James Marshall was a carpenter hired to oversee construction of a sawmill for John Sutter in Coloma, California. His agreement with Sutter provided that he would receive a portion of the lumber for his services. After selecting a site, construction began in the summer of 1847 using as laborers native Americans and veterans of the Mormon Battalion working their way back to Salt Lake City.
Construction continued into the new year when Marshall discovered that the ditch that drained water away from the waterwheel was too narrow and shallow for the amount of water necessary to operate the saw. Marshall devised a plan to use the natural force of the river to enlarge the ditch. Because it would endanger the lives of the men working on the mill during the day, this work had to be done at night. Each morning Marshall examined the results of the previous night’s excavation.
Marshall was performing this ritual on the morning of January 24, 1848, when he noticed some shiny stuff in the channel. He picked up a couple of pieces and examined them more closely, determining that they were either sulphuret of iron, which was very bright and brittle, or gold, also bright, yet malleable. He pounded it between rocks and found that it could be beaten into a different shape but not broken.
“Eureka (or something like that),” Marshall said to a companion. His crew performed additional tests on the metal—boiling it, hammering it, checking how it paired with frankincense and myrrh. They all agreed that it was gold, but Marshall, slavishly devoted to the completion of the sawmill, only allowed his crew to look for more gold during their coffee breaks.
Marshall shared his discovery with Sutter, who performed further tests on the gold and told Marshall that it was of the finest quality, 96% pure.
Evidently someone had overheard Marshall utter that fateful word “eureka” for news of the discovery spread rapidly. By the following Tuesday, it was the number one topic on the streets of Peoria, Paris and Istanbul. Marshall saw only failure; his sawmill was abandoned when all the able-bodied men in the area joined the search for gold, and lumber was a distant memory as his sawmill became a cheap hostel for every Tom, Pierre and Habib. The California Gold Rush was in full swing.
The arriving hordes of prospectors eventually forced Marshall off his land and out of the gold business. He later tried his luck as a vintner, until eventually forced out of the wine business by every Ernest, Julio, and Mogen David.
The California State Legislature awarded him a two-year pension in 1872 in recognition of his role in California history. It was renewed a couple of times but eventually forgotten. Marshall spent his remaining years tucked away in a small cabin, bending his few remaining pieces of gold into tiny objets d’art.
On January 24, 1935, the first can of beer went on sale in Richmond, Virginia. It came from the Kreuger Brewing Company in New Jersey. Of course, beer had been around for a lot longer, like say 10,000 years or so, but back then they couldn’t do all those fun things you can do with empty beer cans when you’re drunk.