Monthly Archives: July 2015

The Discovery of Gold, by John Sutter, Part II

Sutter's Mill with James Marshall possibly in front

Sutter’s Mill with James Marshall possibly in front

From “Hutchings’ California Magazine,” November 1857


The next morning we went to the tail-race of the mill, through which the water was running during the night, to clean out the gravel which had been made loose, for the purpose of widening the race; and after the water was out of the race we went in to search for gold. This was done every morning: small pieces of gold could be seen remaining on the bottom of the clean washed bed rock. I went in the race and picked up several pieces of this gold, several of the laborers gave me some which they had picked up, and from Marshall I received a part. I told them that I would get a ring made of this gold as soon as it could be done in California; and I have had a heavy ring made, with my family’s cost of arms engraved on the outside, and on the inside of the ring is engraved, “The first gold, discovered in January, 1848.” Now if Mrs. Wimmer possesses a piece which has been found earlier than mine Mr. Marshall can tell, as it was probably received from him. I think Mr. Marshall could have hardly known himself which was exactly the first little piece, among the whole.

The next day I went with Mr. M. on a prospecting tour in the vicinity of Coloma, and the following morning I left for Sacramento. Before my departure I had a conversation with all hands: I told them that I would consider it as a great favor if they would keep this discovery secret only for six weeks, so that I could finish my large flour will at Brighton, (with four run of stones,) which had cost me already about from 24 to 25,000 dollars – the people up there promised to keep it secret so long. On my way home, instead of feeling happy and contented, I was very unhappy, and could not see that it would benefit me much, and I was perfectly right in thinking so; as it came just precisely as I expected. I thought at the same time that it could hardly be kept secret for six weeks, and in this I was not mistaken, for about two weeks later, after my return, I sent up several teams in charge of a white man, as the teamsters were Indian boys. This man was acquainted with all hands up there, and Mrs. Wimmer told him the whole secret; likewise the young sons of Mr. Wimmer told him that they had gold, and that they would let him have some too; and so he obtained a few dollars’ worth of it as a present. As soon as this man arrived at the fort he went to a small store in one of my outside buildings, kept by Mr. Smith, a partner of Samuel Brannan, and asked for a bottle of brandy, for which he would pay the cash; after having the bottle he paid with these small pieces of gold. Smith was astonished and asked him if he intended to insult him; the teamster told him to go and ask me about it; Smith came in, in great haste, to see me, and I told him at once the truth – what could I do? I had to tell him all about it. He reported it to Mr. S. Brannan, who came up immediately to get all possible information, when he returned and sent up large supplies of goods, leased a larger house from me, and commenced a very large and profitable business; soon he opened a branch house of business at Mormon Island. Mr. [Samuel] Brannan made a kind of claim on Mormon Island, and put a tolerably heavy tax on “The Latter Day Saints.” I believe it was 30 per cent, which they paid for some time, until they got tired of it, (some of them told me that it was for the purpose of building a temple for the honor and glory of the Lord.)

So soon as the secret was out my laborers began to leave me, in small parties first, but then all left, from the clerk to the cook, and I was in great distress; only a few mechanics remained to finish some very necessary work which they had commenced, and about eight invalids, who continued slowly to work a few teams, to scrape out the mill race at Brighton. The Mormons did not like to leave my mill unfinished, but they got the gold fever like everybody else. After they had made their piles they left for the Great Salt Lake. So long as these people have been employed by me they have behaved very well, and were industrious and faithful laborers, and when settling their accounts there was not one of them who was not contented and satisfied.

Then the people commenced rushing up from San Francisco and other parts of California, in May, 1848: in the former village only five men were left to take care of the women and children. The single men locked their doors and left for “Sutter’s Fort,” and from there to the Eldorado. For some time the people in Monterey and farther south would not believe the news of the gold discovery, and said that it was only a ‘Ruse de Guerre’ of Sutter’s, because he wanted to have neighbors in his wilderness. From this time on I got only too many neighbors, and some very bad ones among them.

The Discovery of Gold, by John Sutter, Part I

James Wilson Marshall

James Wilson Marshall

There are a lot of different stories about the discovery of gold at Coloma by James Wilson Marshall. Some were written by people who were alive at the time, some were written by historians at a much later time. This one was written by John Sutter, who contracted with Marshall to build the mill at Coloma. 

It was published less than ten years after the discovery in Hutchings’ California Magazine’s issue of November 1857. It has been serialized into three parts to fit.


