Yuba County History


by George Emmanuel Hanson




Discovery Of Gold At Coloma - - It was on the 24th of January 1848 that James W. Marshall made the famous gold discovery at Sutter’s Mill on the South Fork of the American River, near the present town of Coloma, in El Dorado County.  The event which was not long concealed, incited the greatest rush known in the history of the world.

Report Becomes Generally Known - - It may be noted, however, that the discovery was not known generally so quickly as it is sometimes believed.  Nearly two months after the event, on the fifteenth of March, the report it seems was first heard or credited in San Francisco.  On that day the first published notice of the gold discovery appeared in the Californian, one of the two newspapers published at that time.  The California Star, the second San Francisco newspaper, stated on March 25th, that gold-dust had become an article of traffic at Sutter’s Fort.  Early in April, therefore, Mr. E. C. Kemble, the editor of that journal made a visit to the mines, but finding nothing remarkable returned to San Francisco and published an article giving it as his deliberate opinion from personal observation that the gold mines were a sham.  But scarcely had he printed his paper containing the condemnation when new arrivals came from the mines with metal which the jewelers tested and found genuine.  Every new arrival brought more of it along with information of new discoveries and the result was that ere May was long under way so many people were leaving San Francisco for Coloma that the population of the city was very perceptibly diminishing.

            On the first day of April, three months after the discovery, the California Star mentioned certain other gold strikes, but regarded them in large part as rumors.  These, and the item already alluded to in the Star of March 25th, seem to be the only notices in this paper of the diggings prior to the 22nd of April, when it stated in a more unquestioned tone that new discoveries were actually being made.  During May the excitement increased daily, and before the end of June the gold cry was sounded throughout California, everywhere infecting people with the mania.  Neglecting their business and leaving their unharvested fields, they flocked to the mines.

            The first public notice of the discovery printed in the Atlantic States appeared in the Baltimore Sun on the 20th of September.  This announcement attracted little attention, but letters from army officers and friends and small shipments of gold dust sent East in November followed by fuller and more favorable accounts, stirred up intense excitement, and by January the States were in a fever.  Doubt vanished and enterprising men prepared for the grand exodus.  Leaving their eastern homes these young, active, healthy, men pushed hopefully onward over one of the emigrant trails or found passage in a vessel bound for California by way of Cape Horn.  By the end of June 1849, the discovery became generally known in Europe, China, Australia, and other parts of the world, and from these lands, vessels full of eager passengers constantly arrived.

Rush To Coloma And Neighboring Mines - - Coloma, the site of the first discovery, was the spot to which all the earliest gold-seekers rushed.  But as the adventurers increased in number they gradually spread out, and with characteristic restlessness, ever seeking larger deposits, made their way down the river, along the creeks and in the gulches on both sides, and by degrees over the ridges to other streams.  In this way they soon ascertained and demonstrated the fact that the gold-bearing country extended for hundreds of miles north and south of the place where it was first found.

Gold Discovery on the Yuba - - It was on the 2d of June 1848 that god was first discovered on the Yuba.  A diary kept by one of the acknowledged discoverers, Jonas Spect, reveals the circumstances leading to the event.  On the sixth of April, Mr. Spect accompanied by two young men planning to return East left Yerba Buena with the intention of first journeying to Johnson’s Crossing on Bear River, the usual place of rendezvous.  It should be remembered that Californians returning to the States at that time could travel safely only in companies sufficiently large to afford mutual protection against the Indians, and that they could make no journey until the latter part of June or the first of July on account of the snow.  At Johnson’s Ranch, therefore, the little party planned to remain until the mountains could be crossed at which time they expected to be joined by a force which would enable them to make the trip with safety.  Of the proceeding, Spect declares, - -

