California: Sutter’s Mill

The mill was the site of the discovery of gold in California in 1848, which set off the gold rush and the immigration of unnumbered settlers from the East Coast to the American West. Built near the confluence of the Sacramento and American Rivers, it was meant to supply lumber to Sutter’s Fort. The city of Sacramento grew up around the fort and became the western terminus of the Pony Express in 1860, as well as the starting point for the western section of the transcontinental railroad.

Site Office

James Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park

P.O. Box 265

310 Back Street

Coloma, CA 95613

ph.: (916) 622-3470

On January 24, 1848, the builder of Sutter’s Mill, James Wilson Marshall, discovered gold in the tailrace. He is said to have stated: “Hey boys, by God, I believe I’ve found a gold mine!” This momentous discovery was the beginning of the gold rush, which brought tens of thousands of settlers, or “forty-niners,” to the West Coast of the North American continent.

Marshall’s Story

In 1840, John Augustus Sutter (born Johann August Suter, 1803-1880) arrived in California and began to seek a place to build his fort. He was the first nonnative resident of this area of rolling grasslands in the Sacramento Valley of Northern California, which had been the ancestral home of the Nisenan people, also known as the southern Maidu, who had only recently been released from slavery under the Spanish.

In 1847, Captain John A. Sutter contracted with James Marshall, an itinerant loner, as his business partner for the task of building a lumber mill on the south fork of the American River at its confluence with the Sacramento River. The spot was called Cullomah (beautiful valley) by the local Indians. It was in the Sierra Nevada foothills and rich in acorns, lily bulbs, and, more important to Sutter, large stands of virgin pine. Sutter desperately needed the timber to build his colony and to pay off his many bad debts.

Marshall, originally from New Jersey, was a failed miner and a millwright by trade. He had come to Oregon in 1844 and then moved to California in 1845, at the age of thirty-four, and constructed a cabin at the lumber mill site in 1847. He lived in it while he built the mill and used it as a workshop where he built furniture and coffins. Outside he planted orchards, vineyards, and a garden.

Discovering gold at Sutter’s Mill was disastrous for Marshall. He was soon pushed off his land, and he wandered and prospected about the state, but he never found another good strike. He went back to Sutter’s Mill in 1857 and returned to agriculture, establishing a winery. After a time, economic conditions led to his eventual impoverishment, even after going on tour as a lecturer and being awarded a small pension in 1872 by the state. The pension was cut off in 1878 after he dropped a bottle of brandy from his pocket in the state assembly, where he had gone to renew the stipend.

Though he was known to be awkward, shabby, morose, moody, and embittered, he was also considered honest, kind, and faithful. After the discovery, he was also hounded by fortune hunters and gold seekers who thought him endowed with mystical powers and even forced him at gunpoint to show them where they could find the precious metal. He died in poverty on August 10, 1885, and was buried behind his old restored cabin underneath a bronze monument–atop of which he stands pointing at Sutter’s Mill and the spot where he made the discovery that electrified the world but ruined his life–erected by the state of California in his honor in 1890. The site is now James Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. The historic town of Coloma, which grew rapidly after the discovery of gold, is still situated nearby.

Sutter’s Story

As with his partner, most of the ventures John A. Sutter embarked on ended in failure. His was a classic case of bad timing. He was born in Baden, Switzerland, in 1803. He came to America and settled for a time in Indiana, then moved to St. Louis where he invested his meager savings in merchandise he took to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he operated as a profitable trader. After returning to Missouri, he joined with a trapping party, found his way down the Columbia River to Fort Vancouver, and there made a plan to move to central California (then a wild land held by Spain and populated only by Indians) to establish a colony.

To accomplish this task, he first needed colonists, so he set out by ship for the Sandwich Islands, where he found a small group of Kanaka supporters. As there was no ship going to California, he and his party caught a ride on a Russian ship that went by way of Sitka, Alaska. When he finally arrived in California in 1840, he interviewed Juan B. Alvarado, the Mexican governor, and obtained permission to find a place to establish his colony. He was granted nearly fifty thousand acres and was authorized to protect it by any means he saw fit. He procured a small boat in San Francisco and sailed up the biggest river he could find, which he followed to the site where he built his fort and where Sacramento now stands.

Sutter bought out the Russian fort at Bodega Bay (Fort Ross) when he was passing through the area, and though he took possession of its cattle, horses, a seagoing launch, and other property, he never honored the note for $100,000. He used the goods from Fort Ross to help build and furnish Fort Sutter. He gathered around him a dozen or so local Indians, who, along with the resident Hawaiians, helped him get the fort and mill built. Sutter felt he owned the land, but he was at odds with the Mexican authorities over title until a new governor was appointed, and he made a lasting peace.

After the building of the fort commenced, Sutter said he was “very much in need of a sawmill, to get lumber to finish my flouring mill . . . at Brighton . . . for the small village at Yerba Buena.” Word got back to him it that this was viewed by those who knew him as “another folly of Sutter’s.”

Sutter’s Fort became the terminus for settlers headed for the gold fields. The city of Sacramento, built around the fort, later became the starting point for the transcontinental railroad. Yet, due to his abundance of generosity, he made contracts he could not keep and ended up even further in debt. He was said to be too nice and too trusting for his own good and employed 100 to 150 men of all sorts working at every imaginable business and enterprise. Yet, he rarely turned a profit.

One of his few profitable enterprises was carrying passengers, hides, tallow, furs, and wheat to the Bay Area by boat and bringing back cut timber fresh from the coastal redwood groves. The trip took a month. As Sutter was somewhat insecure about his title to the land, he stayed close and built the fort into a major defensive establishment with cannons mounted and aimed through the embrasures in the walls and bastions. The fort was seen as a place of safety and refuge.

