Saturday, February 11, 2012

Finding gold in Lambertville

Sometimes you have to wonder if bad luck runs in the family.

You might remember the story of Hunterdon County native and Declaration of Independence signer John Hart, whom we talked about following the hike Ivan and I took through through the Sourland Mountain range last year. Hart hid in a Sourlands cave to avoid capture by British troops in December 1776, and legend says he died virtually penniless less than three years later.

About 30 years after Hart's death, one of his daughters gave birth to James Wilson Marshall in Hopewell, NJ. The family moved to Lambertville shortly afterward, settling on what is now Bridge Street.

California gold rushHeading west at the age of 24, Marshall spent time in Indiana, Illinois, Missouri and Oregon before finding his way to John Sutter's agricultural settlement in California. The two bought land together, and Marshall started farming and ranching, even as he helped out at Sutter's mill and performed various carpentering chores.

California was still a Mexican possession during this time, and Marshall volunteered to fight in the Bear Flag Revolt during the Mexican-American War. His participation in the battle took a toll on his personal finances, as the cattle on his farm had wandered off in his absence, leaving him destitute.

Sutter, however, brought him back into partnership on a new sawmill, which Marshall chose to locate upstream from the existing mill on the American River in the town of Coloma. In exchange for his work, Marshall would get a share of the mill's finished lumber.

Construction was slow and laborious, and he found that the millrace, or trough, routing water away from the mill's wheel was too small. The best solution, he felt, was to use the force of the river to expand the millrace, routing it through overnight as not to endanger the safety of the construction team that was building the rest of the mill.

One morning, while examining the results of the previous night's water rush, Marshall saw a glimmer in the mud below. Testing proved those shiny spots to be high quality gold, giving birth to the California Gold Rush.

Marshall must have had little idea of the stampede he'd engendered. He was so focused on the completion of Sutter's mill that he didn't gather any of the precious metal himself, instead giving his workers permission to mine for it during their free time. Eventually, so many preferred to look for gold that his entire workforce had quit, and his mill went bankrupt. Prospectors threw him off his land and he was, once again, penniless.

For more than 40 years, Marshall attempted various businesses, all of which ultimately failed. The California legislature voted three times to give him a two year pension, but that, too, eventually ceased. He died in 1885 in poverty.

Like his ancestor John Hart, James Wilson Marshall lives on in the memories of American history buffs. While his last home was but a small cabin, he's now memorialized with a grand tomb. There's a statue of him on the top, pointing to the area where he found the first bits of California gold. One thing you have to say for the guy: he was never deterred by failure. He just kept moving forward.

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