In History: In Gold We Trust; Marshall Monument
On May 3, 1890, after much pomp and ceremony, the giant American flag draped over the monument was drawn away, revealing a nine-and-a-half-foot tall statuary bronze depiction of James W. Marshall—the “discoverer of gold”—to 3,500 spectators assembled atop Marshall Hill in Coloma.
James Wilson Marshall was born October 8, 1810, in New Jersey. He made his way to California in 1844 and settled at Sutter’s Fort. In 1847, he entered into an agreement with John Sutter to build a sawmill on the South Fork of the American River in a valley called Kulluma, or beautiful valley, by the Native Americans. On January 24, 1848, Marshall discovered gold in the millrace and set off the California Gold Rush.
On August 10, 1885, James Marshall passed away in poverty and obscurity in the town of Kelsey. His final request was to be buried atop a hill overlooking the gold discovery site. To honor this request, his body was packed in ice for the journey to Coloma where it was laid out at the Sierra Nevada House for services. The casket was then carried up the hill to his gravesite.
Just days after his death, members of the Placerville Parlor No. 9 of the Native Sons of the Golden West began making plans to erect a monument to Mr. Marshall. A committee was appointed and resolved “that we pledge our utmost endeavors to perpetuate his memory...by the erection of a suitable monument over the site where gold was first discovered.”
The committee appealed to the California State Legislature for money to erect the monument and received an appropriation of $5,000 with an additional $4,000 allotted for the improvement of the grounds. A commission was appointed by the governor to supervise the project. Ten artists presented ideas for the monument; the winning design was submitted by J. Marion Wells of San Francisco.
The memorial’s base—made of granite and measuring 31 feet—is capped by a nine-foot-six-inch tall statue of James Marshall attired in miner’s clothes; his right hand holds a nugget of gold, and his left hand points to the site of the original gold discovery. The inscription at the base reads:
Erected by the State of California in memory of
James W. Marshall 1810-1885
Whose discovery of gold January 24, 1848
In the tailrace of Sutter’s Mill at Coloma
Started the great rush of Argonauts
Monument unveiled May 3, 1890
The day chosen for the unveiling ceremony coincided with the close of the Grand Parlor of the Native Sons of the Golden West, which concluded on May 2, 1890, in Chico. Members from every parlor in the state traveled to Sacramento to spend the night. On the morning of May 3, they boarded an excursion train to Placerville and then traveled via carriage the last nine miles to Coloma. Other groups in attendance included the New England Society of Pioneers, the Sacramento Society of California Pioneers, and dignitaries from the state, including Governor Waterman.
In 1927, California created Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park—a one-acre plot around the monument that included a portion of the 30 acres Marshall once owned.
Each year, Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park commemorates Gold Discovery Day with living history and gold panning demonstrations, tours and more. This year’s celebration will be on January 20.
By Jerrie Beard
Mountain Democrat: May 10, 1890; April 12, 1890; May 2, 1940; March 26, 1970