California was largely unpopulated in 1848 and just becoming a U.S. territory after the Mexican-American War. A Swiss immigrant named John Sutter had a supply fort, in what is now Sacramento, to support the few pioneers coming west in search of fertile farm land.
Sutter commissioned James Marshall to build him a sawmill 45 miles away along the bank of the American River. On January 24, 1848, James Marshall happened upon a few small flakes of gold by the edge of the river.
It took less than a year for gold fever to take hold when word got out that there was gold at Sutter’s Mill. Immigrants poured in from the east over the Sierra Nevada Mountains and from the west into an undeveloped harbor-front town called San Francisco.
The 1849 California Gold Rush was on as hundreds of thousands came in search of personal fortune that was just lying on the ground waiting to be picked up. Dozens of small towns and mining camps popped up along what is today Highway 49. Unfortunately, it didn’t go as easy as the rumors claimed and many died of hunger, disease and the elements. Those who did well from the gold strike were mostly merchants like Levi Strauss, Wells & Fargo, Leland Stanford, George Hearst, John Studebaker and several more.
Sutter’s Mill is the site that started it all and a replica stands today at the original location in the small Gold Country town of Coloma. Situated almost equidistance between Auburn and Placerville along Highway 49, Coloma could be described as being ‘in the middle of nowhere’.
It’s surprising to learn that Coloma has no Holiday Inn, Chevron or Starbucks for a town that started the California Gold Rush and great migration west. The only accommodations you’ll find there is the Coloma Resort, which offers tent cabins and campsites beside the American River. The town still has original buildings, homes and storefronts that once served the gold seekers who swept through Gold Country.
Sutter’s Mill is part of Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park where you’ll also find a visitor center & museum, gold mining equipment, original town and Coloma Jail ruins. The visitor center & museum features educational movies, historical documents, exhibits and artifacts including a stagecoach, gold mining equipment, early tools and more.
Choose to walk the grounds at your own pace or join a Gold Discovery Tour for a more in-depth glimpse of the town during the California Gold Rush. One Saturday a month, docents dress in period clothing during Living History Day and give demonstrations in candle making, woodworking, dutch oven cooking and more. Many other Gold Mining related events take place in Coloma throughout the year. Bring a gold pan because gold panning is allowed on the opposite side of the American River – a bridge provides! easy access. There’s still plenty of gold to be discovered all throughout Gold Country.
Sutter’s Mill is located approximately one hour southeast of Sacramento. Consider visiting Sutter’s Fort, Old Sacramento, Auburn and Placerville for a complete gold history experience.
While Coloma could be regarded as a mining camp and Auburn & Placerville thriving towns, Old Sacramento was a bustling city that was a stop-off point for gold headed to San Francisco. Much of the original city remains along with a railway station and riverboat hotel. Other interesting places and things to do in Gold Country include mine tours, natural caverns, whitewater rafting, wine tasting and gold panning.
Make your own gold strike and plan your next trip to Sutter’s Mill and Gold Country. You’ll discover that it’s one of the best places in California for history and outdoor recreation.
Cabin At Sutters Mill
By Daver1956 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51897661
Gold Panning image – Flickr