In January, 1869, Coleman, an African-American cattle rancher who was married to a Native-American woman, stopped by a creek so his horse could drink some water. The story goes that he spied some yellow flecks in the water and, having spent some time mining in northern California, studied them closer and discovered gold. The discovery led to a mini gold rush in the area and the founding of the mountain town by Drue Bailey and his cousin Mike Julian, former Confederate soldiers.
These days, Julian is known more for apple pies than gold, but Coleman’s discovery of the precious metal helped lure people to the area; rich soil made some of them stay even after the gold was mined.
For whatever reason, Coleman’s story is incomplete. There are reports that he was a former slave, but David Lewis, the president of the Julian Pioneer Museum, says his own research has been inconclusive.
“We don’t know if he was a slave for sure, but he was born in Kentucky, so it could be likely,” Lewis says. “There are suspicions he was a runaway slave. However, members of his family say he was actually Portuguese.”
Considering that many miners were former Confederate soldiers, it’s reasonable to expect some racial tensions, but Lewis can’t find much evidence of that.
“There were only three or four African Americans in Julian,” Lewis says.
On this short list were Albert and Margaret Tull Robinson, who, in the 1890s, started the “Robinson Restaurant and Bakery,” which is now the Julian Gold Rush Hotel; and America Newton, a former slave whose laundry business (washing clothes for the miners) developed into an 80-acre homestead.
The gold rush that was started by Coleman’s discovery in the creek that now bears his name was short-lived, lasting only 10 years. During that period, about $5 million in gold was removed (about $87 million in today’s dollars), but there’s not much evidence Coleman made a big profit from it.
“I think the claim he found ran out quick,” Lewis says.
Coleman had 10 kids with his wife, and their descendants still live in the area. There’s a Coleman Circle in Julian named after him; Coleman Creek is reportedly overrun by brambles and trees and hidden from view.
The discovery of gold played a big role in Julian’s history, but Lewis says it may not have been Coleman’s most significant contribution.
“He actually built the first useable road in the area,” Lewis says. “It was a wagon trail connecting Santa Ysabel with Julian, and he built it with Native American help. It’s interesting that a black man, right after the Civil War, was able to get a government contract to build a road.”
What a Rush
There’s gold in them thar hills
Julian’s wasn’t the only gold rush to make an impact on the region. In 1889, a Mexican man named Bacilio Padilla discovered the precious metal in Baja’s Santa Clara Mountains, where a mini-rush lasting less than a month lured more than 5,000 prospectors. The local impact? Many San Diegans followed the road to potential riches; others stayed behind to sell items to those making the journey south. As many as 300 prospectors passed through San Diego each day, giving at least a minor boost to an economy that had been faltering since the decline of the broader California gold rush.
Golden Age of Television
Cable’s treasure trove of prospecting programs
Gold Rush - Discovery Channel
Miners labor in the bitter cold, cutting through permafrost and moving mountains with giant bulldozers in search of Alaskan gold. Comedian Joel McHale often spoofs the show’s reference to “glory holes” on E! Entertainment Television’s hit weekly series The Soup.
Jungle Gold - Discovery Channel
Two desperate gringos leave their loved ones behind in the U.S. as they head to Ghana, Africa, in search of gold to pay off their mounting bills and upside-down mortgages back home.
Bering Sea Gold - Discovery Channel
Armed with a powerful vacuum hose, optimistic divers plunge to the depths of the Bering Sea to suck up “pay-gravel,” which they filter to find gold. Tension rises beneath the ice amid the threat of killer whales and pesky walruses.
Alaska Gold Mining - National Geographic
A six-pack of Oregonian patriots hit hard by the recession head north to pan rivers and mine the hills for riches.
The Goldfathers - National Geographic
An eclectic group of nugget seekers have 100 days to unearth the mother lode before the Alaskan ground re-freezes, trapping the gold beneath it.
Prospecting America - Outdoor Channel
Outdoor Channel founder Perry Massie travels across the country, sharing his knowledge of gold prospecting so viewers can catch the fever, too.
America’s Finest wasn’t America’s minest
Neither the discovery of gold in Julian nor the famed California Gold Rush did much to boost the population of San Diego. To the contrary, according to an essay on file with the San Diego History Center, 10 years after the historic 1849 rush, only 727 people lived in the city - and 268 of those were Native Americans. It wasn’t until 1885, when the first railroad to reach San Diego was built, that anyone made this fine city a destination. Two years later, the county’s population jumped to 40,000. The rest, they say, is history.