The Pioneers: James Marshall

James Wilson Marshall was a skilled carpenter, wagon-maker and general jack-of-many-trades who spent his early adult life in Missouri before ill health convinced him to move to the West Coast. Going first to Oregon Territory in 1844 (where he found the winters too wet for his liking) he arrived in the Sacramento Valley in mid-July 1845. There, Marshall quickly found employment at Sutter’s Fort, where he was put to work making tools, furniture, spinning wheels, and looms. The following summer, Marshall volunteered to fight in the Mexican-American War, returning to Sutter’s Fort when peace was declared on California soil. John Sutter wanted to proceed with two projects he had put on hold during the conflict: a larger, water-powered gristmill to produce more flour, and a water-powered sawmill to provide sorely-needed board lumber. Marshall was the natural choice to build both. He spent the summer of 1847 installing the foundation for the new gristmill on the American River a few miles upstream from the fort, then in August he took a crew 40 miles east into the foothills to start building Sutter’s sawmill. The site was a place the Indians called Coloma, and here, while inspecting the mill’s problematic tailrace on the cold morning of January 24, 1848, James Marshall discovered gold. His discovery brought him fame; but also threats and litigation, disillusionment, and declining fortunes with each new venture he tried in the following decades.  When James Marshall died in his Kelsey, California cabin in August 1885, his friends had to auction his meager belongings to raise enough money to bury him.

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