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Heralding Our History: An original ‘49er, Lambertville man started the Gold Rush


In 1816, Philip Marshall, a carpenter from Hopewell, NJ, relocated to Lambertville with his wife Sarah and their 6-year-old son, James. The family expanded to include four daughters, and James Wilson Marshall would someday become a prominent American historical figure.

Philip actively engaged in Lambertville’s political life, serving as a justice on the Hunterdon County Court and working on the Andrew Jackson re-election committee. However, by 1834, financial troubles led Philip to take a construction job on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad. Tragically, he succumbed to typhus shortly after, prompting James to relinquish his rights to the estate to settle debts.

Following his father’s death, James Marshall ventured west, briefly residing in various places. Working as a carpenter in Crawfordsville, Ind., and Warsaw, Ill., he later became a wheelwright in Omaha, Neb., before heading south to the Platte Purchase in northwestern Missouri. There, he participated in a land rush, claiming almost 130 acres along the Missouri River. Malaria forced him to leave for a warmer climate.

Opting for a wagon trail to Oregon, James, seeking warmth, continued to California. In 1845, he arrived at Sutter’s Fort, where his carpentry skills earned him immediate employment. Despite purchasing a cattle ranch, he worked for John Sutter and served with American forces during the conquest of California in 1846. However, upon returning, he found his cattle gone, leading him back to Sutter to find a location for a sawmill.

The famous gold discovery occurred in January 1848 when James noticed “yellow specks” in the water during the night. Despite attempts to keep it quiet, word spread, and the California Gold Rush ensued.

In 1857, James purchased land, established a vineyard, and thrived for a while, but by the late 1860s, the vineyard failed. After unsuccessful prospecting, a lecture tour in Kansas City left him penniless. Returning to Lambertville, Marshall faced challenges, including changes in temperament and alcohol dependence.

Back in California, James sought compensation from the state for his role in its growth. In 1872, a bill granted him a pension of $200 a month for two years, later reduced to $100, and eventually lapsed in 1878 due to criticism of his personal life. Marshall continued working in his blacksmith shop and gold mines until his death on Aug. 10, 1885, at the age of 75.

Despite periods of wealth, Marshall’s generosity and gullibility led to financial challenges. He died with approximately $400 to his name, leaving behind a legacy intertwined with California’s — and Lambertville’s — history.

Chuck Hansen is a member of the board of trustees of the Lambertville Historical Society.

“Heralding Our History” is a weekly feature. Each month, the Herald delves into the history of one of its towns.

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