"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with the people who lived it."
A Worker Who Saw Gold Discovered
Recorded the Historic Events

by Don Baumgart

There was a witness to James Marshall's discovery of gold on the American River, and that witness wrote it down in his diary.

Henry Bigler was one of the workmen trying to get John Sutter's sawmill built and he was drilling a hole for blasting powder on January 24, 1848. A nearby workman was asked by an Indian for a tin plate he said Marshall wanted. "...he wondered what Marshall wanted with a tin plate," Bigler wrote, "and went to the shanty and gave the Indian a plate. Just before we quit work Marshall came up and said he believed he had discovered a gold mine."

Marshall's announcement was met with skepticism and he didn't show the workers any of the "color" he said he found.

"But before we went to bed," Bigler's account continues, "he came in and commenced talking with us, saying he believed he had found gold near the lower end of the race." The "race" was a narrow channel through which water sped to power the sawmill. That night Marshall instructed Bigler and another man to shut down the head gate next morning.

"Accordingly the next morning we did as he told us while Marshall went alone down in the race, and we went in for our breakfast, and after we had breakfasted and come out, Brown to his sawing, Stephens to his hewing, I to my drilling...Marshall came up carrying his old white hat in his arm looking wonderfully pleased and good natured. There was a heavy smile on his countenance."

Repeating his previous day's remark about finding a gold mine, Marshall "...set his hat on a work bench that stood in the mill yard. Every man gathered instantly around to see what he had there. Sure enough, on top of the hat crown (knocked in a little) lay the pure stuff."

Bigler estimated the hat held a half ounce, "...from the smallest particle up to the size of a kernel of wheat or larger. The most of it was in very thin small flakes."

This time the workmen were convinced.

"Every man fully expressed his conviction believing firmly it was gold," Bigler wrote, "although none of us had ever seen gold before in its native state." One man pulled out a five-dollar gold piece he had kept from his army mustering out pay. "There seemed to be no difference as to color or weight."

Looking themselves the men found particles of gold in seams and crevices of river rock. "Conjectures were it must be rich and from that time the fever set in and gold was on the brain." The men went back to work on the mill, but their talk was all about that alluring new four-letter word: Gold!

After a few more days of picking up the yellow flakes, Marshall announced he was heading for Sutter's Fort to have the metal tested, cautioning his men to keep quite about the discovery until they were sure it was real.

"He was gone four days," Bigler recorded, "and when he returned and was asked what it was, his reply was 'Oh boys, by God, it is the pure stuff!'"

"I and the 'old cap," Marshall's name for Sutter, "went into a room and locked ourselves up and were half a day trying it," Marshall told Bigler. "Sutter will be up in a day or two," Marshall added.

What took place next was a classic case of "salting" a gold mine.

Marshall proposed that the men, who had all been picking up their own golden flakes, chip in a bit to sprinkle about. "And when the old gentleman comes down and sees it, it will so excite him that he will bring out his bottle and treat."

The trick backfired when a small boy raced past Sutter and gathered up the gold.

The men were unsure how big the gold strike was and were reluctant to give up their well-paying jobs to go prospecting full time. "...but when Sunday came, down into the tail race we would go. No other place seemed to strike us so favorable, and there we would pick and crevice with our jack and butcher knives, and we hardly ever failed to get three to eight dollars each and sometimes more."

— end —
(Copyright 2001, Don Baumgart)

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