The Strange History of the Oliver Martin Nugget

Grizzly Mountain gold mine

The largest piece of solid gold ever found in America was discovered on Nov. 18, 1854, in central California, and was named the Oliver Martin nugget, for the hapless prospector who uncovered the nugget under the most peculiar circumstances.

Oliver Martin was a young vagabond with a fondness for whiskey who drank and brawled his way across the gold fields of California in search of fast and easy money, which he never seemed to find. As a prospector, Martin was a lost cause-- he didn't even own a gold pan, much less a pick and a sluice box-- and he had a companion named Fowler who, by all accounts, was every bit as shiftless as Oliver.

In November the pair set out for Camp Corona in Tuolumne County, departing from Benton's Bar and crossing the Grizzly Mountains. A heavy rain began to fall, causing streams to overflow their banks, and the two men sought shelter inside an abandoned miner's shack. They entertained themselves with heavy drinking until they passed out, oblivious to the fact their cabin was being filled up with water that was pouring down the mountainside.

They woke up just as the water threatened to cover their heads, and attempted to save themselves by climbing up the steep walls of the canyon, but the deluge was so strong the two men were swept away by the rushing water. The flood carried Martin and Fowler deep into the canyon, and when the flash flooding had subsided, Oliver Martin discovered that his companion had drowned.

The following day Martin borrowed a pick and shovel to bury his dead friend. When he returned to the spot where Fowler's body lay, he began to dig in the gravel. Two feet beneath the surface his pick struck a solid object-- an enormous chunk of gold speckled with pink quartz. The nugget was the size of a cow's head.

Martin, suppressing his emotions, covered up the nugget, marked the spot and buried Fowler a safe distance away. He then went and staked a claim on the site. However, when he returned to his nugget several hours later, he found that he was too weak and ill to move it. Reluctantly, he called on a miner at Camp Corona for help. They dug out the nugget, which weighed 151 pounds and 6 ounces (of which 80 pounds were pure gold), and returned to town to report the news.

Naturally, a gold rush ensued, and even though every inch of the claim was sifted, panned and churned, no other gold was found in the area.

Amazingly, Martin didn't succumb to his sudden wealth as some might expect. On the contrary, he considered it a divine blessing, and so he quit drinking and gambling and became a serious businessman after receiving $18,000 from his massive nugget.  Using this cash as stake money, he set out for Central America and started a successful mining company in the Yucatan. By the time he passed away in New Orleans several years later, he had amassed a fortune that would've amounted to several millions of dollars in today's money.

As for the Oliver Martin nugget, replicas were cast in bronze and displayed in museums all over the world, while the original was displayed in New York, Paris and London, earning thousands of dollars through its exhibition. It was later melted into bullion in Philadelphia in 1860, earning its new owner $22,270.

Sadly, few photographs of the original nugget remain, but the story of how one reckless ne'er-do-well found salvation by burying the body of his best friend remains one of the most famous stories in the world of gold prospecting.