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Earthly Reward

01/05/2011 10:56AM ● Published by Style

Although he never struck it rich, James Marshall remains forever linked to the story of the California Gold Rush.

As the man who set a massive worldwide migration in motion with his discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill, Marshall bitterly resented his misfortune and the lack of legal and practical recognition for his historic contribution. This sullenness likely added to his disheveled appearance, bouts of depression, drunkenness, untidiness and overall gloomy and objectionable demeanor.

“Probably no man ever went to his grave so misunderstood, so misjudged, so misrepresented, so altogether abandoned as James W. Marshall,” wrote his friend Margaret Kelley. “While there is something pathetic, even melancholy, in the story of his life and death, he simply shared the fate of many other great men whose names are in world history for all time – which is, after all, their greatest earthly reward.”
After his discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill on January 24, 1848, Marshall drifted from place to place, eventually settling in a simple homesteader’s cabin in Kelsey where he raised a small subsistence garden. By then, his loathsome traits had become so pronounced that public feeling had turned against him. Fortunately, Kelley felt compelled to expound the more noble and respectable aspects of his human character. She attempted to draw a better picture of Marshall in his old age than the “drunken misanthrope” depicted in newspapers and legislative meetings where his pension was discussed.

“I wish to have others know James W. Marshall as I knew him, during the last 15 years of his life (1870-1885),” she wrote, “seeing him daily about his work in the old mining town of Kelsey...either in the mines or doing carpenter work in his shop, or in the neighborhood. The sound of his anvil was always heard at some period of the day, as he shaped a piece of iron, or sharpened tools for mining purposes. I would have you see him as I have seen him, when he entered the house where the Angel of Death had visited, with another neighbor driving in company going over mountain roads in a rainstorm to get a little child’s casket for a victim of the terrible diphtheria scou [scoundrel] of ’78-’79. I would have you see James Marshall, the man – benevolent, charitable to those in need, honest, so honest that dishonesty enraged him; courageously truthful; slightly embittered by remembered bitternesses; yet a man of sentiment, with an unforgettable regard for friends of the past and an unmeasured love of the neighbors with whom he lived and died.”

On August 15, 1885, Placerville Parlor No. 9 of the Native Sons of the Golden West initiated a movement to build a monument to James Marshall. Almost five years later, on May 3, 1890, an unveiling ceremony revealed an enormous bronze statue honoring the discoverer of gold. That day, a crowd of 2,500 gathered at Marshall’s hill-top gravesite overlooking Coloma where they listened to poems, prayers, band music and speeches praising Marshall. Marshall’s body lies buried beneath the monument – a fitting tribute for his unique role in California’s history.


Colonel L.A. Norton’s account appeared in his memoir, “My Overland Trip to California in 1852,” published in the December, 1934 issue of The Pony Express (Placerville, CA).

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