by Steven Lavoie
Today, the cameras almost instantly appear to document nearly every breaking news story, no matter how banal.
But the most momentous news event in California history was scarcely even noted, even in the diaries of those who were there. Few of the witnesses could even read, much less write the chronicle of the events that day in Coloma.
On the morning of January 24, 1848 or thereabouts (the date is unclear), James W. Marshall, superintendent in charge of a sawmill project on the South Fork of the American River, reached into a newly constructed millrace and pulled out a shiny metallic pellet the size of a split pea.The path of history would be changed forever.
Many years later, Marshall recalled, "I reached my hand down and picked (the nugget) up; it made my heart thump, for I was certain it was gold." Others have doubted his certainty. Only Jenny Wimmer, the camp's sole female, was brazen enough to suggest that the shiny specks they'd all seen shimmering in the riverbanks had to be gold. She'd been saying so since she arrived with her family to the Sierra Nevada foothills in 1846. But as her male counterparts in Coloma would ask, "what would a woman know about such matters?"
After the day's work was done, Marshall displayed his find to his construction crew who only snickered when he proclaimed, "boys, by God, I believe I have found a gold mine." Although none of them had ever seen a virgin chunk of gold, they had all heard, ad nauseum, the premature tales of bonanzas that failed to pan out.
Wimmer's husband Peter, and their son, Martin, were alongside Marshall when he recovered the "pea." To quell the cynicism, Peter Wimmer sent the boy up the hill to his mother, so she could venture a guess as to the pellet's content. She was, after all, more than Coloma's only woman. She was also the only person in camp who had ever seen a nugget of placer gold. As a child back in Georgia, she had panned for the stuff herself.
To hear her tell the story, as she did to the San Francisco Bulletin in 1874, she immediately recognized what her son had handed her. Interrupted from her soap making, she recalled, "I said, '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.'"
All night the nugget sat in the vat of caustic potassium carbonate. The next day at breakfast, she retrieved the nugget from her soap kettle. It was still gold.
Nevertheless, the "boys" were unconvinced, and urged Marshall to make the 54-mile ride down the hill to Sutter's Fort, where their boss, John Sutter, was sure to have the tools to make a valid assay. Marshall gathered additional samples and headed off in the blinding rain.
Locked away in private chambers, Marshall and his boss subjected the sample to a whole battery of tests, suggested in the entry on gold in a battered volume of Encyclopedia Americana from Sutter's meager library. They hammered it, bit it with their teeth and exposed it to nitric acid from Sutter's apothecary. Every test proved positive. It had to be gold!
Pledging absolute secrecy, the men returned to Coloma to further survey the lode. Thirteen residents there (only white adults were counted), joined in the pledge. It would prove to be a promise meant to be broken.
Within days, prospectors descended with their picks and shovels. Californios rode in from Monterey, San Jose and Sonoma. Even Sutter couldn't help himself. He shot off a letter "back to the states" proclaiming the discovery.
After the rumors reached San Francisco a few weeks later, the Gold Rush was underway.
Marshall held onto that first pea-sized nugget, intending to cast it into a ring. Since that never happened, he decided to pass the historic nugget on to Jenny Wimmer, whose wisdom had been so rudely repudiated.
She knew instantly that she'd received that first bit of gold retrieved from the millrace. It was unmistakable.
Markings on the underside of the nugget look like "some kind of varmint or other," Wimmer said. To one writer, that varmint resembled the bear on the flag of the American revolt against Mexico that Marshall had helped to organize two years beforeas if the Mother Lode had remained in hiding, waiting for the Yankee conquest.
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