California Gold Rush History

Posted September 16, 2009 by Tessa Sibbet

It’s that time of year again when kids go back to school and California’s 4th graders arrive en masse each day to learn a little more about the Golden State. As a follow up to our previous entry about saving Marshall Gold Discovery Park, I thought I’d give you a very brief version of California’s Gold Rush History.

James Marshall’s discovery of gold in California was actually an accident (how lucky). He stumbled upon a gold nugget on January 24, 1948, while building a sawmill in Coloma for John Sutter. When the actual mill was completed, they diverted water out of the South Fork of the American into a ditch (called a tailrace), so that water would continually flow through the mill. The water brought minerals and sediments along with it, and the heaviest mineral (aka gold), was left in the tailrace.

When Marshall found the gold, he knew immediately what it was, but he and Sutter did a bunch of tests to confirm. They tried to keep quiet about it, however word spread quickly that there was gold in the American River. Local rumors turned into national newspaper articles and by 1949, hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children had made their way to California to try their luck at prospecting.  The South Fork and Middle Fork Valleys were significantly more populated than they are today, with estimates of well over 10,000 people living in each area. A few folks struck it rich, but most, including James Marshall, were no wealthier in the end.

Numerous artifacts and remnants of the Gold Rush can be seen on all three forks of the American River. The most obvious is the Marshall Gold Discovery Park and the most fun is Tunnel Chute rapid on the Middle Fork of the American. From far above the river, viewers can make out a large horseshoe bend where the river once meandered. The miners very creatively diverted the water into a chute and chipped and blasted through a cliff where. Today, the water plunges through the chute and calms down in the tunnel. The rapid really should be named Chute Tunnel, but that doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as well.

Now when you come rafting on the South Fork or the Middle Fork of the American, you can show off to your raft mates and fill them in on a very important piece of California (and US) history.


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