California’s most famous gold rush dates to the morning of January 24, 1848, when James Marshall made his customary inspection of the sawmill he was building for John Sutter. During the previous night, Marshall had diverted water through the mill’s tailrace to wash away loose dirt and gravel, and on that fateful day, he noticed some shining flecks of metal left behind by the running water. He picked them up and showed them to his crew, but while he was pretty sure that it was gold, the full significance of his discovery was truly impossible to imagine. He was still concerned about getting the mill finished.
Word of Marshall’s discovery leaked out and immediately set off a “rush to the mines.” By the spring of 1849, the largest gold rush in American history was under way. At the time of Marshall’s discovery, the state’s non-Indian population numbered about 14,000. By the end of 1849, it had risen to nearly 100,000, and it continued to swell to some 250,000 by 1852.
Today, a few mines and the remains of several boom towns have been preserved in a variety of state parks. Most of them, including the Marshall Gold Discovery site, the fabulous Empire Mine, the historic town of Columbia, the rich gold deposits at Plumas Eureka, and the controversial hydraulic mining pits at Malakoff Diggins, are located in or near the Mother Lode region of the central Sierra Nevada foothills.
Many placer districts in California have been mined on a large scale as recently as the mid-1950’s. Streams draining the rich Mother Lode region–the Feather, Mokelumne, American, Cosumnes, Calaveras, and Yuba Rivers–and the Trinity River in northern California have concentrated considerable quantities of gold in gravels. In addition, placers associated with gravels that are stream remnants from an older erosion cycle occur in the same general area.
Today’s prospector must determine where prospecting is permitted and be aware of the regulations under which he is allowed to search for gold and other metals. Permission to enter upon privately owned land must be obtained from the land owner. Determination of land ownership and location and contact with the owner can be a time-consuming chore but one which has to be done before prospecting can begin.
Determination of the location and extent of public lands open to mineral entry for prospecting and mining purposes also is a time consuming but necessary requirement. National parks, for example, are closed to prospecting. Certain lands under the jurisdiction of the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management may be entered for prospecting, but sets of rules and regulations govern entry. You can check with the California State Land Commission for information on exploration locations and mineral leases on state lands.