On a Chance Discovery

John was among the first settlers in the valley that would eventually become a part of what is now Sacramento, California. He arrived in the valley in 1839, when the territory was part of the nation of Mexico. John was originally from the border area between Germany and Switzerland, and the area of Sacramento he immigrated to had a large population of both German and Swiss settlers. Mexico welcomed immigrants to its lands because they saw how greedily the Americans were eyeing California. Texas had already been absorbed by the US, and Mexico wanted settlers in California to strengthen their hold on the territory.

By 1846, war between Mexico and the westwardly-expanding United States was only then beginning. Despite Mexico’s best efforts, it took only a little time before almost the entirety of California was occupied by American troops even though the war would last almost another two years. The political situation in that period was in flux as no one was sure what political rights were secured and by which government. Most people simply bowed to what the US military decided.

Yet, despite the uncertain political situation, the little settlement in the valley flourished. More settlers came to the area now that the Americans controlled the fertile land. John decided to build a water-powered sawmill a few miles up the valley from the settlement to meet the demand of the burgeoning population. He chose that spot because of the speed and volume of the water in what by then was known as the South Fork American River would easily power the mill’s saw wheel. It made sense that the mill would be constructed in the forest to have easy access to trees, and then also to be build on the river so that the sawed lumber could be floated downstream to the settlements beyond.

To head up the construction project, John hired a carpenter named James Marshall, a man who had experience in building mills and who hailed from New Jersey. Marshall hired his own crew, and they began to work on the project over the winter of 1848. The treaty ending the Mexican War was signed in early February, and California officially became part of the United States.

Within a year, the population of the area exploded from less than 15,000 people to almost 100,000. In fact, the population grew so quickly that, by 1850, California became the 31st state in the Union. You know what it was that caused the territory to see over 300,000 settlers invade California by land and sea over the next decade and become the 12th most populous state by 1870.

You see, it was in January, 1848, that James Marshall happened upon something in the American River while he was supervising the construction of John Sutter’s mill.



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