James Marshall was superintending the construction of a sawmill for Col. John Sutter on the morning of January 24, 1848, on the South Fork of the American River at Coloma, California, when he saw something glittering in the water of the mill's tailrace. According to Sutter's diary, Marshall stooped down to pick it up and "found that it was a thin scale of what appeared to be pure gold." Marshall bit the metal as a test for gold.
In June of 1848, Colonel Sutter presented Marshall's first-find scale of gold to Capt. Joseph L. Folsom, U.S. Army Assistant Quartermaster at Monterey. Folsom had journeyed to Northern California to verify the gold claim for the U.S. Government.
The gold samples then traveled with U.S. Army Lt. Lucien Loeser by ship to Panama, across the isthmus by horseback, by ship to New Orleans, and overland to Washington. A letter of transmittal from Folsom that accompanied the packet lists Specimen #1 as "the first piece of gold ever discovered in this Northern part of Upper California found by J. W. Marshall at the Saw Mill of John A. Sutter."
By August of 1848, as evidence of the find, this piece and other samples of California gold had arrived in Washington, D.C., for delivery to President James K. Polk and for preservation at the National Institute. Within weeks, President Polk formally declared to Congress that gold had been discovered in California.
In 1861, the National Institute and its geological specimens, including this gold and the letter, entered the collections of the Smithsonian Institution. The Marshall Nugget remains in the collections as evidence of the discovery of gold in California.