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River of Riches: Gold Rush on the American River

On a cold January day in 1848, a lone man was building a sawmill on the shores of the American River when he suddenly screamed “Eureka!” Okay, probably he screamed something more along the lines of “Holy $%*#!” We don’t know. We weren’t there. However, on that day, James Wilson Marshall discovered gold and the California Gold Rush…well, it didn’t begin.

Marshall documented his discovery and the San Francisco newspapers published it, but no one actually believed him. This probably wasn’t too much of a concern for Marshall, who didn’t really want thousands of people taking his gold, anyway. It wasn’t until five months later, in May, that a half crazed shopkeeper from Sutter’s Creek by the name of Sam Brannan ran through the streets shaking a bottle full of gold dust under everyone’s noses and screaming “Gold! Gold from the American River!

It was then that the California Gold Rush was on, and prospective prospectors jammed San Francisco’s harbors. People went absolutely insane. They quit their jobs, left their families, and struck out for the American River — and its surrounding tributaries — with dollar signs in their eyes and dangerously sharp pick axes slung over their shoulders.

Some estimate that 370 tons of gold were found in the first five years of the gold rush, with a current value of well over $16 billion. That kind of money makes crazy people even crazier and California saw its fair share of claim jumping, barroom brawls, and violence.

Of course, by the mid-1850s, it was all over, except for the shouting. Partnerships and corporations had pushed the single-man operations out and gold mining had become big business.

Today, the California Gold Rush is only a distant memory, but the place where it all began still remains. Our beautiful campground is located right next to the Marshall Gold Discovery State Historical Park, a place where visitors can go back to a time when the American River was the richest place in the country.

While you’re here, try your hand panning for gold, participate in living history exhibits, and see replicas of Marshall’s sawmill and other historic buildings. Don’t miss California’s first historical monument: a statue of Marshall himself, pointing at the place where it all began.

A rafting trip down the American River, or even the Merced River, is the best history lesson you’ve ever experienced. Don’t miss this golden opportunity to combine fun in the sun – and maybe a little treasure — with a visit to a piece of America’s past.

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