James Wilson Marshall
James Wilson Marshall was born on October 8, 1810 in Round Mountain, New Jersey. His father, Phillip Marshall was a wagon-maker and James first learned the trade from him as a youngster in his teens. James had a falling out with his father and left home to work in a variety of jobs including a sawmill and lumber company. In 1837 he owned a small farm in Western Missouri. In 1844 he emigrated to Oregon where he worked in the Willamette Valley as a carpenter for a winter. In 1845 he moved on to California's Sacramento Valley where he got work with John Sutter at Sutter's Fort. By the end of the year he owned and operated a small farm of his own on Butte Creek but continued to work for Sutter as well.
Marshall joined Captain John Fremont's California Battalion following the Bear Flag Revolt and saw action in Southern California. Following the end of hostilities in 1847 Marshall returned to his Butte Creek farm to find that it had been ransacked. He once again turned to John Sutter for employment. He was hired to construct two mills. The first was a grist mill located on the American River near Sutter's Fort. The second was a saw mill located on the South Fork of the American River in the Cullomah Valley. Sutter and Marshall were partners in this venture. Late on January 23, while working on the tailrace for the mill, he found quartz rock in the river bed. The find made him think that gold might be present. The next morning he returned to the tailrace and found gold nuggets. Marshall reported his discovery to Sutter on January 28.
Sutter and Marshall tried to keep the discovery as secret as possible, but were unsuccessful. Word leaked out from the mill and from the fort and there was very little that either Sutter or Marshall could do to stop it. Amazingly Marshall was able to complete the saw mill and to continue to operate it as Cullomah quickly grew into a gold mining town. The Indian name "Cullomah" was Anglicized by the gold miners to Coloma. (Following statehood in 1850, Coloma became the county seat for El Dorado County.) Marshall joined in the prospecting and found his share of placer gold, but never made a big strike. Flooding hampered the sawmill operation in 1848 and Sutter sold his share in the operation. Marshall stayed with the mill as the demand for lumber increased in the town and nearby mining operations. By 1849 he owned several pieces of property and was relatively prosperous, but that year got into a severe disagreement with several miners over their unjust treatment of their Native American laborers. Marshall was forced to leave town.
Marshall's fortunes declined rapidly and he had to sell his real estate holdings including the Butte Creek property. For a while people believed that he had some sort of supernatural power that had led to his earlier discovery of gold. When he was unable to demonstrate any such power they turned against him. In 1853 he literally fled into the mountains to hide. For the next several years he prospected in the central Sierras. He never struck it rich but did manage to eke out a bare existence. In 1857 he returned to Coloma, purchased a small plot of land, built a cabin, and established an orchard and vineyard. (By that time the placer deposits around Coloma had been exhausted and the county seat had been moved to Placerville.) He was granted a quarter section of land for his participation in the war with Mexico but never did anything with it.
Toward the end of the 1860s competition from larger fruit producers drove Marshall's small farm out of business. and he invested his savings in the Grey Eagle mine a few miles east of Coloma at Kelsey. He also tried his hand on the lecture circuit. None of his business ventures were profitable, but in 1872 the California legislature awarded him a monthly pension of $200 in recognition of his discovery of gold. The term of the pension was two years but it was renewed for another year at the rate of $100 per month. Marshall invested some of his money in the Grey Eagle mine and some in a blacksmith shop in Kelsey. He also began drinking to excess and was frequently dependent on friends for support. He died in his blacksmith shop on Auguist 10, 1885. He is buried at Coloma.