Friday, October 9, 2015

Striking Gold

Yesterday was the 105th birthday of James Wilson Marshall.

Who was he? you say. And why should I care?

James Wilson Marshall
As you may or may not know, I am the senior docent at the James Wilson Marshall house, the headquarters of the Lambertville Historical Society. Nearly every Saturday between Shad Fest (the last weekend in April, or Malice Domestic weekend, for those of you who follow the mystery fiction circuit) and House Tour Sunday (October 18 this year, sometimes later) I can be found at the Marshall House between one and four in the afternoon, shooting the breeze about James Wilson Marshall, the California Gold Rush, Lambertville history, and whatever other topic the visiting tourists feel like discussing. So I'm sort of an expert on Mr. Marshall. Who was he, then? Mainly he was the man who discovered the first gold in California, back in 1848. You've heard of Sutter's mill. Marshall was building the mill for Sutter when he found the gold.

John Sutter
You probably didn't know that it was a Jersey boy who started the California gold rush. Little James came to Lambertville (then known as Coryell's Ferry) at the age of six, in 1816, when his father built the house on Bridge Street and set up to be a wheelwright and wagon maker. When he was fifteen he had a bit of unpleasantness with the old man that caused him to leave the house, vowing never to return while his father lived. When he was 24 his father died, and he came home to help his mother sell the business, since he hadn't learned it himself and there were no other sons. Then he went west, moving by stages to California, which was part of Mexico. Long story short, he fell in with Captain John Sutter, the Swiss national who became a Mexican citizen in order to buy obscene quantities of land from the Mexicans. After the war with Mexico Captain Sutter sent James Marshall and a crew into the hills to build the mill, and there he found the gold in the river. He changed the course of American history.

I've been writing historical fiction for a number of years now. People ask me sometimes why I don't write about the gold rush. Here's the thing. I've read a lot about it, I continue to read a lot about it, and I have yet to find anybody involved in those times and events that I like well enough to sit down with for the six or eight months it takes to write a book. Some of these people I actively detest. Captain John Sutter comes to mind. To begin with, he abandoned his wife and five children in Switzerland, leaving them in debt, taking enough money with him to buy a big piece of of California, and proceeded to enslave all the Indians he found on his newly-purchased land. He bought and sold little Indian children. After the gold was discovered, the rough, tough forty-niner claim jumpers ran him off his holdings. He lost everything, and it couldn't happen to a nicer fella, in my opinion.

John Charles Frémont
Marshall was a better person than John Sutter, though he drank all the time and had trouble getting along with other people. It's said that children liked him. It's said that he risked his own life defending the Indians from attacks by rampaging forty-niners. So he may have been a good guy, but I'm sorry, I can't warm up to a habitual drunkard.

Jessie Frémont
John Charles Frémont to me is the most interesting figure in the California gold rush days, intrepid explorer, impetuous military man, failed politician. Some of the deeds he did as a military man were so base that the rumor of them later disqualified him for public office. He made a huge fortune in the gold rush by virtue of owning seventy acres of gold-rich land and sharing the proceeds with the men he set to digging on it, but eventually his workers figured out that they didn't have to give him a share at all. I think I like him because his wife loved him so. He married Senator Thomas Hart Benton's daughter Jessie. She followed him to California, sailing to Panama, crossing the isthmus through fever-ridden jungles, sailing up the west coast to San Francisco to be with her man.

The stories are worth telling. I just don't want to tell them, not right now, when I'm deeply in love with other historical figures, people in other times that I'm working into a novel. Maybe I'll write about the gold rush later, when I finish the spy thriller.

© 2015 Kate Gallison

1 comment:

  1. I don't go for habitual drunks either. tstraw