Community Profiles – Mormon Island

Mormon Island - Early Sketch

Mormon Island – Early Sketch

Mormon Island was a mining camp on the South Fork of the American River, some fifteen miles west of Coloma and three miles east of Folsom. It was in actuality a very large gravel bar (it is also known as Mormon Bar) and was first discovered and mined by a group of men from the Mormon Battalion, shortly after James W. Marshall discovered gold in Coloma.

To give a little background on the discoverers of gold at this location, the Mormon Battalion was organized in 1846 when the then President of the United States, James K. Polk, requested of Jessie C. Little, a messenger sent by Brigham Young to Washington D.C., that he and his followers form a battalion to help fight Mexico in the conquest of California.

On July 16, 1846 five hundred and thirty-six enlisted and the Mormon Battalion was formed. Under the command of Captain James Allen and later Colonel P. St. George Cook, the Battalion worked their way west and on January 30, 1847, the group, ragged, fatigued and hungry, arrived in San Diego.

In 1847 the battalion was mustered out at the Pueblo de Los Angeles. Some reenlisted, but the rest turned east and headed over the summit of the Sierra Nevada towards Salt Lake, the place selected by Brigham Young as the future home for the Mormons.

On their way they met Sam Brannan, a Mormon who lived in San Francisco and was travelling back from Salt Lake. He informed the group that there was little food or supplies in Salt Lake and that Brigham Young wanted those without families there to return to California until the next spring.

About half of them turned back, the rest continuing eastward. Of those who arrived back at Sutter’s Fort, some of the men went to work on Sutter’s grist mill at Natomo (Natoma?) and some proceeded to Coloma to work on the sawmill. It was these men who would first mine at and name Mormon Island.

It was simple logic, many at Sutter’s sawmill thought, that if there was gold at Coloma, there would also be gold further down the river. This was proven when three former members of the Mormon Battalion – W. Sidney Willis, Wilford Hudson and Levi Fifield – set out from Sutter’s grist mill at Natomo to “visit with the boys at the sawmill and hunt deer.”

Henry W. Bigler, who was at the sawmill when Marshall found the gold, had secretly sent a letter to them and they were very interested in checking things out – quietly.
After finding several flakes of gold near the sawmill, Willis and Hudson headed back towards Natomo along the river while Fifield and Bigler took the road. When they met at the grist mill, Willis and Hudson told the others about the gold they had taken from a gravel bar about half way between Sutter’s Fort and Coloma.

Willis, Hudson and Fifield immediately headed up river and found that the gravel bar was extremely rich with gold. They named the place Mormon Island and staked out claims on it.

Other former members of the Battalion working on both the grist mill and sawmill heard about the discovery and, realizing that they could make more mining gold, immediately asked Sutter for an increase in wages, which at first he granted. But, when they asked for the enormous sum of ten dollars a day, he refused and they soon left to join their brethren at Mormon Island, leaving the two mills to decay.

Mormon Island was the first major mining camp outside of Coloma and reportedly one of the very richest. Soon miners by the hundreds showed up and started moving huge amounts of the coarse gravel to get at the gold. As more and more miners arrived and the area became very crowded, miners began working their way up the river towards Coloma and discovered more deposits at places that would be known as Condemned Bar, Long Bar and Doton’s Bar.

In 1851, after many of the Mormons had left the mines for Salt Lake City, pioneering a new trail over the Sierra Nevada on the way (Mormon Emigrant Trail), John W. Shaw built the first toll bridge at Mormon Island, connecting El Dorado and Sacramento counties.

It was a substantial wooden truss structure, however in the spring of 1855 it was washed away by high water. By the summer of that year, Shaw had built replacement bridge, this time made of wire-rope, which he thought could survive anything the unpredictable river did. Unfortunately for Shaw, the high water of January 1862 would wash this second bridge away.

For a while there was no bridge across the river at Mormon Island, but Shaw was determined and, at the cost of some $15,000, built a new bridge higher up on the bank.
Although it was a well paying proposition, Shaw soon sold this bridge to L. M. Russell and R. P. Culver who, in the 1880s, sold it to El Dorado and Sacramento counties, in equal parts. The supervisors of the counties then declared it to be a free bridge.

The bridge builder, John W. Shaw, was also the first postmaster at Mormon Island. He was confirmed as post master on August 7, 1851, however, no one is sure when the post office was first established here, since many post offices were opened before appointments were confirmed by Washington D.C. – some six months away by mail, each way.
The Mormon Island post office shows up on a list published before the date of the appointment in the “Daily Alta California” and also on the local postal route map. On October 15, 1890 the Mormon Island post office was discontinued and moved to Folsom.

No story of Mormon Island would be complete without a bit more on the aforementioned Sam Brannan, a newspaper publisher, entrepreneur and probably California’s first millionaire. His actions are legendary and often a mixture of truth and fiction.

It was he who effectively started the Gold Rush by running up and down the streets of San Francisco shaking a vial of gold and loudly announcing its discovery at Coloma. But he didn’t do it until after first buying up every pick, pan and shovel available and then building a store at Sutter’s Fort to sell his wares.

We are also told that Brannan collected substantial tithes from the Mormon miners at Mormon Island, which he claimed were for the church in Salt Lake City. When the church did not receive the money, President Brigham Young sent a representative to get it. To Young’s representative Brannan is said to have replied, “I’ll give up the Lord’s money when he sends me a receipt signed by the Lord.” Soon after, Brannan was excommunicated by the Mormon Church.

Brannan would go on to establish the spa at Calistoga and, we are told, name the town while under the influence of strong drink. But, that is another story in itself.
As to Mormon Island, it, with many of the other mining areas along the American River, was flooded when Folsom Lake was filled.

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); “History of California Post Offices, 1849-1976”, researched by H. E. Salley (1976); “Mormons and the Discovery of Gold”, by Norma Baldwin Ricketts (1966); “History of El Dorado County”, by Paolo Sioli (1883), reprinted and indexed by the El Dorado Friends of the Library (1998); and the archives of the Mountain Democrat (1854-Present).

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