            “We learned that gold had been found on Mormon Island.  But we took no further notice of it, and on the twelfth of May arrived at Johnson’s Ranch.  We found one man there waiting our arrival, but we expected many others in a short time.  We waited until about the twenty-fifth, when we learned that there was another rush to the mines, and then vanished all prospect of any company crossing the mountains that summer.  My partner left for the American River and I proposed to Johnson that we should prospect for gold on Bear River.  We went some distance up the stream and spent three days in the search without any satisfactory result.  I then suggested to Johnson that he should send his Indian with me, and I would prospect the Yuba River, as that stream was then about the size of the South Fork of the American River.  We prepared the outfit and on the first of June we struck the Yuba near Long Bar.  After a good deal of prospecting, I succeeded in raising “color”.  That night I camped in Timbuctoo ravine, a little above where we first found gold.  The next day, June 2, I continued prospecting up the stream, finding a little gold but not enough to pay.  The Indian was well acquainted and he piloted me up to the location of Rose Bar, where we met a large number of Indians, all entirely nude and eating clover.  I prospected on the bar and found some gold, but not sufficient to be remunerative.  Greatly discouraged, I started on my return home.  When I arrived at a point on the Yuba river a little above Timbuctoo ravine, I washed some of the dirt and found three lumps of gold worth about seven dollars.  I pitched my tent here on the night of June 2, and sent an Indian home for supplies.  In about a week I moved down on the creek and remained there until November 20, when I left the mines forever.”

            Mr. Nye and a party from the American River found gold in paying quantities on Dry Creek near its junction with the Yuba probably at the very time that Spect was unearthing the metal at Rose Bar.  The parties were not from the same locality, and neither had any information of the presence or activities of the other.  To both, then, belongs the credit of first discovering gold on the Yuba.

Mining Camps - - The situation of the numerous camps and towns that sprang up in the foothill and mountain region along the Yuba as a result of the mining excitement were in many cases peculiar and interesting.  The locations of each, it will be observed, was determined rather by convenience to some particular rich bar or stream than by its agricultural possibilities, or by other considerations.  It was on the hillsides or the bars and flats, that the camps which were chiefly composed of tents and rough log or bark structures were situated.

            The towns and settlements here, as elsewhere throughout the gold region, proved to be uncertain in duration.  Several thousand people gathered in a place where rich finds were disclosed and in a remarkable short time a real town sprang up.  But suddenly a new rich discovery somewhere else was announced – a far richer one than the present; the result was that in a few days or less time all the citizens had abandoned it.  The early miners were altogether too eager to get at the actual digging to establish themselves comfortably or luxuriously.  They came to dig for gold.

Early Mining Contrivances - - It was on the bars and rivers where the gravel was shallow, and where prospecting was easy and mining was prompt in its returns and liberal in its rewards that the first gold washing was done.  In extracting the precious metal the most primitive modes were at first employed, but these were speedily supplanted or supplemented by the newer devices which the ingenious miners soon discovered.  It was in the  Yuba River Valley that most of the early improvements in mining developed.

            Knives, willow sieves, wooden bowls and pans were among the implements used by the gold seekers of 1848.  But before the first season was over the rocker was introduced and when the immense tide of gold seekers set in towards the mines along the Yuba in 1849, the rocker was almost the only contrivance in use.  The rocker was superseded the following year by the long-tom, by means of which a large amount of gravel could be washed. This machine in its turn gave place to the sluice, which like the long-tom, was in the gold region, first used along the tributaries of the Yuba.  The sluice was a most important improvement; it laid the foundation for the long tunnels and flumes later used in the hydraulic mines.  Ditches at length were constructed to bring the water over the hills, and as the miners were compelled to leave the flats and ravines and take to the deeper diggins, the process of shovelling the earth into the sluices became unprofitable, and the practice of ground-sluicing came into use.  Ground-sluicing was carried on very extensively in the Yuba region in 1851-1852.  With most of the mining improvements there were no special inventions.  They gradually evolved from the combined experiences and requirements of the mining population.

            Many of the first-comers, particularly of those who came by sea, brought with them machines for washing gold, which had been invented by persons who knew nothing about the metal and were worse than useless.  One was a dredging machine sent out by an enterprising New York Company, which was intended to scoop up sands from the bottom of the Yuba.  It proved, of course, to be utterly worthless.