It was in the first part of January, 1848, when the gold was discovered at Coloma, where I was then building a saw-mill. The contractor and builder of this mill was James W. Marshall, from New Jersey. In the fall of 1847, after the mill seat had been located, I sent up to this place Mr. P. L. Wimmer with his family, and a number of laborers, from the disbanded Mormon Battalion; and a little later I engaged Mr. Bennet from Oregon to assist Mr. Marshall in the mechanical labors of the mill. Mr. Wimmer had the team in charge, assisted by his young sons, to do the necessary teaming, and Mrs. Wimmer did the cooking for all hands.

I was very much in need of a new saw-mill, to get lumber to finish my large flouring mill, of four run of stones, at Brighton, which was commenced at the same time, and was rapidly progressing; likewise for other buildings, fences, etc., for the small village of Yerba Buena, (now San Francisco.) In the City Hotel, (the only one) at the dinner table this enterprise was unkindly called “another folly of Sutter’s,” as my first settlement at the old fort near Sacramento City was called by a good many, “a folly of his,” and they were about right in that, because I had the best chances to get some of the finest locations near the settlements; and even well stocked rancho’s had been offered to me on the most reasonable conditions; but I refused all these good offers, and preferred to explore the wilderness, and select a territory on the banks of the Sacramento. It was a rainy afternoon when Mr. Marshall arrived at my office in the Fort, very wet. I was somewhat surprised to see him, as he was down a few days previous; and then, I sent up to Coloma a number of teams with provisions, mill irons, etc., etc. He told me then that he had some important and interesting news which he wished to communicate secretly to me, and wished me to go with him to a place where we should not be disturbed, and where no listeners could come and hear what we had to say. I went with him to my private rooms; he requested me to lock the door; I complied, but I told him at the same time that nobody was in the house except the clerk, who was in his office in a different part of the house; after requesting of me something which he wanted, which my servants brought and then left the room, Photograph of John Marshall, who discovered gold forgot to lock the doors, and it happened that the door was opened by the clerk just at the moment when Marshall took a rag from his pocket, showing me the yellow metal: he had about two ounces of it; but how quick Mr. M. put the yellow metal in his pocket again can hardly be described. The clerk came to see me on business, and excused himself for interrupting me, and as soon as he had left I was told, “now lock the doors; didn’t I tell you that we might have listeners?” I told him that he need fear nothing about that, as it was not the habit of this gentleman; but I could hardly convince him that he need not to be suspicious. Then Mr. M. began to show me this metal, which consisted of small pieces and specimens, some of them worth a few dollars; he told me that he had expressed his opinion to the laborers at the mill, that this might be gold; but some of them were laughing at him and called him a crazy man, and could not believe such a thing.

After having proved the metal with aqua fortis, which I found in my apothecary shop, likewise with other experiments, and read the long article “gold” in the Encyclopedia Americana, I declared this to be gold of the finest quality, of at least 23 carats. After this Mr. M. had no more rest nor patience, and wanted me to start with him immediately for Coloma; but I told him I could not leave as it was late in the evening and nearly supper time, and that it would be better for him to remain with me till the next morning, and I would travel with him, but this would not do: he asked me only “will you come to-morrow morning?” I told him yes, and off he started for Coloma in the heaviest rain, although already very wet, taking nothing to eat. I took this news very easy, like all other occurrences good or bad, but thought a great deal during the night about the consequences which might follow such a discovery. I gave all my necessary orders to my numerous laborers, and left the next morning at 7 o’clock, accompanied by an Indian soldier, and vaquero, in a heavy rain, for Coloma. About half way on the road I saw at a distance a human being crawling out from the brushwood. I asked the Indian who it was: he told me “the same man who was with you last evening.” When I came nearer I found it was Marshall, very wet; I told him that he would have done better to remain with me at the fort than to pass such an ugly night here but he told me that he went up to Coloma, (54 miles) took his other horse and came half way to meet me; then we rode up to the new Eldorado. In the afternoon the weather was clearing up, and we made a prospecting promenade.

Theodore D. Judah, Part II – The Transcontinental Railroad Begins

Judah's Map

Judah’s Map of the Donner Lake Area

On June 28, 1861, the new Central Pacific Rail Road of California incorporated with Leland Stanford serving as president, Collis Huntington vice president, Mark Hopkins treasurer, and Theodore Judah as chief engineer. A transcontinental railroad was now more than just an idea, but, the government had to be convinced of its need and also the need to help finance it.

Judah would soon start making trips to Washington D.C. to lobby for a Pacific Railroad, and spend hours trying to convince others of its need. And, this time people would start listening to the man that they once shrugged off and called “Crazy Judah.” After all, the Civil War had started and Judah, along with many others, believed that there was now even more a need for a railroad line connecting the east and the west. But, before going to Washington, he had to be able to prove that the route was feasible.

