California’s Golden Legacy


For centuries, European explorers had dreamed of finding gold in pastoral California. In a classic twist of fate, the discovery of gold that would spur tens of thousands of people worldwide to drop everything and rush to California, occurred just nine days before the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo between Mexico and the United States. The treaty gave land-hungry Americans control of a vast territory, which included all of California. This twist of fate encouraged many American miners to believe that God had not let gold be discovered in California until it had become part of the United States.

Not all historians agree that the signing of this treaty and the discovery of gold were merely coincidental, but there is no real proof that either nation knew of any major gold deposits before 1848.

James Marshall’s discovery of gold in California in 1848 started a gold rush that inspired the greatest volunteer migration in history and changed the West forever. Historians credit Marshall with being the first to find gold, but rumors of California’s hidden wealth had early roots in European mythology.

In 1510, the Spanish writer Garci De Montalvo published a book about a golden island called California ruled by Queen Califa. Montalvo was a soldier-writer and a purveyor of adventure and romance novels. His mythical California was an unusual place: “Know that on the right hand of the Indies there is an island called California, very near to the terrestrial paradise. The island is the strongest in the world with steep rocks and great cliffs. It is peopled with black women without any men among them. They are of strong and hardened bodies, of ardent courage and of great force. On this island there were many wild beasts, on account of the great ruggedness of the country.”

In his book, Montalvo described the island’s “abundant wealth of gold, the women’s battle arms were all of gold, for in all the island there is no other metal. The golden myth of California planted itself in the minds of men.”

Hernando Cortez, adventurer, explorer and conqueror of Mexico, landed on the peninsula of present-day Baja, Calif., in 1535. His report of the region mentioned an account of the men there who affirm that there is an island entirely populated by women, without a single man. “This island is a 10 day journey from this province; many have gone there and seen it. Cortez added, “It is very rich in pearls and gold; I will endeavor to learn the truth and to relate it to your majesty at length.”

Early explorers never failed to report seeing fabulous gold mines and the fantastic stories fueled further expeditions. Charles Haddon Spurgeon, a 19th century British preacher once said, “A lie gets half way around the earth before Truth gets her boots on.”

The allure of gold in California drew bold men like a magnet. In 1579, the great English navigator Sir Francis Drake sailed to the shores of northern California. Claiming the land for England, he named it New Albion. A chronicle of his voyage made no mention of unusual women, but stated, “There is no part of the earth wherein there is not a reasonable quantity of gold or silver.”

For more than 300 years, Spanish navigators had explored up and down along North America’s Pacific Coast searching for evidence of gold. Although most of the early claims of gold in California were wishful boasts, there were many hints of placer deposits in the region.

Juan B. Alvarado, Spanish governor of California from 1836 to 1842, believed the Russians knew of gold in the Sacramento Valley as early as 1814. In that year, a Russian jailed at Monterey was found to have gold in his possession. However, he refused to reveal its source. Alvarado also stated that the rings used at his wedding in August 1831 were made of California gold. He claimed that Californians knew the existence of gold deposits on the mountains slopes, but the Indians who were so much more numerous than we, prevented our exploring in that direction.

On March 9, 1842, a man named Francisco Lopez stopped to rest along the Santa Clara River. While digging wild onions with his knife, he discovered yellow specks of gold. He formed a partnership and made $8,000 in the mining venture. There was no excitement over Lopez’s find, however, and the placers finally petered out.

The Spanish missionaries in California knew about the gold, but they also realized its danger. In 1843, Father Muro of the San Jose Mission and Father Mercado of the Santa Clara Mission revealed their concern about the gold to American pioneer William Heath Davis. Davis later wrote, “They considered their knowledge of the existence of gold in the Sacramento Valley a great secret, and required me to promise not to divulge it.” Both priests stated that their information was obtained from Indians. When Davis suggested that they spread the news to induce more Americans to enter California to develop the country, Father Mercado responded, “Immigration would be dangerous; they would pour in by the thousands and overrun the country; the work of the missions would be interfered with, and as the Californians had no means of defense, no navy or army, the Americans would soon obtain supreme control.”

Although they could not know it at the time, the priests were prescient. The secret nearly escaped the following year when a Mexican laborer in the employ of Swiss immigrant John Sutter reported that he knew there was gold along the Bear River. Pablo Gutierez had worked placer mines in Mexico and was familiar with the coarse black sand and quartz rock that signified potential gold deposits. But before Gutierez could prove his claim, he was captured and hung as a spy in the civil strife of 1844-45.

California’s fantastic mineral wealth had eluded explorers for nearly 400 hundred years. The secret was finally revealed on Jan. 24, 1848, when millwright James W. Marshall, who was constructing a water-powered sawmill in Coloma for Captain Sutter, picked up several flakes of gold in a stream draining the west slope of the Sierra Nevada. News of Marshall’s discovery spread like wildfire, and as predicted by the Spanish priests, the world rushed in. California was never the same again.


Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at You may reach him at [email protected] Check out Mark’s new blog at

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Mark McLaughlin
Mark is an award-winning, nationally published author, historian and professional speaker with seven books and more than 800 articles in print. A prolific writer, Mark has received the Nevada State Press award five times. He is a popular lecturer and experienced field trip leader who has lived at North Lake Tahoe since 1978. He teaches Sierra Nevada history using entertaining stories, slide shows and informative tours. He has been a frequent guest on National Public Radio and has appeared as an expert consultant on CNN, The History Channel and The Weather Channel, as well as many historical documentaries.