SACRAMENTO – The capital city's ties to the Gold Rush are everywhere, from the historical old town where fortune-seekers arrived on the Sacramento River to Sutter's Fort, where costumed actors recreate the Wild West for schoolchildren.
It was at that fort, just two miles west of the state Capitol, that Swiss explorer Johann Sutter set it all in motion when he built his adobe trading post in 1839 on land that was then Mexican territory.
What remains of the fort is now a state historical site that encompasses just one square city block. It is perched one block from a freeway and is surrounded on all sides by modern city life, including a hospital, restaurants and homes.
Underneath an intersection next to the fort, however, archaeologists said Thursday that they found another piece of the city's, and California's, history: human remains they believe date to the Gold Rush era.
A skeleton, with shreds of "Western-style clothing" still identifiable, was found inside a deteriorating wooden coffin by construction workers who are plowing underground to build a new medical facility.
Workers using a back hoe last week struck a sliver of wood on the side of a coffin and an eagle-eyed archaeological researcher standing by just in case spotted a row of nails.
"One more swipe and that thing would have been gone," said Kim Tremaine, principal archaeologist with Tremaine & Associates. The firm was contracted by Sutter Medical Center at the start of its construction project because of the site's historical importance.
Tremaine and hospital officials announced the find at a press conference, where they also displayed some of the interesting but more pedestrian items they have unearthed, including a worn, fist-sized cannonball and an array of multicolored glass bottles.
Since the discovery of the human remains, ground-penetrating radar has indicated more "anomalies" underneath the asphalt, indicating there were likely more bodies in what Tremaine said could be an unmarked cemetery.
She said archaeologists will do more excavation at the site to try to find more remains and artifacts.
She believes the remains found last week are those of a young man who probably died sometime between 1839 and 1849, when the rush for gold got into full swing after it was discovered at Sutter's mill about 30 miles to the east.
The remains are being studied in Tremaine's laboratory. Researchers hope to discover more about the area's early settlers' lifestyle, eating habits and health — "a slice of what their life and times were," Tremaine said.
Within months of the discovery of gold at Sutter's lumber mill in Coloma in 1848, thousands of gold-seekers from around the globe converged on Northern California. Some historians call it the greatest human migration in American history.
California became an American state in 1850 and Sacramento its capital four years later.
Larry Maas, an assistant administrator at Sutter Medical Center, said the discovery is not expected to delay construction, which is slated to be completed in 2010. But he said the hospital, which is also named for the historical site, wants to ensure that any artifacts are carefully preserved.
"This is a very busy intersection, not an appropriate site for anybody to be buried," Maas said.