On my return trip from the San Francisco Bay Area last week, feeling saddened after the memorial for my best friend Tom Barrett, I decided I would take a circuitous route back to Bend. By heading east, I realized I had the opportunity of visiting Sutter's Log Mill at Coloma near Placerville, Ca. At this spot along the American River below the old mill site during an icy morning on January 24th, 1848, amongst the waterwheel's tailrace, James Marshall, John Sutter's partner, found flecks of gold. Within a year the news of this discovery had spread across the world and had triggered perhaps the most remarkable human migration ever recorded. Over 300,000 people flocked to California from all over America, Europe, Australia, Mexico, Latin America and the Orient. Many arrived by ship to California from the East Coast after a 16,000 mile five to eight month passage around South America or sailing first to Panama, trekking through mosquito-infested jungle to meet another sailing ship to take them the rest of the way. Others traveled by wagon along the Oregon and California Trail enduring unimaginable hardship from weather, disease, lack of provisions, and Indian attack. This extraordinary event also precipitated the forming of hundreds of new settlements along the land route and inspired thousands of Europeans dispossessed by the Revolution of 1848 to cross the Atlantic to seek fortune throughout America.
With much anticipation, I walked the path along the river to look for the exact spot which marked the American Holy Grail. I expected to see a glorious monument standing at the site like one might expect at Plymouth Rock or Jamestown, but all I found was a worn out, almost unreadable sign board which proclaimed that the discovery took place at a side channel 20 feet beyond and below. I followed a small muddy trail which had been etched out by previous seekers and ended my pilgrimage by kneeling at the edge of an exceptionally peaceful and overgrown rivulet. Almost instinctively, my eyes traveled over the sand and gravel which lay at my feet looking for anything protruding that was yellow and shiny. However, like so many before me, I turned away empty-handed. The gold was gone and yet I felt so enriched. I had explored the backroads of time and discovered a trove of glittering dust containing carats of American history.
The first photo shows the actual site of the original Sutter's Mill. The second picture is a shot downstream on the American River with a man on the far bank panning for gold. The third is the spot where gold was first found.