprised to see him, as he was down a few days previous; and then, I sent up to Coloma a number of teams with provisions, mill irons, etc., etc. He told me then that he had some important and interesting news which he wished to communicate
secretly to me, and wished me to go with him to a place where we should not be disturbed, and where no listeners could come and hear what we had to say. I went with him to my private rooms; he requested me to lock the door; I complied, but I told him at the same time that nobody was in the house except the clerk, who was in his office in a different part of the house; after requesting of me something which he wanted, which my servants brought and then left the room, I forgot to lock the doors, and it happened that the door was opened by the clerk just at the moment when Marshall took a rag from his pocket, showing me the yellow metal: he had about two ounces of it; but how quick Mr. M. put the yellow metal in his pocket again can hardly be described.”
After word leaked out about the discovery, John Sutter’s land was overrun with gold seekers. Finally, he went bankrupt. He spent the rest of his life trying to force the state and federal governments to compensate him for his losses. He died on June 18, 1880.