Coloma’s agricultural heritage traces its roots to the grit and determination of former slaves

 Special to the Democrat
By Jerrie Beard

Nancy Gooch and her husband Peter were a pioneer family in Coloma, settling in the area in 1850.
Courtesy photo

Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park

Black History Month is an annual observance in Canada, the United Kingdom, the United States. It began as a way for remembering important people and events in the history of the African diaspora.

The discovery of gold in the Coloma Valley in 1848 brought a flurry of humanity to the area. Among those who rushed in were African Americans; some came as slaves, some came as freemen, some came as runaway “fugitive” slaves. For these people, mining offered the possibility of swiftly purchasing freedom for themselves and their families. For those who remained in the area, their hopes of personal freedom were realized in 1850 when California entered the Union as a free state.

In 1849 William Gooch traveled to Coloma from Missouri bringing with him two African American slaves, Nancy and Peter Gooch. Left behind was Nancy’s 3-year old son Andrew, who would subsequently be sold to a family by the name of Monroe. As was the custom at that time, Andrew thereafter took the last name of Monroe.

Nancy and Peter Gooch gained their freedom in 1850 and became respected members of the community. Nancy took in laundry and mending for the miners and performed other domestic chores. Peter worked odd jobs and construction. Together they earned enough money to purchase 80 acres at the north end of town, which they cleared for farming.

The Gooch family land holdings eventually included 10 lots on both sides of Main Street in Coloma, running from above the schoolhouse to beyond the original site of Sutter’s Mill. They also owned several houses, and the 320-acre Four Corner Ranch. Photo courtesy of California State Parks.

Peter Gooch died in 1861. Nancy continued to farm the property and save her money with the hopes of purchasing the freedom of her son Andrew. By 1870 she had saved more than $700 (equivalent to $12,600 today) and had located her now grown son in Missouri. Andrew, who was married with two children of his own, was a free man working as a tenant farmer. With her savings Nancy was able to pay off Andrew’s debts and secure passage for the family to move to Coloma.

Through hard work and determination Nancy Gooch, whose love of her son never faded, was able to reunite with Andrew and his family. The family prospered in Coloma and continued to purchase property over the years. They added an orchard, family home and nearly 300 acres to the original 80-acre farmstead, and Andrew and his wife Sarah welcomed five additional children to the family.

The family land holdings eventually included 10 lots on both sides of Main Street running from above the schoolhouse to beyond the original site of Sutter’s Mill. They also owned several houses, and the 320-acre Four Corner Ranch. They farmed much of the land, growing vegetables, peaches, apples and pears, which they sold in Coloma and Placerville. Some of the fruit trees planted by the Monroe family still dot the Monroe Orchard at the north end of Coloma.

The couple’s oldest son, Pearly, is perhaps the best remembered member of the family. Pearly attended the one room schoolhouse in Coloma and was a student of the famed poet Edwin Markham. He left school at a young age to become a shepherd on a local ranch and later hired out with his father in the wheat fields in Sacramento. When James Marshall died in 1885, Pearly and his father Andrew, who had known Marshall, helped with the burial of the discoverer of gold.

Around the turn of the century, Pearly hired out to a widow in exchange for a 6-acre plot of land that included the original site of Sutter’s Mill. He dreamed of turning the site into a commercial park that would include a replica of the mill, a picnic area and campgrounds.

Anticipating the centennial of the discovery of gold, the state of California wanted the original mill site as a centerpiece for a state park and approached Pearly in 1939 hoping to purchase the property. The two parties could not agree on a sale price —Pearly asking $6,000, the state offering $2,000 — and so the state filed a condemnation suit against Pearly leaving the matter to the court. In May 1942, the state purchased the original mill site for $3,100, laying the foundation for Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park.
Over the next 20 years, the state purchased three more parcels of land from the Monroe family to add to the state park. The family originally owned approximately a third of the 285 acres that now comprise the park.

Pearly lived out his last days in Coloma and passed away in 1963 at the age of 95. In his will he left $125,000 to the NAACP and $2,500 to be distributed between 35 schoolchildren.