The First Gold Was Discovered in Placerita on Mar. 9, 1842 

A group of young women use frying pans to pan for gold in Placerita Canyon in 1934. PHOTO CREDIT Associated Press Photo | From New York.
A group of young women use frying pans to pan for gold in Placerita Canyon in 1934. PHOTO CREDIT Associated Press Photo | From New York.
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Sutter’s Mill wasn’t until Jan. 24, 1848.

On the grounds of Placerita Canyon Natural Area and Nature Center is one of the Santa Clarita Valley’s most historic sites, the Oak of the Golden Dream. 

This ancient gnarled coast live oak, which may be over 500 years old, is considered the site of the first documented discovery of gold in California. 

Despite the common misconception that gold was first discovered in California at Sutter’s Mill in Northern California on Jan. 24, 1848 when James W. Marshall discovered gold on the property of Johann A. Sutter, historical records reveal Francisco Lopez made the “first” historic discovery of California gold in what is now Placerita Canyon.  

The gold found in the SCV is called “placer gold,” a term used for gold that has eroded from hard rock veins and washed down a creek/riverbed, broken up and is often just small grains or dust. 

The name Placerita Canyon is derived from the term “placer.” 

The Golden Discovery 

Ron Kraus, a docent at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center, said the oft-told tale of how gold was discovered in the SCV is a “charming” story. 

“Did Betsy Ross really sew the first American flag? Did George Washington really chop down a cherry tree? The story of how Lopez found the gold has been told for generations. It’s a legend, a story, but the facts are that gold was discovered in Placerita Canyon in 1842 and there is documentation,” he said.  

There are many variations to the story of when and how Lopez discovered gold.  

The most common version of the tale recounts that one day when Lopez was rounding up stray horses (or was it cows and sheep?) he stopped in what was then known as San Feliciano Canyon to take an afternoon siesta.  

After eating lunch (or not) he rested under an oak tree and had a dream he was floating in a pool of gold.  

When he awakens, he sees a wild onion growing in the dirt along the nearby creek. He takes out a knife and pulls the onion out of the ground. (Or did he gather the wild onions to bring back to the hacienda kitchen at the request of his wife?) Clinging to the roots of the onion are small nuggets of gold. (Or was the gold discovered in the kitchen after he had brought the onions home?) 

Lopez then took the gold to Los Angeles to assay. 

Did he pull the onion from under the tree or alongside the creek? Was he hungry when he awoke from his dream? Did he want the onion to add to his lunch meal? The exact truth of the story is lost to time, but whatever the real story might have been the discovery was made at least six years before the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill. 

According to family lore Lopez was a trained mineralogist who had studied mining and French at university in Sonora, Mexico.  

Was the discovery merely a fortuitous accident, or was Lopez actively searching for gold after learning of possible earlier discoveries in the area? 

SCV Mini Gold Rush 

Word of the discovery triggered a small gold rush in Placerita Canyon. Kraus said Lopez benefited greatly from the discovery, charging miners for the privilege of looking for gold on the land.  

Gold mining occurred throughout the SCV and the San Gabriel Mountains until the beginning of WWII.  

Kraus said gold seekers still comb the riverbanks of the Santa Clara River in the SCV after rainstorms looking for gold that may have washed down from the mountains. 

“It is against state law to prospect for gold in Placerita Canyon State Park Natural Area,” he said. 

Google It 

If you Google “Where was gold first discovered in California” the first few answers refer to Sutter’s Mill. However, the third listing “The real story of California’s first gold discovery” under a link to SCV History in Pictures is penned by SCV historian Leon Worden and confirms the documented reports of Lopez’s Placerita Canyon gold discovery.  

Of more interest is Worden’s update to the article that includes information indicating gold may have been discovered near Castaic in 1820 or earlier. 

Read the article at scvhistory.com/scvhistory/signal/worden/lw012496.htm 

Kraus said one reason the SCV gold discovery may not have received the attention it deserved was because in 1842 California was still in the hands of Mexico. It was not until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848 that California became a part of the United States. California became a state Sept 9, 1950.  

The 1848 Sutter’s Mill discovery was reported extensively in newspapers on the East Coast after California was official part of the U.S. and where it captured the imagination of fortune seekers.  

Oak of the Golden Dream Dedication 

Is it really the same tree that Lopez napped under and dreamed of gold? 

We will never know. The Oak of the Golden Dream was dedicated on March 9, 1930, 88 years after Lopez first discovered gold. 

Adolfo G. Rivera, described as a “historical society leader” determined the tree that would hence be known as “The Oak of the Golden Dream.” 

He made that judgment based on the memories of a Lopez descendant. 

A description of the dedication ceremony from correspondence among the event organizers reads: 

A description of the dedication ceremony from correspondence among the event organizers reads: 

“The Historical-landmarks committee of Ramona Parlor 109, Native Sons of the Golden West, the Kiwanis Club and Chamber of Commerce of Newhall-Saugus, and La Mesa Club, will unveil a temporary tablet, over a mound of granite boulders unearthed in Placeritos canyon by Mr. F.E. Walker, after being covered by brush and debris for 75 years, marking the spot where gold was first discovered in California on March 9th, 1842, by Francisco Lopez, a native Californian.”Lopez, a native Californian.” 

The Oak Today 

Kraus said the oak is still thriving despite concerns for its age.  

“The county has put in a fence around the tree that keeps people from walking on its root system which is harmful to oaks,” he said.  

The Oak of the Golden Dream was registered as a state historical landmark on March 6, 1935.  

This year marks the 182nd anniversary of the first “documented” discovery of gold in the SCV. 

For more information about the Oak of the Golden Dream and the discovery of gold in the Santa Clarita Valley visit scvhistory.com or view this video https://scvtv.com/2016/07/06/dissecting-the-dream-fact-fiction-and-placeritas-golden-oak/. Visit placerita.org for more information about programs at Placerita Canyon Nature Center, 19152 Placerita Canyon Road, Newhall  91321,

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