On January 24, 1848, James Marshall plucked a gold nugget out of the American River while helping John Sutter build his sawmill. So, was this the first gold strike that started the gold rush? Not exactly…
On March 9, 1842 at the San Feliciano tributary of Piru Creek, Francisco Lopez discovered gold, half a dozen years before gold was found at Sutter’s Mill. Lopez was a trained mineralogist, having studied mining at a university in Sonora, Mexico. Francisco Lopez leased land to run his cattle on Rancho San Francisco, a swath running 22 miles from what is now Valencia to Piru, not far from where Piru Creek empties into the Santa Clara River. Governor Juan B. Alvarado awarded the ranch to Antonio Seferino del Valle, a member of the family that owned the famed Rancho Camulos in Ventura County. The Del Valles were among the most prominent families in Southern California.
The story goes that while looking for stray cattle, Francisco decided to rest under an oak tree in Live Oak Canyon and have his lunch. He saw some wild onions growing nearby and as he pulled them out, he noticed gold flakes sticking to the roots. Lopez was joined by two friends in this discovery: Manuel Cota and Domingo Bermudez.
But was this what really happened? Historians claim that as a trained mineralogist, Lopez had heard of the possibility of gold in that creek and was systematically looking for it whenever he was in the area. While we’d like to believe the romanticized version, it’s unlikely that gold was found through just dumb luck by a simple rancher looking for stray cows, but rather a trained mineralogist. Hundreds of prospectors rushed into the area to try their luck. By 1847 it was almost mined out. Unfortunately, Francisco Lopez was not credited at the time with the discovery because he was Mexican and not American. So, while history continues to record the first gold strike at Sutter’s Mill, we now know the actual story. The importance of this moment in history is documented in the Museum of Ventura County’s mural, History Through the Trees, created by local artist, Ryan Carr, in 2016, at the Ventura museum site in downtown Ventura
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