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The state motto of California goes hand in hand with its gold rush history. When a miner named James Wilson Marshall discovered gold in the state in 1848, it triggered the first great gold rush in the United States, predating the Klondike Gold Rush in Canada’s Yukon Territory by about 50 years. “Eureka,” the state motto of California, roughly translates to English as “I have found it,” and refers to the momentous discovery. “Eureka” can also refer to California’s statehood in 1850.
The state seal bears the word “Eureka.” At the time of the seal’s design, 1849, California was a year shy of statehood. The official state motto of California was not adopted until 1963. During the 1950s, slightly more than 100 years after the discovery of gold in California and the popularization of the word “Eureka,” there was an unsuccessful movement to change the state motto of California to “In God We Trust.”
Sutter’s Mill is the site on the American River where the gold discovery was made, about a 60-minute drive today from the California capital of Sacramento. Upon his discovery, James Marshall turned to workmen nearby and said, “Boy, by God, I believe I’ve found a gold mine.” The discovery created a new word for the droves of about 90,000 gold seekers who raced to California from all over the United States and the world in 1849 to claim their share of gold: Forty-niners. The number of gold-seeking pioneers swelled to 200,000 within three years of John Marshall’s gold strike.
James Marshall, who was 37 years old when he discovered gold, grew up in Lambertville, N.J., and headed west in 1844 to become a farmer. The house that sheltered him as a boy in Lambertville still stands today with a plaque to honor his memory, and a nearby church building is said to contain flecks of gold donated by him. Today his childhood home houses Lambertville’s historical society and is a museum, and it is listed on the state and national historic registers. He died in 1885 without much money to his name because the land rights to the gold claim were seized by squatters. His grave is located near the American River, marked by a statue of him, with the left hand pointing to the site of his gold discovery.
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