Judah and his survey crews spent much of the summer of 1861 surveying his hastily sketched route over the Sierra Nevada. Working around the clock, they finally completed the work and found a solution to the problem that many thought could not be solved: a railroad could be built over the Sierra Nevada. Best of all, the surveyed route varied little from his original sketch. Now, Judah was ready to put his engineered plans before the government officials in Washington, D.C.

That same year Leland Stanford campaigned for the governorship of California and in September won a two-year term in that office. With this the “Big Four” had increased its power – significantly.

The Union Congress no longer had to choose between several routes for the transcontinental railroad. It absolutely had to be through northern territory and its construction was no longer a matter of convenience, but a serious matter of national urgency. But, the Union was engaged in a war that would determine whether or not it would even survive.

The costs of war came first and there was no government money available for the building of a railroad, no matter how good the idea. President Lincoln stated the feelings of many when he said, “Private enterprise must build the Pacific Railroad. All the government can do is aid,” while admitting its construction is a political as well as a military necessity.

Judah was finally sent east in October of 1861 as the official agent of the Central Pacific Rail Road Company of California. Since they all knew that there was no money to be obtained, he lobbied for land and bonds from the government. He had been in Washington, D.C. three times before trying to get the support of Congress for his railroad, but this time he was much better prepared, with his engineered survey maps, the support of the “Big Four “and an urgent national need for the railroad. But, in spite of all of this, action was not immediate.

The congressional debate lasted through the winter and far into the spring. Finally, on May 6, 1862, the House approved the railroad bill, followed about six weeks later, on June 10, by the Senate. On July 1, 1862, President Lincoln signed the Pacific Railroad Act. The act empowered the Central Pacific to build from California toward the east, and chartered a new company, the patriotically named Union Pacific Railroad, which would build westward from Nebraska Territory.

In exchange for building the railroad the companies were given a 400 foot right-of-way over federal land, a gift of ten alternating sections on both sides of every mile of track and a subsidy in the form of United States bonds for each mile of track completed. In exchange for the bonds, which were really a 30 year loan at 6%, the government was given a first mortgage on the railroad. For this, all the railroads had to do was to successfully complete the task in 12 years.

Some people questioned the grant of so much land to the railroads. But, without a viable means to get to it, this unclaimed land was probably worthless. So, this system of land grants, something which had been used to build railroads before, would prove to be of benefit to both parties.

With Judah now back in California and Huntington in New York raising funds, purchasing rails, locomotives an rolling stock, it was time to begin.

On January 8, 1863, the groundbreaking for the Central Pacific’s part of the track took place at the foot of “K” Street in Sacramento.

Charles Crocker received the contract to build the first section of rails from Sacramento eastward. Unfortunately, the work progressed slower and the costs were much higher than anticipated. One big problem was that they could only get supplies that the military did not need for railroads being built to fight the war. And, what supplies they could get had to come by ship around Cape Horn, a five to eight month trip, passing initially through waters where the Confederate Navy could, and often did, sink the ships and their cargo. To make things worse, the government subsidy would not be paid until the first 40 miles of track was completed.

By summer things looked bad and Judah was not at all happy with the lack of progress. To top it off, the “Big Four” continued to go deeper into personal debt rather than borrow money against the completed sections, something Judah wanted to do. Finally, the relationship between Judah and the other owners collapsed.

Judah was offered a deal by the others which he accepted. They would buy him out for $100,000 or he could buy them out for $100,000 each. If he wanted to run the Central Pacific Rail Road of California, all he had to do was raise the money and purchase their interest.

On October 10, 1863, Theodore Judah boarded a ship bound for the Isthmus of Panama, which he would cross and then board another ship to New York. The “Big Four” believed that he was going to New York to raise the funds to buy out their interest, although he had not said so. But, whatever the reason for his trip, it didn’t matter. While in Panama, Judah contracted Yellow Fever and, on November 2, 1863, died in New York City.

Both the Sacramento Valley Railroad and the original transcontinental railroad are a monument to the hard work and perseverance of Theodore Dehone Judah, a man with a vision and a mission who would not give up, in spite of ridicule and seemingly impossible tasks.

Theodore D. Judah, Part I – A Man With a Mission

Theodore JudahTheodore D. Judah was born on March 4, 1826 in Bridgeport, Connecticut to an Episcopal minister and his wife. After his family moved to Troy, New York, Judah studied engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. His first experience with railroading occurred when he worked on a line being laid from Troy to Schenectady. There he realized that he had found his career and from that day forward he never left it.

