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On This Date in History:
From the time that the first bit of gold was found in California through the next 50 years, some $2.5 billion in gold was taken from the earth and streams. James Marshall was born in 1810 in New Jersey to a wheelright and went west in his mid-twenties. In 1845, Marshall ended up at a remote outpost in the Sacramento Valley of the California Territory. Just 85 miles to the southwest lay a quiet seaport with just a few hundred residents. It was called Yerba Buena. Soon, that quiet town would be known as San Francisco and it would become anything but quiet.
The outpost where Marshall took up residence was owned by a man named John Sutter, who is a distant relative of mine through my mother’s father. In 1847, Marshall and Sutter became partners in a sawmill operation along a creek that ran through the property. On January 24, 1848 Marshall was doing an inspection of the mill when something caught his eye in the water. He reached down through six inches of frigid water and fetched a small gold nugget worth about 50 cents. News spread quickly but skepticism ran rampant until Sam Brannon showed up on the scene. Brannon operated the store at nearby Sutter’s Fort and in May, while newspapers were calling the gold rumors “all sham…got up to guzzle the gullible,” he arrived in San Francisco waving about a bottle filled with gold dust. That was a great advertising ploy because Brannon had already bought every iron pan in town for just 20 cents a piece. After showing everyone he could the gold dust, he returned to his store where he just happened to have iron pans available for the low low price of $16 a piece. That’s a nice 8000% mark up!
Now, Brannon couldn’t have asked for a better spokesman than the President of the United States and when President Polk mentioned the gold strike in a December speech, every tin-horn miner and serious prospector descended on Sutter’s land, destroyed land and stole his livestock. After a year, one meat company in Sacramento made $60,000 selling Sutter’s stolen beef. Now, Marshall could have made a tidy profit without doing one bit of mining, if it weren’t for his incompetence. You see, he was the partner in the saw mill and lumber was going for $500 per 1000 board feet. Instead of cashing in, he got caught up in a dispute between miners and the local Indians and he ran off. He came back a few weeks later but decided not to protect his land claims and instead became a prospector.
Trouble was, he was no good at it. But others were convinced that he had the Midas touch and so they followed him wherever he went. At one point, tag-along miners threatened to string him up if he didn’t spill the beans about whereabouts of the next big gold strike. I guess his followers finally decided that Marshall was a crummy prospector because Marshall ended up doing odd jobs and becoming rather eccentric. Then, he hit the booze. I don’t know how he came up with the figures; perhaps he was drunk when he estimated that his discovery had brought “Yankeedom $600 Million…Myself Individually….$000.000.000.” In his despair, he convinced the state of California in 1872 to grant him compensation. He received a $100 a month pension. But, in 1878 he came wandering drunk into the state assembly and his pension was revoked. When the man who discovered the first gold of the California Gold Rush died in 1885, his estate was valued at $218.82. He was laid to rest on a rise that overlooks the place where his gold discovery ultimately destroyed his life. He is honored however as in 1890, $9000 was spent on a statue that was placed at his grave. The caretaker of the grave and statue did better than James…he was paid $75 a month, which was less than the Marshall pension, but I don’t think it got revoked.
So, next time you hear of a big lottery winner whose life gets turned upside down and they end up broke, think of James Marshall. The story is nothing new. And I leave this question on the table…why is gold so valuable? Who decided it was a symbol of wealth? You can’t eat and and can’t build a shelter with it nor can you you drink it. All you can do is look at it and for some reason, covet it.