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Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

Man from Oregon started gold rush, but didn't benefit much

Driven from Oregon's Willamette Valley by the spring rain, James Marshall likely would have been happier if he'd stayed

The beginning of the California gold rush is a pretty well known story. But what’s not quite so well known is that it was started by an Oregonian.

His name was James Wilson Marshall. And of course he wasn’t originally an Oregonian; he was a carpenter from New Jersey who’d come out on the Oregon Trail to set up a farm in the Willamette Valley.

Well, like all the emigrants, he traveled all summer and arrived as the rains were getting started. Several months of uninterrupted precipitation later, Marshall had had enough.

“Reckon I wasn’t cut out for farming life,” he said, and packed up and headed south.

He ended up in Sacramento, where a wealthy landowner named John Sutter hired him to build a water-powered lumbermill. Sutter was building the lumbermill to make the lumber he’d need to build a flour mill nearby, which was where he expected to make his money processing the wheat he was growing.

Not long afterward, Marshall was widening the tailrace of the mill by opening the sluice gate at night to cause torrents of water to erode the channel. For safety reasons, he couldn’t do this during the day, but he’d come back and check progress when the sun came up.

Well, one morning when Marshall was doing this, he saw something glittering underwater.
An hour or two later, Marshall showed up unexpectedly at Sutter’s house, soaked through in a downpour – rain seemed to be a continuing part of Marshall’s life out West – and asked to speak to Sutter privately. He showed him several ounces of very nice gold nuggets pulled from the tailrace.

Surprisingly, Sutter’s first thought seems to have been for his mills. He begged everyone to keep the discovery secret for just six weeks, to give him time to finish the lumbermill and flour mill. He was a developer, not a miner. So he toiled away, racing against time to save his $25,000 investment, as a million dollars’ worth of gold crunched beneath his feet.

Of course, word got out. Of course, the labor market dried up as every able-bodied worker grabbed a gold pan and hit the hills. Of course, the mills languished and Sutter lost his investment. He tried hiring miners to look for gold, but this didn’t work out particularly well; one assumes they simply pocketed what they found. Then Sutter found himself plagued with aggressive squatters who hired lawyers to try to defeat his land claim, which was through the Mexican government – California was part of Mexico until the end of the war in 1848. The squatters also filched food from his fields and stole his cattle.

“By this sudden discovery of the gold, all my great plans were destroyed. Had I succeeded for a few years before the gold was discovered, I would have been the richest citizen on the Pacific shore; but it had to be different. Instead of being rich, I am ruined,” he wrote in 1857 in Hutchings’ California Magazine.

Marshall fared even worse. The squatters forced him off his land and he lacked the resources to fight them. Like Sutter, he became a miner only reluctantly and not very successfully. He tried a vineyard, but it didn’t do well for him either. In the end, he wound up in a tiny cabin eking out a living with a subsistence garden.

Ironically, if he’d stayed in the Willamette Valley just one more month and experienced Oregon in the dry part of spring, he probably never would have left – and his great-grandchildren might still be farming his land there today.

(Sources: Friedman, Ralph. Tales Out of Oregon. Sausalito, CA: Pars Publishing, 1967; www.sfmuseum.org)