"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with the people who lived it."

Nevada City Was One of the Original Gold Discovery Sites


by Don Baumgart

James Marshall came to Deer Creek, a tributary of the Yuba River, in the summer of 1848. He was the first white man to pan for gold at what would become Nevada City. We don't know how well he did, or even if he found gold. His other gold discovery would take up all the room in the history books.

Marshall is remembered for his discovery of gold, not in Deer Creek, but in the American River at Coloma where he was building a mill for John Sutter. The mill, designed to produce lumber, generated instead a world class fever known as the California Gold Rush.

Sutter estimated he was close to $100,000 in debt by the summer of 1847 and a flour mill he hoped would pay off his obligations was stalled for lack of lumber at his fort in the Sacramento Valley.

His solution was to build a sawmill and make his own lumber.

He entered into a deal with his carpenter, James Marshall, to build the sawmill fifty miles up the south fork of the American River, and float lumber down to Sutter's Fort. The project was, instead, destined to bring a flood of humanity pouring into California, propelling it toward state-hood.

At the sawmill site on the American River, a half-foot under water, something glittered in the pale winter sun. Marshall, on his daily inspection of the mill construction, picked up the bit of metal and studied it. He put it on a flat stone and bashed it with another. It did not shatter, it bent.

His men were skeptical when he told them he had found gold, but Marshall spent the next few days collecting nuggets and when he had six ounces tied in his handkerchief he headed down to John Sutter's fort.

Two years after Marshall found his few flakes of gold at Sutter's Mill, more than 10,000 miners scratched the gravel for gold in a three mile radius of the mill.

But Deer Creek, the camp that would become Nevada City, was not forgotten by the gold-hungry throng.

In September of 1849 Capt. John Pennington and two companions built the first cabin on Gold Run, a steam that empties into Deer Creek. By October of that year Dr. A.B. Caldwell was operating a log cabin store, the first of a long line of merchants selling to those who came to search for the bright yellow metal.

The same month the town's first family, the Stampses, settled in a ravine back of what is now Coyote street. By the spring of 1850 a woman named Penn had built a boarding house on a site in Nevada City that was to be continuously occupied by houses of lodging for 109 years.

Life was, in some ways, simpler then.

A miner digging for gold in the streets of Nevada City was approached by an irate store keeper. The miner refused to stop, saying no law prevented his digging there. "Then I'll make a law!" said the merchant, producing a large pistol. The miner quickly decided that there probably was more gold somewhere else.

The town went through a series of names, from Deer Creek to Deer Creek Diggings, to Deer Creek Dry Diggings. In March of 1850 a public meeting of the townspeople changed the name to Nevada, Spanish for "snow covered." When a post office was established, clarity demanded another name transformation. It's been Nevada City ever since.

At first the surface placers were rich and the camps along Deer Creek grew rapidly. The ravines were thick with miners and hills were crowded with tents. Brush houses and a few log cabins sprang up.

There was great excitement when the deep gravels of an ancient river bed were reached. Even more miners poured into the bit of civilization growing along Deer Creek. A population census in the spring of 1850 showed 1,067 inhabitants. By fall there were 6,000.

A local newspaper was essential for reporting the goings on of this growing encampment. The September 16, 1850 edition of the Evening Picayune reported the discovery of a gold lump weighing more than 400 pounds. Its finders refused $25,000 for the gigantic nugget.

Water was vital for sluicing the dirt away from the gravel and nuggets. The Deer Creek Water Company was formed by William Folsom in 1851, bringing the water to miners' claims. Folsom would later become famous for building the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City.

When the surface gold became scarce, miners would follow the yellow stuff deeper and deeper into the ground. A series of underground mines with miles of tunnels would carry Nevada City and its companion town of Grass Valley into the future of the Gold Rush.

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Copyright Don Baumgart, 2003


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