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The real story of California's first gold discovery

By Leon Worden

Wednesday, January 24, 1996


AUTHOR'S NOTE (August, 1996): Subsequent to the publication of this artile, new information about the first discovery of gold in California has come to light. Click here for the new information.

C
all me provincial, but it really bugs me whenever somebody writes about the first California gold being discovered at Sutter's Mill, and how it sparked the first gold rush, and all that.
    It's irritating because it's a big, fat LIE.
    I ran across such a story in an otherwise reputable magazine just the other day. Immediately the brow furled, the nostrils flared, and within about five minutes I had fired off a letter offering to write an article that would set the publication's readership straight.
    Even more annoying is encountering the same tripe in a so-called "history" text. If I were left-leaning I'd probably accuse American textbook authors of being so institutionally biased that they automatically assume the first California gold was discovered by some white guys.
    Personally, I don't think it's prejudice so much as laziness. I mean, everyone knows gold was first discovered in California 148 years ago today — Jan. 24, 1848 — when James Marshall plucked a nugget out of the American River while helping John Sutter build his sawmill, right? And that it sparked the first gold rush?
    Why should anyone bother to question it?
    The truth is, Marshall and Sutter gained notoriety because their strike was widely reported in east coast newspapers later that year.
    Certainly, theirs was an important discovery, at least as historically significant as the Comstock Lode. And yes, it prompted many easterners to rush out to the Wild West in search of gilded fortunes.
    But it wasn't the first discovery of gold in California, and it wasn't the first gold rush.
    The first California gold was discovered right here.
    In the Santa Clarita Valley.
    In Placerita Canyon, to be exact.
    Six years before Sutter's Mill.
    I know I'm preaching to the choir, but on the off-chance there's a Signal reader who doesn't know the story, I'll sketch it out again.
    In the 1840s, the area bounded by Piru Creek on the west and Elsmere Canyon on the east was run by the Del Valle family. They acquired it in 1839, when California Governor Juan B. Alvarado granted the rancho to Mexican Lt. Antonio del Valle. Stocked with cattle, sheep and horses, the rancho was headquartered at the Asistencia de San Francisco Javier at present-day Castaic Junction.
    Jose Francisco de Gracia Lopez, an uncle of Don Antonio's second wife, leased some land from the Del Valles and ran his own cattle.
    Local historian Jerry Reynolds relays what happened on March 9, 1842, the day of Lopez' 40th birthday:
    "At about noontime, (Lopez) was deep in Cañon de los Encinos (Live Oak Canyon), picking a spot under an ancient oak tree for lunch and a siesta.
    "After his nap, Lopez dug up some wild onions with his knife and was surprised to discover gold clinging to their roots."
    Lopez and his associates scavenged the riverbanks and came up with more. They took their find to Los Angeles and sent word to Mexico City. Assayed by the Philadelphia Mint, the gold tested out at .926 fine.
    Hundreds of prospectors from Los Angeles and Sonora, Mexico flocked to Live Oak Canyon, which was renamed Placerita Canyon. "Placer," of Spanish origin, means surface deposits of sand or gravel containing gold. From 1842 to 1847, the miners culled some 1,300 pounds of gold from Placerita.
    The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848 turned California over to the United States, and many of the Sonoran miners went home.
    History is unkind to Sr. Lopez, not only because it generally overlooks him, but because it often makes him out to have been a simple rancher who found gold by dumb luck.
    He wasn't and didn't. Both Reynolds and Ruth Newhall note that Lopez studied mineralogy at a university in Mexico before coming to the Del Valles' rancho. Evidence suggests that while here, Lopez systematically searched for gold.
    Reynolds writes: "While there had been rumors of other gold strikes prior to 1842, Lopez made the first authenticated find, started the first gold rush in California and made the first attempt at a mining claim. (Don Antonio's son Ignacio) del Valle was the first person to make mining laws in the state."
    Today, the oak tree beneath which Lopez took his famous nap — the Oak of the Golden Dream — is a California Historic Landmark, near the Placerita Canyon Nature Center. Take Placerita Canyon Road 1 1/2 miles east of State Route 14 to the park entrance. Park your car in the lot and head downriver. It's a short walk.

Leon Worden is a Santa Clarita resident. His commentary appears Wednesdays.


©1996 LEON WORDEN — ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
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