Men dressed in loose trousers and twilled cotton coats. Women wearing long layered dresses with sunbonnets. Alongside the cold waters of the American, they panned for gold flakes, made rope and cooked beef bourguignon. This was Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park on Saturday morning — not much different than pioneer times 175 years ago.
James W. Marshall’s discovery of gold — on Jan. 24, 1848, in the tailrace of a lumber mill he was building for John Sutter — was commemorated by the California Department of Parks and Recreation.
His simple act would launch the 1849 Gold Rush, the greatest voluntary mass immigration in world history — irrevocably changing California from a sleepy outpost moving from Mexican to American rule to the center of innovation and pop culture, as well as home to nearly 40 million from every corner of American and the globe.
But the history runs deeper than the precious metal and state parks officials saw Saturday’s celebration as part of a continuum to broaden the historical context in which they memorialize the people and events that led to California’s unparalleled growth and prosperity.
“History, whether good, bad or indifferent, we need to tell it and learn from it,” state parks’ Gold Fields District Superintendent Barry Smith said.
“Reexamining our past,” as the department calls it, was launched in 2020 to tell a more inclusive story at Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park, site of the history-changing find.
Saturday’s anniversary kicked off with a land acknowledgment of the Niesenan tribe, who originally lived on the land where the precious metal was spotted. California’s indigenous population served as the majority labor force before and during that Gold Rush.
“In the Niesenan-Maidu world, they called this place ‘cullumah,’ which meant ‘beautiful valley,’” said state parks Director Armando Quintero.
Saturday’s events included a reenactment of the discovery in the re-created mill that sits a few yards from the original find. Actors recounted the era through the eyes of Marshall, Sutter, Jennie Wimmer, Sam Brannan and Henry Bigler.
Superintendent Smith said when the park was founded, the parks department was going to tell the story of the history of the Gold Rush between 1849 and 1852, but decided they also needed to tell the story about the people of Coloma who came before and who remain.
“Our idea is that you learn about (the history) in the museum and then you come out into the park and its reinforced,” Smith said.
Smith said parks officials are working with a group of Native Americans to build a Native garden and create other exhibits in the 576-acre park dedicated to indigenous contributions.
Louis Smith III of the Niesenan and Mi-Wuk tribes said he visits the park often to gather with other members of the tribe that are established there and help with tasks.
On Saturday, Smith was tending to a fire and smudging, a traditional ceremony that involves the burning of sacred herbs.
Other tribal members were moving dirt and preparing the land for the garden, where they will plant native herbs and plants.
“We’re working with the park and they’re working with us,” Smith said. “As long as they treat us as equals, which they’re starting to do.”
Park officials have also implemented restorations and acknowledgments to include the history of the Monroe family, a former slave family who once owned the land that the park sits on.
Volunteers restored the red Monroe shed from the ground up and filled it with farming tools.
“We’d like to bring back the Monroe Orchard,” Barry Smith, the superintendent, said. “We also have added a series of signs in to talk about Black history and the property owners.”
The Gam Saan, or “Gold Mountain”, Trail was dedicated in February last year to honor the contributions Chinese miners made.
“It goes through an old Chinese burial ground,” Smith said. “We asked our Chinese stakeholders to name the trail for us.”
Smith said this February or March, the state park will have another celebration to commemorate the anniversary of the trail.