The fort was begun in 1842 and finished in 1844. It was a massive adobe structure, more than two hundred feet long and one hundred feet wide. The walls were eighteen feet high and three feet thick. The founding of Sacramento, laid out by Sutter and a friend named Hastings, two miles west of Sutter’s Fort and four miles below the mouth of the American River, in 1846, came only after gold was discovered. The original city was built along the eastern bank of the river at a mean elevation of thirty feet. It was originally called Sutterville, then Sacramento City. Sutter himself always called his colony New Helvetia, in spite of what others called the place.

Sutter’s Mill

By 1847, there was a growing demand for lumber, which Sutter sought to fill. There was nothing in the way of suitable timber near the fort, however. It was nearly impossible to raft logs through the mountain canyons at higher elevations, so he sent parties into the foothills to search for a closer site along the Sacramento River or its tributaries where he could build a lumber mill which would provide the means to cut timber he and Marshall could ship downriver.

The site Marshall found seemed to him the best place from which to send log rafts from the foothills to be cut into lumber, then sent down the American River to the Sacramento, and on through Suisun and San Pablo Bays to San Francisco markets. The idea was impractical at best and a wildly impossible scheme at worst. Yet, Sutter was so confident and credulous as to patronize Marshall and have him build the mill. As fate would have it, the mill was to have a short life.

In the fall of 1847, after the mill seat had been located, Sutter sent a number of workers under the oversight of P. L. Wimmer to help Marshall build the main double cabin, construct a dam across the river, and build the millrace–the narrow manmade ditch, or channel down which river water would be diverted to drive the waterwheel, which would then provide power for the saws. Some forty Indians excavated the millrace, but it was slow going. The wheel would not turn fast enough, so they did some additional boring and blasting. At night the workers would turn the water through the tailrace in order to widen and deepen it further. In the morning the water flow would be stopped and the ground investigated in preparation for the digging to be done next.

When Marshall went down below the partially finished mill early in the morning (as usual), he shut off the water and stepped into the race, “near the lower end, and there, upon the rock, about six inches beneath the surface of the water,” he discovered gold. He picked up a couple of pieces, examined them, and took them to Sutter, who tested them further and found them to be twenty-three karat gold.

The Aftermath

Due to his insecurity about his title to the land, Sutter tried to suppress news of the discovery, but it quickly leaked out. On February, 20, 1848, Captain Sutter came to the mill site and consummated an agreement with the Indians of Coloma to live with them in peace and enjoy mutual use of the land. The mill started up operations in the middle of April, but after cutting only a few thousand board feet of lumber, the enterprise failed; everyone left to go dig for gold. The site was abandoned, and the milling equipment was later sold to a buyer from Oregon named Asa Simpson, who would then install it at his North Bend mill on Coos Bay and become one of the wealthiest lumber barons of his day. In December, Sutter sold his half of the interest in the mill to new owners, stayed on to manage the operation, and ended up cutting most of the timber from which the town of Coloma was built before he left the area for good.

For some time after the news of the discovery reached them, people in Monterey and farther south would not believe it and said it was only a ruse of Sutter to bring in more settlers. Those who did believe made tracks to El Dorado. In December of 1848, President James K. Polk delivered a message to the U.S. Congress in which he mentioned the possibility of untold wealth in California. For Sutter this was the greatest of misfortunes. His flour mill was sold after the stones were stolen. His leather tannery was abandoned by the workers, who left unfinished hides in the vats; a great number of raw hides became worthless. Such work, and its products, were viewed as “trash” by those who left. He was ruined.

Sacramento, by 1850, was primarily made up of endless rows of tents, with not a frame structure anywhere in sight. It was a terrifying and frightening place, with shouting, cursing, yelling, shooting, and gambling on all sides. The uproar was awful, and it drove Sutter away. By 1860, he felt the fort had turned into a human beehive, “just swarming with people . . . in the little rooms all about the court, and soldiers.” Most of the Indians of the area moved farther from civilization and gradually disappeared.

After a time, he closed the fort and left for Amador County to reestablish his colony up on Sutter Creek. After a few weeks, so many camp followers and hungry miners showed up that it got too crowded, and he returned to Sutterville. The fort became a thriving center for trade; the city of Sacramento grew so fast it looked like a sea of tents to new arrivals. Sutter stayed a short time and moved with his Kanakas and Indians, some of whom had been with him since birth or childhood, to a place called Hock Farm, leaving the fort under the charge of a majordomo. He went back to farming during the late 1850’s.

Sutter later sought relief for his losses from the state and federal governments. “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.” It was on a trip to Washington, D.C., in 1880, to settle his suit, that he died.

Visiting Sutter’s Mill

The mill site was restored in 1966, according to original plans and maps, and can be reached year-round by taking Highway 50 East or Interstate 80 North from Sacramento to Highway 49, which runs in part from Placerville to Auburn. Halfway along Highway 49, just outside of the town of Coloma, one can find the monument to Marshall, the restored Sutter’s Mill, and other buildings at the 150 acre Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park.

For Further Information

  • Bidwell, John. “Life in California Before the Gold Discovery.” Century 41, no. 2 (December, 1890).
  • Dillon, Richard H. Captain John Sutter: Sacramento Valley’s Sainted Sinner. Santa Cruz, Calif.: Western Tanager Press, 1989.
  • Koeppel, Eliot. The California Gold Country: Highway 49 Revisited. La Habra, Calif.: Malakoff, 1999.
  • Norton, Henry, K. The Story of California from the Earliest Days to the Present. 7th ed. Chicago: A. C. McClurg, 1924.
  • Sutter, General John A. “The Discovery of Gold in California.” Hutchings’ California Magazine, November, 1857. This article is reprinted on the Museum of the City of San Francisco Web site at