The Mexican War stoked the furnace of crisis: the spark that set it aflame was struck by an itinerant New Jersey carpenter in a fold of California's Sierra Nevada on a chill morning in January 1848. Morose, tall, and bearded, James Marshall had been drifting west for more than a decade, first to Illinois, then to Omaha where he took up fur trading, then to Missouri, where he tried farming. In 1844, he joined a wagon train bound for Oregon. After a few months he moved on to Mexican-ruled California, where his modest skills counted for something in a place where craftsmen were few and far between. Now thirty-seven, for the past three years, he had worked for John Sutter, the lordly Swiss owner of the largest rancho on the Sacramento River, crafting looms and spinning wheels, furniture and tools for Sutter's army of peons.
Sutter had dispatched Marshall to the mountains with a crew of Mormons and forty Mokelumne Indian laborers to build a sawmill to cut lumber, which was always in short supply in the largely treeless country to the west. The work of digging and drilling had been under way for several weeks when, on the morning of January 24, Marshall noticed an unusual pebble — a "pellicule" he later called it — gleaming at the bottom of the millrace, in about a foot of water.
Accounts of Marshall's first words vary. According to one, he announced "I have found it" to a Mormon named Bill Scott, who was engrossed in shaping a paddle for the mill wheel.
"What is it?" Scott asked.
"Oh! No," Scott replied, perhaps reflecting the whiff of skepticism that seemed to hover around Marshall — "a notional man," the Mormons called him, a man given to fantasy. "That can't be!"
Nevertheless, over the next few days, Marshall and the Mormons collected several handfuls of nuggets, which turned out to be abundant in and around the millrace.
Had Marshall been a different sort of man, he might have seized opportunity and made his fortune by searching out the best lodes and staking claim to them. Unambitious and innocently loyal, however, after a few days of dithering he saddled up and rode to Sutter's Fort to see his patron. Sutter was also a drifter, whose long history of false starts and hustling opportunism lay mostly concealed beneath his veneer of continental panache. Passing himself off to the Mexican authorities as a former general in the Swiss army — he had served briefly as a lieutenant in the militia — he was granted a hundred-thousand-acre domain where, ensconced behind eighteen-foot walls guarded against the "wild" natives of the hinterland by cannons and his uniformed Indian militia, he ruled what was in effect a medieval manor, with hundreds of peons tilling his fields, tending herds of cattle and sheep, tanning leather, and making almost everything from hats to furniture in a sprawl of adobe workshops.
Marshall appeared at Sutter's office door mud-spattered and overwrought, dripping rainwater from his soaked serape. He took a cotton rag from his pocket and extracted from it a small green jar containing his collection of "pellicules." Sutter went off to find scales and several silver coins. Marshall put the pebbles on one side of the scale, and a stack of coins on the other. Then he placed the scales in a bowl of water.
"By God, the gold went down and the silver up!" as Marshall put it.
Sutter immediately sent Marshall back to the American River, warning him to keep his head and get back to work. The land on which the mill sat lay outside Sutter's Mexican land grant. Eleven days after Marshall's visit, the two men invited leaders of the local Indian bands — the euphoniously named Pulpuli, Gesu, Colule, and Lole — to Coloma, the Indian name for the Valley where Sutter's mill was located. There they negotiated a lease granting the two Americans the right to build roads, "and likewise open such Mines and work the Same" along the banks of the river for twenty years. In return, they promised to grind corn for the tribe, and to pay the four chiefs $150 in clothing and farming tools annually.
It was impossible to keep the discovery secret. Word soon spread among the Mormons at Sutter's Fort. In spite of the wet and blustery weather, men began appearing at Coloma with pans, shovels, hoes, and picks. Marshall sent them off in all directions, telling them that they would find gold in one place or another, if they just looked for it. "It appeared that they would dig nowhere but in such places as I pointed, and I believe such was their confidence in me that they would have dug on the very top of yon mountain if I had told them to do so," he later wrote. He had just started the California Gold Rush.
From America's Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union by Fergus M. Bordewich. Copyright 2012 by Fergus M. Bordewich. Excerpted by permission of Simon & Schuster.