Although he never struck it rich, James Marshall is linked forever to the story of the California gold rush as the man who set the whole world heading westward with his discovery of gold along the American River in northern California.
Marshall was born in 1810 in New Jersey and took up his father's trade as a skilled carpenter and wheelwright. At age eighteen he decided to head west, settling as a farmer near Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, after briefly residing in Indiana and Illinois. After several unhealthy and unsuccessful years of famine, Marshall decided in 1844 to join a wagon train headed to California.
In July of 1845, Marshall arrived at the Sacramento River settlement run by John Sutter, who quickly gave him employment as a carpenter. Marshall's economic prospects brightened considerably, and he soon owned livestock and several hundred acres of land in the Sacramento Valley. He was also among the up-and-coming settlers who joined forces with John C. Fremont early in 1846 to stage the Bear Flag Revolt, a premature bid to seize control of California that was snuffed out when American troops arrived to occupy the territory at the start of the Mexican-American war.
Marshall served in Fremont's California Battalion, the remnant of the revolt, for the next year, then returned to the Sacramento Valley to find that his cattle had been stolen. Forced by financial necessity to sell his ranch, Marshall formed a partnership with John Sutter to construct a sawmill along the American River, agreeing to operate the mill in return for a portion of the lumber. On January 24, 1848, while checking to see that the tailrace of the mill had been flushed clean of silt and debris, Marshall looked down through the clear water and saw gold.
Ironically, the subsequent gold rush actually harmed the man who had begun it. Marshall was unsuccessful in securing legal or practical recognition of his own claims in the gold fields, and his sawmill quickly failed when all able-bodied men in the area turned all their efforts to the search for gold. Marshall bitterly resented his misfortune, but he was helpless to change a course of events he had himself set in motion. Through the rest of his life, he drifted from place to place in California, eventually settling in a spartan homesteader's cabin where he raised a small subsistence garden. He died in 1885.