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Golden Girl

12/29/2014 01:56PM ● Published by Jerrie Beard

January 24, 2015, marks the 167th anniversary of the discovery of gold in Coloma Valley. While James Marshall is credited with the find, it was the expertise of the lone woman at the camp that confirmed its existence.

Elizabeth Jane “Jennie” Cloud was born in Virginia in 1822. When she was 16 and recently married to Obadiah Baiz, her family moved to the gold region of Georgia. While her father, brothers and husband mined, Jennie and her mother ran a boarding house; in her spare time, she prospected for gold.

In 1840, Jennie and her husband immigrated to Missouri and settled near Peter and Polly Wimmer. When cholera swept through three years later, both Jennie and Peter lost their spouses. The two soon married, and in 1846 they joined a company traveling overland to California—arriving at Sutter’s Fort in November.

In September of 1847, the Wimmer family made the 50-mile trek to the construction site of Sutter’s Mill on the South Fork of the American River. Peter was to serve as assistant to James Marshall and oversee the excavation of the millrace; Jennie was to serve as camp cook.

Tensions soon arose between Jennie and the Mormons—whom the Wimmer’s shared a double cabin with—when they accused her of saving the best portions of food for her family; she retorted by saying they missed those portions because they were late to the table. On Christmas Day, the workers didn’t make it to the table quickly enough to suit Jennie, so she said she would no longer cook for them, which occasioned one worker to write:

On Christmas morning in bed she swore
That she would cook for us no more
Unless we come at the first call
For I am Mistress of you all.

Shortly thereafter, the Mormons built their own cabin and began cooking their own meals.

On the day Marshall found nuggets in the tailrace, Jennie was making soap. Knowing she was the only person in camp who had seen raw gold before, Marshall showed the metal to her. She confirmed the nuggets were gold, but the Mormons were doubtful. “This is gold, and I will throw it into my lye kettle, and if it is gold, it will be gold when it comes out,” said Jennie.

Making soap entailed mixing grease with liquid lye, and Jennie knew the lye would damage other metals but not gold, so the next morning she retrieved the nugget from her soap kettle. It was as bright as when it had gone into the pot.

The nugget Marshall found weighed roughly a third of an ounce and was worth around $5 at the time. It’s reported that he gave it to Jennie, and she carried it in a buckskin pouch. Currently, the specimen is on display at the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley.
Jennie and the Wimmer family left Coloma soon after gold was discovered and lived in several places throughout California. She died in 1885 at the age of 63, and was buried in a pioneer cemetery in San Diego County.

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