Early in 1852, a group of men in California had gathered together and incorporated the Sacramento, Auburn and Nevada Railroad, which was to be built to serve Sacramento, Negro Bar and Nevada City. Their scheme collapsed when it was reported to them that the first section of track they wished to build would cost in excess of two million dollars.

Colonel Charles Lincoln Wilson, who with his wife operated a steamboat line on the Sacramento River, reorganized this abandoned railroad company as the Sacramento Valley Railroad. His plan was to first connect Sacramento to Negro Bar and Mountain City (Marysville) with future extensions to Tehama, Sonora and San Francisco.

On August 16, 1852, the Articles of Incorporation were filed and Colonel Wilson left for the East Coast to acquire more capital, rolling stock and to engage an engineer to build the railroad.

Once in New York, Wilson contacted the engineering firm of Robinson, Seymour and Company. Seymour’s brother, the Governor of New York, sent Wilson to see Theodore Judah, a young survey engineer who had just put a railroad through the Niagara Gorge and was very interested in the Pacific Railway.

On April 2, 1854, Wilson and Judah left for California and, shortly thereafter, Judah followed and opened up an office in Sacramento’s Hasting’s Building, at the southwest corner of 2nd and J Streets. From there he started the business of surveying the Sacramento Valley Railroad’s proposed route. This fueled the beginning of Judah ‘s unquenchable thirst for building the Transcontinental Pacific railroad.

By 1852, the population of California had reached a quarter million, an increase of 15 times the 1848 population. Nearly all these people had either walked their way across the continent, survived the dangerous voyage around the tip of South America, or risked often incurable diseases while crossing through the jungles of Central America. Obviously, the people of California wanted a railroad that would connect them with the rest of the Union. But, the country was on the brink of a civil war and a railroad was not the top priority with the government in Washington, DC.

Those in Congress with anti-slavery interests had great fear that a railroad that started in a slave state would carry that position westward. On the opposite side, those who were in favor of slavery feared the similar development of more free states. Congress was at an impasse, but it was obvious that an undertaking this large would require government involvement if it was to succeed.

Over the next years there was plenty of discussion in Congress, but almost no action. However, Congress did agree to finance Army surveys that were to come up with possible railroad routes, should one ever be built. The five feasible routes were published in 1855 as The Pacific Railroad Surveys of 1853-55. But, the report made no recommendation of one route over another.

With the first 21 miles of the Sacramento Valley Railroad completed to the new town of Folsom on February 22, 1856, Judah now turned his attention to bigger projects. He believed that a railroad could be built from Sacramento over the summit of the Sierra Nevada and then across the Great Basin and Rocky Mountains to connect with the eastern railroads. People who believed themselves more “practical,” disagreed with Judah, saying that the idea was foolish, too expensive and impossible.

“Crazy Judah,” as he was now often called, first went to those who he believed would most benefit from the railroad, the business people of San Francisco. They rejected his idea wholeheartedly and refused to give him any financial support. But, in spite of this setback, he was not slowed down by their dismissal. He became the strongest advocate around for the transcontinental railroad and began to look closely at possible routes.

In 1860 a man in the Sierra foothill town of Dutch Flat named Daniel Strong showed Judah an easier passage through the Sierra Nevada that bypassed the route the Donner Party had taken. Returning to Strong’s drugstore, Judah laid out a map of this route and also drew up the articles for the Pacific railroad.

Judah, armed with his map and passion, spoke to everyone he could, to promote his ideas and raise as much money as possible. Things were looking grim until he spoke to a group of wealthy Sacramento businessmen in November of 1860. Silver and gold had recently been discovered in the Comstock Lode of Nevada, and he believed they would be interested in owning a railroad from Sacramento to Virginia City that would benefit financially from the lucrative freight traffic that now traveled over the Sierra by wagon. He was correct this time.

Among these businessmen were, Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker, men who would later be known as “The Big Four.” And, they were not only businessmen, but members of the new Republican Party and strong supporters of the recently elected President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. They saw patriotism in the railroad and, as Judah had pointed out to them, substantial profit. After all, a railroad through the center of the country would bind the Union together in the event of the impending civil war and, at the same time, pass very near Virginia City. What could be better.

On the morning of April 12, 1861 Confederate guns fired on Fort Sumter and formal hostilities began between the North and South. When this news reached California, it was time to move. Just two weeks later an organizational meeting for the Central Pacific Rail Road of California, was held on April 30, with the company being incorporated on June 28. Stanford became president, with Huntington vice president, Hopkins treasurer, and Judah as chief engineer. The railroad was now more than just an idea. But, the government had to be convinced of its need and the need to help finance it.