Some years ago, a pug-eyed French aristocrat gave me a book to read. She was a trunk of a woman with a tongue more refined than any cut gem I've ever held. When she spoke the language, it was like a lesson in grace and custom. She was a whole other class of beast.
That book was L'Or by Blaise Cendrars. It was about a Swiss-born pioneer named Johann Augustus Sutter, quiet tycoon of the California gold rush. Sutter was a tragic character, as flawed as any other that had graced the stage of American history. His men found gold by accident. He amassed wealth by design. He died poor and broken by fate.
In an article from The Batavian, June 22, 1895, an old miner tells of the day the gold was discovered. It reads:
"There is alive but one of the men who worked for Sutter in the mill at Coloma, where on Jan. 24, 1848, James W. Marshall discovered gold. That survivor is James Brown. He is nearly 70 years of age and makes his home with a grandchild in Pomona valley. He is the only man living who was present when Marshall washed the yellow grains in the camp doughpan, and he is the man who first tested the flaky scales with fire, and going forth from the shanty to where the men were at work on the mill race cried, "Boys, here's gold!"
"I am the oldest miner alive in California today," said he the other day. "I don't mean the oldest in years, but I was the first miner. ... It was Marshall came to me and told me about the books about gold and mines he had been reading, and on the afternoon of Jan. 23, 1848, he determined to do a little prospecting. He asked me to bring him the pan. It was a common ordinary pan that we baked bread in and the like. He spent all the afternoon with that pan trying to find gold, but he hadn't got anything by supper."
The next day, everything changed when Marshall came back with the "little flake-like scales" of gold. Meanwhile, Sutter was working his men hard.
"But we made no kick," he went on. "We had agreed to accept cattle, horses and grub in part payment for our work. Moreover, we picked up enough gold before we left the place to square our account with the captain's Coloma enterprise. We had come with a bigger mission than that of seeking gold. We were Mormons. Many of us were soldiers. I had been serving with my battalion, and after our disbandment was marching with the rest of our people to Utah."
But the old miner stayed on with Sutter, at least until the captain's mill was finished. By then, news of the gold had spread.
"Did I stay long at Coloma after the completion of the mill, you ask? No, sir. Only a few of us did. Myself and most of our people only remained long enough to dig up enough gold to equip ourselves for marching back over the plains to meet those of our people who were coming out to join us."
James Brown made a fine cut — about $1,500 in gold dust, he reckoned.
"Marshall, who found it first, had none at all. Marshall was not lucky anyhow. He was one of the original bear flag men — one of the filibusters who thought he owned the country. They had selected the bear flag as their banner because bears were so abundant out here in those days. The first bear flag was nothing but an old strip of canvas, on which the men daubed a picture of a bear with tar, their paintbrush being their own fingers."