|"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with the people who lived it."
by Don Baumgart
Who really discovered gold in California?
Popular history says it was James Marshall, working on construction of a sawmill for John Sutter on the American River, who spotted something shiny in the water.
Going back a ways, twenty thousand years, in fact, early man is believed to have crossed the Bering Straits from Asia on what was then solid land. During the California Gold Rush a prehistoric mine shaft was found 200 feet deep in solid rock. In another place, some 300 feet underground in a mining tunnel, a simple device for grinding gold was located. Under five beds of lava a human skull was found, along with bones from camels, rhinoceroses, and even a hippopotamus.
The skull is believed to be that of the first human to find gold in California!
Jedediah Smith was the first recorded white man to come west overland from the Atlantic states to California and he is believed by some to be the first discoverer of gold.
"He was the chief trader in the employ of the American Fur Company," writes Thomas Sprague in a letter posted during the Gold Rush. Leading a party of 40 trappers from Salt Lake, Smith pushed west. "Being of an adventuresome nature," Sprague wrote, "when he found his road closed by high mountains, [he was] determined to see what kind of a country there was on the other side."
That "country" was to become California.
"The gold he brought [back] with him, together with his description of the country, and the large amount of furs, pleased the agent of the American Fur Company so well that he directed Smith again to make the same trip." And to pay special attention to prospecting for gold.
Smith's second trip west would be the last adventure of his life. He and many of his men were killed by Indians and the incident discouraged the fur company's interest in the shiny yellow metal. It would not be until the beginning of 1848 that the interest of many hundreds of men turned toward California's riches after James Marshall got his feet wet and started the stampede for gold. He became known as the discoverer of gold in California.
What had been the riches of the territory to the west, furs, was shifting. Now it was the four letter word heard `round the world: "Gold!"
"The name of California, heretofore almost unknown," write Jody and Ric Hornor in their book The Golden Corridor, found its way to the ear of almost every person of culture in the old as well as the new world."
Copyright Don Baumgart, 2006
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