By an act of the California State Legislature, officially the discovery of gold by James Wilson Marshall in the millrace of Sutter’s Mill at Coloma took place on January 24, 1848. That is the basis for the celebration of the sesquicentennial of the discovery this month (January 1998). But that date still remains controversial and, up until the 50th anniversary of the discovery in 1898, was seriously doubted by many. What are some of the facts that continue this controversy?
FACT 1. The date of January 24, 1848 comes from an entry in the journal of one Henry William Bigler who was at the mill site, having been hired by Marshall to help build the saw mill. His journal states, in an entry for Monday, January 24, 1848, “This day some kind of mettle was found in the tail race that that [sic] looks like goald.”
There is a lot of controversy about this entry in Bigler’s journal. Some researchers report that they only saw handwritten copies of the original journal and those that saw what they thought was the original report pages having been torn out.
FACT 2. In the journal of another worker at the mill site, Azariah Smith, it states under the heading of Sunday January 30, “This week Mon. the 24th Mr. Marshall found some pieces of (as we all suppose) Gold, and he has gone to the Fort, for the Purpose of finding out.”
Like many people, Smith kept a daily diary and then transcribed the notes in a bound journal, often on the following Sunday. People who have read the journal note that the date (the 24th) was added later.
FACT 3. James Marshall absolutely believed the discovery occurred on the 19th of January in 1848. This is born out by the fact that Marshall routinely sold autographed cards identifying himself as the discover of gold on January 19, 1848. But, it is well known that Marshall, quite depressed by the fact that he did not gain at all from the discovery – and in fact died almost penniless – was quite consumed by liquor.
FACT 4. In Azariah Smith’s journal there is another entry as follows: “Sunday Dec. the 19th . The week past I with two others pin[n]ed the pla[nks] on the forebay, and this morning I missed a basin and knife off from my shelf, stolen by some one.” This is followed later by the entry for Sunday February 6 , which states: “Thursday morning [February 3] what should I find on the shelf but my knife and basin haveing been brought by Johnstun and put there by him, when we previously had asked him if he know any thing about it, and he afirmed that he did not. Still he had hid it himself and kept it his untill the present time.”
What reason would William J. Johnston (phonetically spelled Johnstun) have to take a basin and knife from Smith, return it after the claimed date of the discovery of gold, and then deny even having taken it? Those are the two most common tools that the early miners would use to get at the gold – a knife to dig the promising gravel out of fractures in the rock and a basin to use as a gold pan.
FACT 5. Most evidence indicates that Johnston was at Sutter’s Fort on January 24, the official date of discovery, and did not return until February 2 in the company of Sutter to look at the gold discovery site. He is reported to have been a religious man so it is important to note that fifty years later, at the Jubilee Celebration of the discovery, Johnston (along with Bigler, Smith and a James S. Brown) would sign a certificate swearing that he was at the mill site on January 24, 1848 when Marshall discovered the gold and later went to Sutter’s Fort with Marshall to inform Sutter of the find. There is little to confirm his claim.
FACT 6. Once the discovery of gold was announced it would be difficult for Marshall to keep his employees working full-time on the mill.
In fact, the mill would not be completed for some time, and, although the hired workers completed their contract with Marshall and Sutter, new workers were nearly impossible to find.
So, given this information, we can come to any of the following conclusions:
CONCLUSION 1. Marshall discovered gold at Coloma on January 24, 1848. After all Bigler and Smith both wrote this in their journals and Bigler, Smith, Johnston and Brown all swore to it at the 1898 Jubilee of the discovery in San Francisco. (FACTS 1. & 2.)
CONCLUSION 2. Marshall discovered gold at Coloma on January 19, 1848. Even if no one else was there, he was, and he should know when it happened. The aforementioned fact that he is reported to have consumed a fair amount of liquor in his later years may or may not have a bearing on his memory. (FACT 3.)
CONCLUSION 3. Johnston and Marshall discovered gold sometime in December of 1847 and for one reason or another decided to keep it from the rest of the workers. After Marshall reportedly left to get parts for the mill made at Sutter’s Fort on December 14, 1847, Johnston used Smith’s basin and knife to mine gold for himself. If this was true, Johnston, a religious man, could claim, as he did, to have been with Marshall on the date of the discovery, albeit not on January 24, 1848. (FACT 4., 5. & 6)
CONCLUSION 4. Johnston discovered gold in December of 1847 and didn’t tell anyone. This would give reason to his refusal to tell Smith that he had taken his basin and knife. (FACT 4.)
CONCLUSION 5. Any combination of the above.