The Hydraulic System - - came into use in 1853 and enabled miners to work with profit a vast amount of ground that would never have paid by the old process of sluicing.  Successive improvements were made in hydraulic mining, and the appliances which later came into use little resembled those of 1853, although the principle was the same.  Many places along the Yuba were worked extensively by this process.  Timbuctoo, Mooney Flat, Smartsville, Camptonville, North San Juan, and Brandy City among other camps were until 1870 and later, scenes of great hydraulic operations.

Quartz Mining - - It was not until the spring of 1850, when the placer mines had been worked two seasons, that attention began to be directed to quartz.  When in the following year the shallow surface diggings began to show some signs of exhaustion, prospectors tramped over the hills in search of lodes.  In 1851, accordingly, was the first great quartz excitement in the region of the Yuba.  Numerous mills were projected; eight or ten were erected in Nevada City and vicinity, and as many more in Grass Valley.

            The development of the quartz interest met with reverses, and for the first ten years its growth was slow.  In 1855, there were but seven producing quartz mines in this region.  But more and more attention was turned to quartz mining, and after 1860 this industry flourished uninterruptedly.  In 1870 numerous mills were in operation and the results were most flattering.  Among the most flourishing quartz mining towns were – Grass Valley, Nevada City, Forest City, Alleghany and Sierra City.

Canals And Ditches - - When it was discovered that the bulk of the gold washings of the region were in the deep drifts that crossed the country in many places it became necessary to construct ditches and canals, by means of which water might be brought to them.  The matter of constructing ditches consequently soon occupied a very important place in mining.  In 1869 Ross Browne stated that at least four-fifths of the gold was obtained with the assistance of ditch water.  To obtain water in quantities, adequate to the demand, required an aggregation of capital and the joint enterprise of miners in considerable numbers.  It was not long until a number of wealthy corporations were engaged in the business.  The South Yuba Canal Company’s line of ditches was one of the most extensive in the State.

The Claim Laws - - Upon arriving in the gold region it became necessary for the adventurers to formulate some kind of rules and regulations for their government as miners.  These were in general confined to the size and manner of working claims; in considering the amount of mining ground a man might occupy, and next to determine what should be considered as constituting occupancy.  The principle was soon established throughout the country, that the miners wherever situated, were perfectly free, and that any man had as much right as any other to enter upon and work mining ground.  A miner had a right to his claim because of his manhood, and not because of his social position, his wealth, or his knowledge.

            In the very early days of placer mining, it was not uncommon to fix the size of a claim at ten feet square.  In poorer localities the size was usually one hundred feet square, though there were many variations according to circumstances.  The Sweetland district in Nevada County was organized in 1850, claims then being thirty feet square; but two years later claims of eighty by one hundred and eighty feet were allowed.

            In 1852 the quartz miners of Nevada County held a meeting at Nevada City and adopted a series of laws, which were to apply to all quartz mines and claims in Nevada County.  In 1855 the miners of Sierra County formed a code in reference to quartz claims fixing the size at two hundred feet on the lode by a width of five hundred feet; requiring work to the value of a hundred dollars per year and allowing only such foreigners as paid the miner’s taxes to hold claims.


            The Yuba with its many tributaries in the region of scores if not hundreds of river bars where the earliest mining was principally done and where the most exciting scenes of its history were staged.  To give in any sense an adequate account of the gold rush in so extensive a river region, it seems desirable to consider separately certain large sections into which it may be roughly divided.  These divisions have no definite boundaries, therefore, it may be difficult to determine in the case of certain bars and ravines whether they belong to one section or another.  Our present purpose will be served without settling such matters.  It will become apparent as the account progresses that certain places may in a very true sense belong to two divisions.

Centers Of The Divisions - - Marysville was the starting point for the mines of the first section, which were scattered along the main Yuba, Dry Creek, and the lower portions of the forks.  Nevada City was the supply station for the second division, embracing Deer Creek, and the territory along the South and Middle Yuba; while Downieville was the center of the third division which occupied much of the region watered by the North Yuba and its affluents.



Copyright ©2007  Kathy Sedler   ALL RIGHTS RESERVED