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Folsom's Gold Flake

A sketch with white, grey, and red coloring of a man. He has a semi-bald head and a white beard.
(c) Folsom History Archives, James Marshall sketch.

It is seldom mentioned in the histories of the Gold Rush that one of the reasons that John Sutter built his sawmill at Coloma was to get lumber to sell in Yerba Buena. He told James Hutchings in an interview for his California Magazine in 1857: “I was very much in need of a saw-mill to get lumber to finish my large flouring mill….likewise for other buildings, fences, etc., for the small village of Yerba Buena, (now San Francisco.) In the City Hotel,…at the dinner table this enterprise was unkindly called ‘another folly of Sutter’s’…” The man he was going to sell the lumber to was William Alexander Leidesdorff, owner of the lumber yard and the City Hotel and the Rancho Rio de los Americanos on which the town of Folsom was later built.

In the same California Magazine article, James Marshall told Hutchings about his discovery of the gold:

there, upon the rock, about six inches beneath the surface of the water, I discovered the gold. I was entirely alone at the time. I picked up one or two pieces and examined them attentively; and having some general knowledge of minerals, I could not call to mind more than two which in any way resembled this-- sulphuret of iron, very bright and brittle; and gold, bright, yet malleable; I then tried it between two rocks, and found that it could be beaten into a different shape but not broken.

Marshall then picked up four or five more pieces and did more tests. One test was performed when Mr. Wimmer “took home to show his wife who the next day made some experiments upon it by boiling it in strong lye, and saleratus; and Mr. Bennet by my directions beat it very thin.” These experiments were obviously not conducted on the same pieces.

Four days later Marshall took about three ounces of gold to Sutter’s fort where Sutter did a number of tests and after consulting the Encyclopedia Americana determined that, indeed, it was gold. Marshall returned that same night to Coloma; Sutter left the next morning. From the gold Sutter picked up on his trip to Coloma, he later had a ring made with his family coat of arms on it and an inscription, “The first gold, discovered in January 1848.”

About February 15 Sutter sent two men on his schooner down river with specimens of gold and a letter for Colonel Mason, the military governor in Monterey. They stopped in San Francisco where Bancroft says that Captain Folsom, the assistant quartermaster, inspected the specimens of gold and pronounced them fool’s gold. The men proceeded to Monterey and asked for a private meeting with Governor Mason who eventually called Lieutenant William Tecumseh Sherman into the room and showed him the half ounce of gold on the table and asked if he could determine if it was gold. Sherman tested it with his teeth and was satisfied it was gold. Then Mason had him draft a response to Sutter’s letter. Sutter had requested a preemption for the land the sawmill was on in Coloma. This would have allowed him to purchase the federal land since he had made improvements. Mason replied that he could do nothing about a preemption since California was still not technically federal land.

Notice of the discovery of gold at Coloma was published without fanfare in the Californian on March 15. The California Star published the discovery on March 25. Neither story stirred much reaction, but rumors grew. Sam Brannan, who had a store at Sutter’s Fort and had been taking payment in gold dust, went through the streets of San Francisco in early May waving a bottle of gold dust shouting, “Gold, gold, gold from the American River.” By the end of the month, the rush to the gold fields was on. Colonel Mason had Sherman organize a fact-finding trip to the gold mines in late June and Captain Folsom joined Mason and Sherman on the trip to Mormon Island and Coloma. A report was prepared by Mason on August 17 verifying the gold discovery. Mason had collected sixteen special samples that he carefully labeled giving the names of the persons from whom he acquired them and where each piece had been found. In his memoirs, Sherman recounted that on his suggestion Lieutenant Lucian Loeser was chosen as a special courier to take the specimens to Washington and he advised the Colonel to allow Captain Folsom to purchase a large sample of the commercial gold in general use in San Francisco. Folsom bought an oyster-can full weighing 320 ounces and Mason included that gold saying it was “a fair sample of the gold obtained from the mines of Sacramento. It is a mixture coming from various points in the gold district.” Folsom then chartered the La Lambayecana for Loeser which left on August 30. On reaching New Orleans on November 23, Loeser telegraphed the War Department. He apparently transmitted the information contained in Mason’s report. President Polk presented parts of it in his address to Congress on December 5, 1848 saying:

Reluctant to credit the reports in general circulation as to the quantity of gold, the officer commanding our forces in California visited the mineral district in July last for the purpose of obtaining accurate information on the subject. His report to the War Department of the result of his examination and the facts obtained on the spot is herewith laid before Congress. When he visited the country there were about 4,000 persons engaged in collecting gold. There is every reason to believe that the number of persons so employed has since been augmented. The explorations already made warrant the belief that the supply is very large and that gold is found at various places in an extensive district of country.

A black background with a flake of gold in the center of the photo.
(C) Smithsonian Institute, Gold Nugget.

