Gold found in California, an eyewitness account, Part 3

On a rainy winter day soon after the gold was found, Henry Bigler went duck hunting downriver. He returned that evening with no ducks but instead had a half ounce of gold tied up in a handkerchief and the story that he had found it in at least a dozen places along the river. The excitement must have grown then because Brown tells us that the work on the mill was “pushed with vigor to completion.” It was about this time that Marshall informed Sutter of the find. But William Johnson decided he had business downriver at the new gristmill and it was while he was there that the news of gold slipped out to the rest of the Mormon community.

Mormon Island Map

Then two men, Sidney Willis and Wilford Hudson, decided to go hunting. They made it the 35 miles to the sawmill where they examined the gold samples and even discovered several good-sized nuggets on their own. Halfway back to the gristmill, in a small ravine across from a gravel bar, they found a rich deposit. Back at the gristmill they told what they had found and the gravel bar across from their ravine soon teemed with 100 to 150 Mormon men mining gold. Mormon Island, as it was called, became the first major gold strike of the gold rush.

Mormon Island Map 1892

Marshall, and then Sutter, had tried to keep the gold secret, but that was impossible. The men mining at Mormon Island came to a store near Sutter’s fort run by a man named Smith who took note of those who suddenly were paying with gold. The store was owned by Sam Brannon, a leader of the Mormon’s in California and the publisher of San Francisco’s first English language newspaper, and in May Brannon ran down Market Street in San Francisco with a vial in his hand yelling about the gold find. California was a remote place in those days and it took some time for the news to reach the more populated parts of the world, but the California gold rush was underway.

Sam Brannan’s Store at Sutter’s Fort



  1. I have seen another account that says Brannan showed off his gold at Portsmouth Square. Does anyone know whether it was there or Market Street? He remains controversial to this day. He started the Gold Rush only after stocking his store with a lot of picks and shovels. Joseph Smith had already excommunicated him from the LDS church. Brannan of course went on to lead the Committee of Vigilance and have a street named after him.

    • I heard Brannan ran down Market Street yelling gold, gold, gold, but Market Street was the edge of town back then and Portsmouth Square the heart. There were less than 1000 residents living in San Francisco then. I expect he showed that gold off everywhere he could. He also owned the only English language newspaper in California so he had control over the message he left behind. He was a colorful man. I do think people have exaggerated his bad side but he certainly had one. While he had a leading role in the 1851 Committee of Vigilance he had little influence over the 1856 committee. He became very rich but died in poverty. I get a ‘just rewards’ feeling from that.

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