by Kathleen Scalise
A lump of almost pure gold residing at the Bancroft Library is believed to be the original nugget whose discovery launched the California goldrush one and a half centuries ago.
To mark the 150th anniversary of the famous gold find, the original nugget is once again center stage, this time for Bay Area schoolchildren
Fourth graders from Fruitvale Elementary School in Oakland visited campus Jan. 15 to see the nugget first hand and learn California history from Berkeley specialists. The Fruitvale students are among 450 children invited to view California historical treasures this month at the Bancroft Library, which holds what is likely the world's largest collection of original California documents and manuscripts.
Every child in the Golden State studies goldrush lore in fourth grade. Children learn that more than 80,000 people hurried to the then sleepy town of San Francisco in a single year, hastening statehood for California, and that nearly $2 billion in gold was ultimately taken from the earth. Even so, few Californians struck it rich in the boom. Wiser immigrants turned to farming and supplying miners with high-priced goods and ultimately settled Northern California.
The Fruitvale children received a tour of the materials from the Bancroft collection through a Berkeley program called the Interactive University. The Interactive University is the technology arm of the Berkeley Pledge, a program designed to enrich learning for disadvantaged youths from four Bay Area school districts. The Interactive University and its partners-40 campus departments; Oakland, San Francisco, Berkeley and West Contra Costa Unified School Districts; community groups and public libraries-have made available over the Internet more than 28,000 digital images and manuscripts online in the Bancroft's California Heritage Collection. The Heritage Collection is funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Fruitvale Elementary and many other schools in the Bay Area use the images in history lessons.
The Bancroft nugget was the first of several pieces of gold collected by James W. Marshall and Peter L. Wimmer, sawmill foreman at Sutter's Mill, along the American River at Coloma where gold was discovered on Jan. 24, 1848.
In documents accompanying the nugget, Wimmer's wife writes, "They picked up a nugget of metal and Mr. Wimmer sent it to the house to me by our son and I boiled it in a kettle of soap all day to test it to see if it was gold. It proved to be a nugget of gold. From that the mining began."
Marshall later presented Mrs. Wimmer with the nugget as a memento of the great discovery and she carried it in a leather bag around her neck for the next 40 years.
It later passed to San Francisco attorney W. W. Allen and Chicago collector Charles F. Gunther before the Bancroft acquired it in the 1950s and brought it back to California.