It was hoped that Loeser could reach Washington in time for President Polk to use the California gold as supporting evidence in his address to Congress, but so many delays had occurred that Loeser did not reach Washington until two days after the speech. The gold was then put on display. On December 8, the Secretary of War sent all the samples along with the 320 ounces of gold to the Philadelphia mint where they were melted. However, one special piece of gold did not go into the melting pot. Separate from Mason’s official report to the War Department, Folsom had given Loeser a folded piece of paper with a flake of gold enclosed to be taken to the National Institute. Folsom’s note accompanying the gold was dated August 23, 1848 and read:

This paper contains the first piece of gold ever discovered in the Northern part of Upper California. It was found in February, 1848, by J. W. Marshall in the race of Captain John A. Sutter's sawmill about 45 miles from Sutter's fort on the South branch of the American Fork. It was beaten out with a hammer by Mr. Marshall to test its malleability. It is presented to the National Institute, Washington, D. C. [signed, J. L. Folsom Assistant Quartermaster]

That Folsom signed it, not Mason, suggests that Folsom had done this on his own initiative. Receipt of the flake was recorded at a meeting of the Institute on January 15, 1849 and the flake was filed away. The flake was a very small, thin plate about one-half inch in length and somewhat less in width, weighing .0855 grams. The National Institute was dissolved in 1861 and the flake was transferred to the Smithsonian where it was forgotten until Philip Bekeart got into an argument with a friend who claimed that the Wimmer nugget was the first piece of gold picked up by Marshall. Bekeart’s father Jules Francois Bekeart had owned a gun shop in Coloma in 1849 and was a very good friend of James Marshall. Jules told his son that he had once asked Sutter to show him the first flake that Marshall found and Sutter told him that he sent it to the Smithsonian. Bekeart also claimed that Marshall told his father the same thing. So, to settle the argument, on January 31, 1914 Philip Bekeart sent a letter to the Smithsonian saying that his father had told him that Sutter sent the first flake that Marshall found to that institution. He asked them to investigate that fact and see if they could find the original flake. He offered to pay any ordinary expenses because he felt that the question should be settled for the sake of posterity. They informed him in February that they had found the flake and Folsom’s letter. In another letter of February 9, 1915 Bekeart requested a photograph of the flake and asked if their mineralogist could examine the flake to see if there were any foreign particles in it. Under the microscope, the mineralogist found numerous white particles which were apparently quartz and many black points of no appreciable thickness apparently iron or manganese oxide. This was enough to convince Bekeart that the flake was the very one that Marshall had smashed between two rocks and later had the blacksmith hit with the metal hammer. Bekeart published the story of his search for the first flake along with a biography of James Marshall in the November 1924 Quarterly of the Society of California Pioneers.

Bekeart, however, glossed over the fact that in their 1857 interviews with Hutchings neither Sutter nor Marshall seemed to know what ultimately happened to the first flake. Sutter told Hutchings, “Now if Mrs. Wimmer possesses a piece which has been found earlier than mine Mr. Marshall can tell, as it was probably received from him. I think Mr. Marshall could have hardly known himself which was exactly the first little piece, among the whole.” But Marshall did seem to have an idea what had happened to that first little piece. He told Hutchings, “The first piece of gold which I found, weighed about fifty cents. Mr. Wimmer having bought a stock of merchandise some time about May or June 1848 and Mrs. Wimmer being my treasurer, used four hundred and forty dollars of my money to complete the purchase and among which was the first piece of gold which I had found. Where that went, or where it is now, I believe that nobody knows.”

It appears that the little flake that Folsom sent to the National Institute was something that he was given on the tour of the gold fields in July 1848. From whom he received it, he did not say. That he believed that the tiny piece of gold was the first flake is evidenced by the fact that he thought it significant enough to send to the National Institute where it is was preserved. Even if it is not the very first flake Marshall picked up, all evidence indicates that the flake Folsom sent is very close to what Marshall first found. Marshall said the first flake was worth about fifty cents. At that time the official price of pure gold was $20.67 a troy ounce. There are 31.1 grams to a troy ounce making a gram worth about $.66. With a weight of .0855 grams, the flake, if it had been pure, would have been worth about $.56, so the size does fit what we know of that first piece of gold that Marshall found.

Bekeart hoped that he could get the flake returned to Sacramento where he thought it should be displayed. However, since the search that Bekeart initiated had brought the forgotten flake to their attention, the Smithsonian decided to put it on display with a magnifying glass so that visitors could better see it. The Smithsonian recognized it not just as a piece of California’s or Sacramento’s history but as an important piece of American history.


This article was written by local historian, Michael Harlan. He taught Humanities as an adjunct professor at American River College for twenty-seven years. He also published the Folsom Telegraph segment, Folsom an Historical Tour, in installments over a seven-month period in 2021.

If you're interested in further research, visit the Smithsonian website to read about the gold nugget housed in their National Museum of American History. To view Hutching's California Magazine online visit Yosemite Online to view various digitized editions. Today marks the 176th anniversary of the first gold found in California (January 24, 1848).

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