Where it all began.
James Marshall discovered more than gold in the tailrace of Sutter’s Mill that cold January
morning in 1848, he also discovered the California Dream: the chance for instant riches, wealth,
and fame. The dream swept around the world and by the end of 1849, over one hundred thousand
optimistic gold-seekers had come to California in search of the golden dream. A few found it,
many didn’t. But they all saw the elephant.
During the early days of the Gold Rush, the new arrivals generally headed for Coloma, which
resulted in the town’s rapid growth. Among the first businesses in town were Captain Shannon &
Cady’s general store, S. S. Brook’s store, and John Little’s emporium which was located on the
north side of the river. Saloons, gambling houses, restaurants, banks, stables, smithy, and
gunsmith all soon followed. The first hotel was the Winters Hotel, operated by Messrs. Winters
and Cromwell. A. J. Bayley ran the hotel’s bar. A post office was in operation by 1849, with John
T. Little serving as the first postmaster. Early spellings such as “Colluma” and “Culoma”
eventually gave way to “Coloma,” and when El Dorado County was created in 1850, Coloma was chosen
as the county seat, over strong objections from the residents of nearby Placerville and Diamond
Springs who thought their towns should have that honor.
Captain Shannon served as the town’s Alcalde. Whenever a difficulty would arise between
miners, it was Shannon’s job to settle the dispute. He would call a meeting, and if necessary, a
jury would be appointed to hear the case and return a verdict. Any punishments handed down were
always carried out quickly and could consist of reparations, banishment, whipping (usually with a
rawhide riata), branding (generally for theft, a red-hot iron was the tool of choice, used to
brand a “T” on the guilty party’s cheek), cropping (the removal of one or both ears, in whole or
in part), and in extreme cases, hanging. Coloma was lucky in that it was a much more peaceful and
quiet town than some of its neighbors, although it did have its instances of violence.
Many of the problems that did arise in the mining camps started in the gambling houses.
William Kelly gives us his impression of the early gambling establishments in A Stroll through
the Diggings of California, published in 1852: “Almost every house was a tap, and contained an
apartment consecrated to the god of gambling, where a set of hawks, with whetted beaks, were
lying in wait for ‘green pigeons;’ and although improvident miners are invariably relieved of
their gold-dust in those nefarious haunts, they punctually returned every Saturday evening, as if
under the spell of some mystical fascination, to deposit their gold in those sinking-funds,
spending their week’s earnings and their Sundays in this insensible and reprehensible manner,
first reduced to a state of partial stupefaction by adulterated drink, and then cheated according
to the most compendious mode of modern ‘greeking.’”
The famous double hanging of Jerry Crane and Mickey Free occurred in 1855. Jerry Crane, the
schoolmaster, murdered one of his pupils, a young girl named Susan Newnham. He was arrested in
Ringgold where the sheriff managed to get him away from a lynchmob and into the jail at Coloma.
When asked why he had killed the girl, he reportedly replied, “Because I loved her.” Mickey Free,
on the other hand, loved robbing Chinese camps as well as murdering lone miners. He was arrested
for killing a road house keeper; one of his gang turned state’s evidence against him. On the day
of the hangings, an estimated crowd of five thousand people turned out to watch the men swing.
Crane was first. Marching up the gallows’ steps, he sang a few verses he had written while in
jail. Free stood nearby waiting his turn, hat cocked over one eye, calmly tossing peanuts into
his mouth. He also attempted a bit of song when his turn came, but his courage broke, as did his
neck a few moments later.
In March of 1860, James Hannum killed Anthony Martin over a game of cribbage. In March of
1861, a group of white miners lost a claim to a company of Chinese miners by a court ruling.
After several hours of drinking at the bar in Bells store, they commenced to evict the Chinese
from the claim, after which they created “riotous proceedings” when they decided to run all the
Celestials completely out of town. The next day thirty-six of the rioters were arrested and fined
$200 each, many were forced to spend a good deal of time in the town jail until friends could
raise the money to pay the fines.
The gold gave out quickly at Coloma, and when the county seat was moved to Placerville in
1857, only a handful of Chinese miners remained to work the placers. The town became a place of
grapes; in fact, some of the county’s first vines are believed to have been planted near Coloma.
The History of El Dorado County describes the town in the 1880’s: “There is no hamlet in the
Sierras more serene and poetic; the air is perfectly ethereal, during the day mellow and golden,
during the night silver and purple. Then the moon rises over the hills, arraying orchards and
piney summits and quiet cottages with veils of silken radiance. Here may be heard yet the rattle
of the rockers, and perhaps close by the roar of the hydraulic pipe may fill the trum of your
ear. Here is still the old-time log cabin, where pork and beans with additional flap-jacks were
luxuries, alongside the elegant cottage, embowered in roses, surrounded by almond and peach
As the years went by, the town grew even quieter, overlooked by miners and history. It
finally regained some importance in 1890 when the Marshall Monument was erected and people began
visiting to see the place where it all began.
Today Coloma is a California State Park, for which visitors can be thankful. Many of the
historic buildings have been preserved and restored, thereby offering a glimpse of what the town
looked like during the days of gold. The park also contains an excellent museum, picnic grounds,
hiking trails, and an operating re-creation of Sutter’s Mill. And the South Fork of the American
River is only a gold pan’s throw away from anywhere in town, cold-blue, swift, and filled with
Visit Coloma's Historic Sites • Lodging