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photo by Mark Gunn

Characters from

the Wild West


by Catherine Lugo

The Most Unlucky Guy 

James Wilson Marshall bent down to scoop up a handful of something gleaming in the flow of water rushing by.  He was simply inspecting the sawmill that he had helped build when he saw the gleam of gold in the millrace water.  The gold nugget that James Marshall held in his hand that day gave birth to the California Gold Rush.  James Wilson Marshall, born in 1810, worked for John Sutter as a carpenter in Coloma, California, and while his discovery of gold was not the first, it did change the course of American history.  

Construction of the mill where Marshall’s nugget was found began in 1847 near the south fork of the American River, which runs from the crest of the Sierra Nevada mountain range and across the Sacramento Valley.  Local Indians and Mormon veterans of the Mexican War who lived in the area were hired to help build the sawmill.

Marshall and Sutter shared ownership to the claim, but it brought no fortune to either of them.  The mill workers knew about the find and had been told to keep it quiet, but word soon got out.  It was then that the California Gold Rush began in earnest.  Although the discovery changed the course of American history, history was not one bit kind to James Marshall.  In fact, dark clouds settled on him very soon after his discovery and there they remained throughout his life.  You would think that such a find would bring fame and fortune along with it, wouldn’t you?   Marshall had every right to expect that as well, but instead misfortune became his best friend. 

Not only did he never earn a penny from the gold he discovered, but as soon as the discovery was made known, hundreds arrived to stake their claims, totally ignoring and trampling on Marshall’s claim.  This was gold fever at its worst.  Marshall tried to stay afloat and profit from his discovery, but things got so bad that he eventually had to sell off his timber and his rights to the mill he had helped build for money to live on.    

It was about this time that he came up with the idea of calling himself a mystic.  He said he had superhuman powers to locate the richest gold deposits in the region.  No one really knows where his logic for this came from, but gold hungry miners got angry when he wouldn’t reveal the locations of the gold, and they turned on him.  He was now a marked man and had to flee Coloma.  This episode in his life is the beginning of the bizarre and eccentric behavior that eventually reduced him to making a living from odd jobs and the sale of his autograph for fifty cents as a way to earn money.  When those endeavors died away he was dealt the final blow to his dignity.  James Marshal, at 62 years of age, ended up living off of a state pension of $200 a month; it was more than enough to leave him angry and bitter. 

It was certainly true that Lady Luck completely abandoned James Wilson Marshall almost from the start.  It was the same with two different women he had hoped to marry; they both rejected him as well.  Unlucky in love and in life, he died a lonely bachelor with barely enough assets to cover the cost of his funeral. 

What an unfair and ironic fate for the man that just happened to one day spot something gleaming at the bottom of a millrace… the discovery of a lifetime that led him to a lifetime of rejection and humiliation.  Marshall’s discovery of a small gold nugget, no bigger than a pea, led to the transformation of the now great state of California and will forever be remembered.  

Years after his fateful find, he said this: "I reached my hand down and picked [the nugget] up; it made my heart thump, for I was certain it was gold."  But, according to history, it was Jennie Wimmer, sole female in the camp and wife of Peter Wimmer, who actually suggested it must be gold.  But because she was a woman, her opinion was discounted.   She was shown the same disrespect that James Marshall had been shown.  After all, said the men in the camp, “what would a woman know about such matters?” 

The final chapter in his life is one of a miserable and misunderstood man who developed bizarre behaviors and descended into alcoholism and self destruction.  To add insult to injury, the gold nugget he found does not even bear his name.  To this day it is called the “Wimmer” nugget, after Peter L.Wimmer, Marshall’s assistant in supervising the workers who helped build the sawmill where Marshall discovered the gold.  The “Wimmer” nugget is now on display at the Bancroft Library at the University of California at Berkeley.  

Trail Blazer 

The roads were rough, they couldn’t have been rougher… because they weren’t roads yet, but only dusty trails.  Before roads were roads, stagecoaches traveled this country, delivering people and goods from one coast to another.  No matter what the travel conditions, no matter what the danger and the inconvenience, stagecoach drivers of the Wild West carried on, forging ahead and westward, blazing trails into the new land.  Anyone who looked to make a career of stagecoach driver, had to be of great courage and sinewy character.  Indians and bandits were all along the trails the stagecoaches drove.  Called whips, Charlie’s, jehus, and reinsmen, they drove with fury through coarse, bumpy and irregular terrain.  Their goal and their mission was to deliver goods and people, never letting steep inclines, narrow roads, or muddy passes stop them. 

Charley Parkhurst was born in 1812 in New Hampshire.  He grew up mostly in an orphanage, from which he ran away from at 12 years of age.  Charley hit the road to work odd jobs and find a way to make it in a man’s world.  Though small in size, Charley was sturdy and strong willed.  The first job that presented itself was the perfect job for a young lad of the 1800’s; a stable hand.  The stable owner, one Ebenezer Balch, took Charley under his wing and taught him the ropes; the boy soon became comfortable around horses and proficient in their care.   


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