Along Route 49 in Coloma, approximately 50-minutes from Sacramento and an hour from Jackson, you’ll the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, a park chock-full of historical buildings, deer, lost things, and Park Rangers. Through this area runs the South Fork American River, a popular destination for rafters, kayakers, and gold seekers.
There’s one small, muddy, shallow section of the river where, on January 24, 1848, James Wilson Marshall found a hunk of gold large enough to kick off the California Gold Rush. This date comes from the diary of Henry Bigler, a discharged member of the Mormon Battalion who worked for Sutter and Marshall; he was the only known person to record the gold discovery on the day it happened. Azariah Smith, another member of the Mormon Battalion, also recorded the discovery of gold but failed to mark the date.
The discovery all started with John Sutter, the Swiss man who built Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento. Sutter was a great pioneer but not exactly the best businessman; so, towards the end of his life, he faced financial ruin and bankruptcy. In a last-ditch effort to boost his finances, he formed a partnership with James Marshall to build a sawmill on his land in Coloma.
When gold was found, the couple tried to keep the discovery quiet, but news leaked and spread like wildfire and within a year people from all over the world flocked to California in search of gold. Neither profited from the discovery and the sawmill was never used as intended. The mill that exists at the site is a replica.
In recent years, another rock found near Sutter’s Mill has captured the attention of scientists and the media: Sutter’s Mill meteorite, which landed in Coloma on April 22, 2012 and triggered months of meteorite fever.