Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.
James Marshall, discoverer of gold, at Sutter’s Mill.

Native History: California Gold Rush Begins, Devastates Native Population

Alysa Landry

This Date in Native History: On January 24, 1848, a millwright named James Marshall discovered gold along California’s American River, forever changing the American West and prompting the largest mass migration in the history of the Western Hemisphere.

Marshall was hired by the California land baron John Sutter to erect a sawmill along the south fork of the river. Sutter, who was building a private empire on 50,000 acres of Indian land near Sacramento, kidnapped Natives and forced them to work for him in conditions that were akin to slavery.

According to a written history of the town of Sutter Creek, California, Sutter paid his Native workers with cheap pieces of tin that could only be redeemed at his store and punished them if they left camp. Sutter achieved large-scale success around the time of the Mexican War, but the gold rush proved ruinous for him.

Half plate daguerreotype of John Sutter, circa 1850. (Online Archive of California)

Among the men working on Sutter’s Mill were Miwok Indians—also known as Mokelumne—and displaced soldiers from the Mormon Battalion, said Ed Allen, interpretive lead for Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. The mill was being built on Nisenan Indian land, in a valley the Nisenan called Cullumah.

Problems arose when workers failed to dig the ditch deep enough and the water backed up under the wheel, Allen said. Because of this, Marshall began supervising the work. He was alone on the morning of January 24 when he found gold.

“As he stood down there in three inches of water, he looked down at his feet and saw a shiny object,” Allen said. “Marshall had only a fifth-grade education, but he knew that gold found in nature was soft and malleable, so he tested it to see if it would flatten out, and it did.”

Marshall then gathered more gold flecks and collected $15 worth of gold in less than 30 minutes, storing it in his hat. That was three-quarters of an ounce of gold, which was valued at $20.76 per ounce at that time. Today, that amount is worth about $900, Allen said.

Marshall alerted Sutter, and the land baron set about gathering as much of the gold as he could while keeping the discovery a secret. Within months, however, the largest gold rush in the world had begun with miners arriving in California from places around the globe.

The population of California skyrocketed in two years, from about 10,000 people to more than 220,000, yet only about 5 percent of those involved went home feeling wealthy, Allen said. In fact, only about half of the miners went home at all.

“Most were farm boys, uneducated,” he said. “They didn’t strike it rich and they didn’t have the funds to get home.”

The average age of the gold-rushers was 22, and they were almost all men. If they were married, they didn’t bring their wives or children with them, Allen said.

“The result was that we had a massive bunch of bachelors,” he said.

The 1850 Census reported that only 8 percent of California’s total population was female, Allen said. In gold country, 2 percent was female.

The gold rush proved disastrous for the Native population, Allen said. When Spaniards settled in California in the late 1700s, a reported 275,000 American Indians lived there. After the gold rush, the population had dwindled to 30,000, or about a 10-percent survival rate.

This lithograph, titled “California Gold Diggers, Mining Operations on the Western Shore of the Sacramento River,” published by Kellogg & Comstock, New York and Hartford shows Natives panning for gold alongside whites. But Sutter used Natives like slaves. Paying them in tin that could only be used in his own shop. (Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University)

Miners, viewing Natives as competitors for the gold, reportedly went to their villages, raped the women and killed the men, Allen said. He cited instances where miners went on “killing sprees” and murdered 50 or more Natives in a day. Those who survived scattered and didn’t return.

“The gold rush decimated the Native Americans,” he said. “The low point in the Native American history was 1900 when there were only 16,000 Native people in the whole state.”

Ironically, the gold rush was a disaster for Sutter, who lost much of his wealth when miners overran his property and stole his livestock for food. Sutter spent the last 30 years of his life unsuccessfully petitioning the government to compensate him for the losses.

Marshall, credited with the discovery that started the gold rush, died in poverty.

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