In a quiet corner of the Smithsonian American History Museum, in a small case in the shipping transportation section, next to a few coins from the 1800s, is a small fleck of gold under a magnifying glass. One would have expected any gold samples to be part of the extensive gold collection held by the Smithsonian in the Natural History Museum. Yet this speck of gold is of singular importance to American history. It sparked the settlement of the west and statehood of California in a way no other single force could. This flake of gold, hardly deserving the label’s description of “nugget,” was discovered by James Marshal in 1848 at Sutter’s Mill—sparking the California Gold Rush and an exodus of people from around the world to one small mountainous region in the nearly undeveloped west.
In grade school, children have heard the story of gold being discovered at Sutter’s mill. Depictions of it often feature a large, fist sized nugget. And while such sizable nuggets have been discovered in the California foothills* John Marshal’s nugget was smaller than a finger nail.
On January 24, 1848, Marshal spotted this nugget in the tailrace of John Sutter’s sawmill in Colma California. As Sutter noted later in his diary: “[Marshal] found that it was a thin scale of what appeared to be pure gold.” The nugget was later presented by Sutter to Captain Joseph L. Folsom, a U.S. Army Assistant Quartermaster in Monterey who had been sent to Northern California to asses claims that gold had been discovered. In an accompanying letter, the nugget is described as “the first piece of gold ever discovered in this Northern part of Upper California found by J. W. Marshall at the Saw Mill of John A. Sutter.” By August of 1848, this and other gold samples arrived in Washington D.C. and were presented to President James K. Polk and entrusted to the National Institute. Within weeks, Polk had formally announced the discovery of gold in California.
We write a lot about the California Gold Rush, it is one of our favorite subjects, and yet we were unaware of this unique item in the Smithsonian collection. We had come the Washington DC to see the Natural History Museum’s gold collection and yet found ourselves dumbfounded at such a great find in such an unassuming location.
“Gold Nugget” National Museum of American History.
* Check out the Ironstone Gold Nugget.