Parenting is a Journey
An Adventure of Discovery Not Only of our Children But of Ourselves as Well
By Haley Reen
Getting your kids a visceral taste of the Gold Rush isn’t as difficult as you may think. Less than a three-hour drive from Oakland lies Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, the very spot where James Marshall knelt and picked up a hunk of gold, starting the whole stampede West to find more of it. The state parks website calls it “one of the most significant historic sites in the nation” — and it’s worth a day trip or even staying overnight.
German-born Swiss pioneer Johann Suter, later called John Sutter, started this sawmill on the South Fork of the American River. He arrived when California was a Mexican province and established a fort in present-day Sacramento (more on that later). He created the Coloma sawmill to process lumber to build a city near the fort. One day, Sutter’s employee James Marshall was looking at the tailrace where water emerged from the waterwheel and saw a glint of gold. He and Sutter pored over books to determine whether the chunk he picked up was truly gold, and they tried to keep the discovery quiet. Sam Brannan, however, the man who founded San Francisco’s first newspaper, enjoyed dispensing news — he was gleeful when shoppers at his store paid with real flakes of gold. He inquired the source and promptly spread the word. He is said to have literally run up and down the streets of San Francisco (perhaps even the street today named for him) shouting, “Gold! Gold on the American River!” Ironically, he was unable to publish the news in his California Star because all his employees bolted for the gold fields.
Today’s sawmill is an operational replica; you can see preserved timbers from the original at the Coloma site. At the Marshall Gold Discovery State Park, check out the wonderful, small museum that shows how the gold discovery impacted Native American tribes in the area, and visit many restored buildings that help interpret the past. Often, the blacksmith foundry is running and you can watch the sparks fly and maybe get a ring made from a square nail. The old county jail ruins are interesting, as are the two Chinese stores that survived racist looting and destruction of Coloma’s Chinatown, and even an 1880 fire.
Pan for gold or jump into the river on a raft or kayak. Best of all may be wading into the cold river, imagining the men standing there for hours trying to find that tell-tale glint.
On the second Saturday of every month, there is a Living History program with costumed interpreters displaying old-time crafts and inviting your participation: want to learn how to dip candles or saw a log? Besides this monthly fun, October 12-15 is “Coloma Gold Rush Live.”
Stretch your legs by finding the statue of James Marshall, erected over his grave in 1889. From the mill site, follow the trail marked “Marshall Monument,” which provides a nice, steep hike of 1.5 miles to see the statue.
For more information, visit the official Marshall Gold Discovery website at http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=484. To sign up for the free fourth-grader state park pass (which covers everyone who can fit in the car with the student), visit https://www.everykidinapark.gov/
On your drive back to the Bay Area, spend an hour or two at Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento. Built in 1839 by Sutter, this waystation provided respite for wagon train emigrants exhausted from the push over the Sierra (including the survivors of the Donner Party disaster). The rebuilt adobe structure, abandoned when the Gold Rush began, sports walls 2.5 feet thick and 15 feet high. It’s now a state historic park. Sutter’s treatment of the Native Americans he pressed into service at the fort makes for an important teachable moment for older kids. Check the website for living history events that might make a longer stay profitable.
For kids deeply interested in history and eager to have an immersive experience, the Sutter’s Fort Trappers Camp gives them a week of “living” at an 1840s fur-trapping camp, in either Red Bluff or Colusa. If a week is too long, the 24-hour Environmental Living Program may be more attractive; it’s for elementary-age students and includes an overnight stay at the fort. Circling back to Coloma, students can participate in the “California Gold Rush Adventure” offered through Coloma Outdoor Discovery School — in fact, many Bay Area schools bus fourth-graders up for this program. You can choose a one-, two-, three- or four-day experience of learning Gold Rush history, culture, music and ecology, including meals and overnight accommodation.
To learn about the fort, visit https://www.suttersfort.org/
For more on the week-long camp, visit https://www.suttersfort.org/explore-and-learn/trapper-s-camp.
For the overnight at the fort, visit https://www.suttersfort.org/explore-and-learn/environmental-living-program-elp.
For the Gold Rush adventure at Coloma, visit https://cods.org/program/gold-rush.html.