There are obviously many tales that can be told about early Coloma and its citizens. After all, as a former publisher of the Mountain Democrat aptly put it, “…civilization here was young and the reign of law, a fiction.” One of the most intriguing stories involves its bid to obtain and retain the county seat of El Dorado County.
When El Dorado County was organized by an act of the state legislature on February 18, 1850 (yes, before California was a state), Coloma was the largest town at that time and, with the large number of voters living there (males over 21), it was easily chosen as the county seat.
Four years later, when the center of population had shifted, a number of towns jealously showed a desire to replace it as the county seat. Thus in 1854 another election was held with the following results: Coloma, 4,601; Placerville, 3,745; Diamond Springs, 2,073; Mud Springs (El Dorado), 685 and Greenwood Valley, 441.
This did not set well with the citizens of the new city of Placerville and they started an unfruitful movement to divide the county (around that time many of the original 27 counties were being divided and, in fact in 1854 Amador County was created from portions of Calaveras and El Dorado counties). Subsequently, the Board of Supervisors ordered another election to move the county seat to be held on May 17, 1856. The results were very interesting, to say the least.
In this election, the official returns gave Coloma 7,413 votes and Placerville, the only other candidate, 5,895 votes. Because of the results of the 1854 election, the citizens of Placerville had feared the possibility of fraud and thus obtained returns at the close of the polls, prior to the “official returns.” These showed that Coloma had received only 5,280 votes, some 600 less than Placerville. It was also noted that there had been 2,038 votes cast in the townsite of Coloma alone, over a thousand more than had been cast in the previous presidential election and, some say, far more that the number of eligible voters plus all of the dogs and chickens.
Quite a fuss resulted and, finally tired of the antics of the local citizens, in January of 1857 the state legislature permanently solved the problem and firmly established the county seat at the city of Placerville, where it has remained since.
We often forget that the miners, although young and obviously rambunctious, were very literate. In fact, no time in history before had there been such a migration of literate people, which is why we have so much first-hand written history of the Gold Rush.
Seizing on this and the desire of the miners to know what was going on elsewhere in the world and in “the States,” several newspapers began publication in the Coloma valley.
The first newspaper east of Sacramento was the “El Dorado News” (Whig), published in Coloma in June of 1851 by Thomas Springer and F. Harmon. A few months later the paper was moved to Placerville and in June of 1853, the name was changed to the “El Dorado Republican.” That newspaper was followed shortly by the “Miner’s Advocate” (Democratic), which began publication in Coloma in the summer of 1851. The publisher was James R. Pile & Co. and its editor was D. W. Gelwicks (later, Gelwicks, along with William January, would found the “Mountain Democrat”). The Miner’s Advocate would also move to Placerville, and then Diamond Springs as the county’s population center moved away from Coloma.
As indicated by the moving of the newspapers, only three or four years after the first discovery of gold, surface mining in and around Coloma waned, and the valley began to take on a more quiet, serene atmosphere. Orchards and vineyards, many started by the miners themselves, dotted the landscape as far up as irrigation water could reach. In an article in the Virginia City, “Nevada Enterprise,” a Dr. Holmes described Coloma after much of the mining had ceased: “It is now a place of orchards and vineyards. Snow seldom falls there. They grow fig and almond trees, and flowers bloom every month in the year. The people live in vine-embowered cottages, giving no though to the treasure vaults beneath.”
James Wilson Marshall, the discoverer of gold in the millrace at Coloma would ultimately lose everything, including his land on which he had only a squatters right — a right which was unrecognized by either Mexican or American law. He would move from his cabin in the Coloma Valley to one in Kelsey where he did odd jobs and ran a blacksmith’s shop.
On August 10, 1885 Marshall died alone in his cabin at the age of 74 years and 10 months. A few years later a statue of him would be erected on a monument over his grave on a hill above Coloma. As a permanent reminder of his discovery, one arm of his statue is outstretched and it points slightly down, towards the place on the river where he picked up those first few flakes of gold and changed history forever.
Fortunately for all of us, early on the State of California started purchasing the land surrounding the site of Sutter’s Mill and has established the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, preserving for all of us this important place in our history.
Sources for this story include: “History of California”, by Theodore Hittell (1897); “California Gold Camps”, by Erwin Gudde (1975); “California Place Names”, by Erwin Gudde, 3rd Edition (1974); “Mother Lode of Learning – One Room Schools of El Dorado County” by Retired Teachers Association of El Dorado County (1990); “I Remember…, Stories and pictures of El Dorado County pioneer families”, researched and written by Betty Yohalem (1977); “Mines and Mineral Resources of El Dorado County, California”, California Division of Mines (1956); “Narrow Gauge Nostalgia” by George Turner (1965); “History of El Dorado County”, by Paolo Sioli (1883), reprinted and indexed by the El Dorado Friends of the Library (1998); the archives of the Mountain Democrat (1854-Present); and the wonderful people at the reference desk of the El Dorado County Main Library.