James Marshall is enshrined in California history as the man who discovered gold at Sutter’s Mill, but the name Jennie Wimmer should be equally well known.
In January 1848, while constructing a lumber mill to supply timber for Sutter’s Fort, James Marshall spotted a shiny piece of metal in the canal underneath the mill.
Having never seen raw gold before, Marshall was unsure if it was actually gold. He knew the only person who had seen raw gold in the field before was the camp’s only woman: Jennie Wimmer.
Before coming to California and the gold fields of Georgia
In 1838, Wimmer – then named Elizabeth Jane Cloud – and her family arrived in Auraria, Georgia, to start a new life in the gold fields of the south.
Wimmer and her mother tended a boarding house for miners, while her father and brother mined.
During her free time Wimmer would journey out to the fields to prospect. She developed an eye for spotting gold-bearing ore.
There are little-to-no records of the success the family had in gold mining.
Leaving Georgia and heading for California
Wimmer only stayed in Georgia for a few years. In 1840 she and her husband Obadiah Baiz immigrated to Missouri in the hopes of being farmers.
However, while crossing the rain-swollen Mississippi, Wimmer was knocked into the river when a log struck the side of the plank ferry. Wimmer managed to survive by grabbing the tail of an ox that was struggling ashore.
Upon arriving in Missouri they found Peter and Polly Harlan Wimmer as their new neighbors. However, in 1843 both Polly Wimmer and Obadiah died of what is believed to be cholera.
Peter and Jennie married the following year and joined together their combined seven children into one family.
In 1846, the Wimmer family headed west to California and arrived at Sutter’s Fort on Nov. 15, 1846, only a few days before the fateful Donner Party would be trapped in the Sierra Nevada.
Jennie remained at Sutter’s Fort with the younger of the seven children as Peter and his older sons enlisted to fight in the Mexican-American War.
During that time Wimmer laid one of her children to rest, which was the first child to be buried in the new cemetery at Sutter’s Fort. Peter returned from the war early after a serious injury.
Peter was hired by John Sutter to manage the Native Americans digging the mill race and to assist James Marshall in the overall construction of the mill.
Jennie and the rest of the Wimmer family moved up with Peter, where Jennie served as the camp cook.
One day Jennie was making lye soap in a boiling pot, which contained caustic potassium carbonate, when one of her sons came up to her with the piece of gold discovered by Marshall.
“I said, ‘This is gold, and I will throw it into my lye kettle, and if it is gold, it will be gold when it comes out,'” Wimmer told the San Francisco Bulletin in an 1874 interview.
The next day after making her soap, Wimmer scooped out the remaining sediment at the bottom of the pot and found the gold was unchanged.
Marshall took the gold to Sutter’s Fort where Captain Sutter placed the piece of gold under several other tests that validated Wimmer’s conclusion.
The Wimmer family left Coloma shortly after the discovery of gold. Jennie Wimmer is believed to have died shortly after 1885 and is buried in a pioneer cemetery in San Diego.
The tale of the Wimmer Nugget and its return to Coloma
After John Sutter concluded his test on the gold nugget, he returned it to James Marshall who brought it back to Wimmer. She would wear it in a pouch around her neck for the next 40 years.
The nugget was bought and sold several times before it finally found a home at the Bancroft Museum at the University of California.
The Smithsonian also had a gold nugget that they claimed was the nugget discovered by James Marshall in January 1848, but documentation and information sent to the renowned museum from Bertram Hughes, a descendent of Wimmer, caused the Smithsonian to change their description to “one of the first” gold nuggets.
On Jan. 8, 1999, California’s Gold episode 1005 saw the now-known Wimmer Nugget return to Coloma for the first time in 150 years and the story of Jennie Wimmer was re-enacted.
Several descendants of Jennie and Peter Wimmer were also at the historic day and were momentarily able to hold the historic gold nugget.