(James Stephens Brown made the historic march across the southwestern United States and Mexico with the Mormon Battalion and was at Sutter's Fort, Calif., when gold was discovered, setting off the 1849 rush. He later recounted his experiences in a book, "The Life of a Pioneer: Being the Autobiography of James S. Brown.")
On the 16th of July, 1847, the close of the Mormon Battalion's term of enlistment, we were called into line and an officer passed along as in ordinary inspection. Then, without further ceremony, he said, `You are discharged.' I do not think one half of the command heard him, he spoke so low. Some of us thought he may have felt ashamed because of his conduct toward us on our march to Santa Fe. He was the little bigot, Lieutenant A.J. Smith.Thus we bade adieu to United States military authority and returned to the ranks of civilian life. One hundred and fifty of us organized ourselves into hundreds, fifties and tens and were soon on our way to meet our friends somewhere, as we supposed, in the Rocky Mountains east; and still we did not know just where.
We sought information as best we could and most that we could learn was that by following under the base of the Sierra Nevada range six hundred miles we would come to Sutter's Fort, where we could obtain information as to the best route to where we supposed we would find our friends. . . .
We pressed forward till August 26, when we came to the American River, two miles above Sutter's Fort and about a mile and a half from the Sacramento River, at the point where the city of Sacramento now stands. The locality was then a forest of cottonwood timber and undergrowth.
When we reached the vicinity of Sutter's Fort a consultation was held at which it was decided that most of the party would remain until next year and obtain employment where they could. Captain John A. Sutter and James Marshall contemplated building a gristmill and also a sawmill, but had no skilled workmen to perform the task. A committee was appointed from our number who informed Captain Sutter that we had among us carpenters, blacksmiths, wheelwrights, millwrights, farmers and common laborers; that we were in need of horses, cattle and a general outfit for crossing the mountains early the next summer and that if we could not get all money for our pay, we would take part in supplies for our journey. . . .
On January 23, I turned away from the Indians (whom he had been appointed to supervise) and was with the white men. Mr. Marshall came along to look over the work in general and went to wherei the tail race entered the river. There he discovered a bed of rock that had been exposed by the water the night before, the portion in view in the bottom of the race being three to six feet wide and fifteen to twenty feet long.
Mr. Marshall called me to him as he examined the bed of the race and said: `This is a curious rock; I am afraid it will give us trouble. Then he probed a little further and added: `I believe it contains minerals of some kind and I believe there is gold in these hills.'
At this statement, I inquired, `What makes you think so?' He answered that he had seen blossom of gold and upon my asking where, he said it was the white quartz scattered over the hills; on my inquiring further as to what quartz was, he told me it was the white, flint-like rock so plentiful in the hills . . .
He sent me to the cabin for a pan to wash the sand and gravel and see what we could find. . . . I brought the pan and we washed some of the bedrock that he had scaled up with a pick. As we had no idea of the appearance of gold in its natural state, our search was unsuccessful. (A decision was made to continue looking for gold. Brown digressed to write some opinions of the situation.)
If it had not been for the opportune appearance of the mustered-out members of the Mormon Battalion, the sawmill would not have been built that winter, nor would the discovery of the gold have been made at that time. But for the actions of those Mormons in connection with the enterprise proposed by Captain Sutter and Mr. Marshall, in offering the desired class of labor upon the terms they did, the state of California might have waited indefinitely to have been developed and to be christened `The Golden State,' and the entrance to the bay of San Francisco might never have received the title of the `Golden Gate.'
Resuming the narrative of my association with Mr. Marshall on the afternoon of January 23, I will state further that each of us went our way for the night and did not meet again till next morning. I thought little of what Marshall had said of finding gold, as he was looked on as rather a `notional' kind of man. I do not think I even mentioned his conversation to my associates.
At an unusually early hour in the morning, however, those of us who occupied the cabin heard a hammering at the mill. `Who is that pounding so early?' was asked and one of our party looked out and said it was Marshall shutting the gates of the forebay down. This recalled to my mind what Mr. Marshall said to me the evening before, and I remarked, `Oh, he is going to find a gold mine this morning.'
A smile of derision stole over the faces of the parties present. We ate our breakfast and went to work. . . .
This was the 24th day of January 1848. When we had got partly to work, Mr. Marshall came, with his old wool hat in his hand. He stopped within six or eight yards of the sawpit and exclaimed, `Boys, I have got her now!' Being the nearest to him, and having more curiosity than the rest of the men, I jumped from the pit and stepped to him. On looking into his hat I discovered ten or twelve pieces or small scales of what proved to be gold, I picked up the largest piece, worth about fifty cents, and tested it with my teeth; as it did not give, I held it aloft and exclaimed `Gold, boys. Gold!' . . .
As soon as we learned how to look for it, since it glittered under the water in the rays of the sun, we were all rewarded with a few scales. Each put his mite into a small phial that was provided by Marshall and we made him the custodian. We repeated our visits to the tail race for three or four mornings, each time collecting some of the precious metal until we had gathered somewhere between three and four ounces . . .
We all assented to not disclose the secret of the gold discovery until we learned more about it and had made good our claims. (More discoveries were made, some by Battalion members, including a major find at Mormon Island. Soon the word leaked out, but `like all great truths, people were slow to believe the story.')
From one hundred to one hundred and fifty Mormons flocked to Mormon Island; then people from every part of the United States followed and the search for gold commenced in earnest. With jack, butcher and table knives, the search was made in the crevices, after stripping the soil from the bedrock with pick and shovel. Next we conceived the idea of washing the sand and fine gravel in tin pans, but these were scarce and hard to get hold of . . .
The facts are that James W. Marshall discovered the first color; in less than an hour, six Mormons found color as well and within six weeks, Mormons had discovered it in hundreds of places Mr. Marshall had never seen, the most notable of which was Mormon Island, to where the first rush was made.
As to Sutter's enterprise and capital, he furnished the graham flour and mutton, wheat and peas, black coffee and brown sugar, teams and tools, while we, the members of the Mormon Battalion, did the hard labor that discovered the metal.
It is also true that we were in Sutter's employ at that date and that we did not get paid for our labor. I worked one hundred days for the firm and never received a farthing for it . . . when we went for a settlement, we were told by Captain Sutter that he could not settle with us, for his bookkeeper had gone to the mines and his books were not posted . . .
With due respect to Captain John A. Sutter and James W. Marshall, to whom the world has given the credit for the great gold find, I believe that if they had been taken out and shot to death the day of the discovery, they would have suffered less and would have met their Maker just as pure, if not more honored in this world, than to have lived and endured what they did.
(The Mormon group eventually resolved to continue on to Utah Territory. On the very last day before leaving, Brown found yet another gold deposit from which he washed out $49.50 in gold.) We did move, leaving that rich prospect without ever sticking a stake in the gulch, but abandoning it to those who might follow. . . . Some may think we were blind to our own interests; but after more than forty years, we look back without regrets, although we did see fortunes in the land and had many inducements to stay. . . . Still, duty called, our honor was at stake as we had covenanted with each other, there was a principle involved; for with us, it was God and His Kingdom first. We had friends and relatives in the wilderness, yea, in an untried desert land, and who knew their condition? We did not. So it was duty before pleasure, before wealth, and with this prompting, we rolled out and joined our comrades. . . .