In 1848, traveling and living conditions were rough and food was scarce, but thousands of people made their way to California in hopes of finding gold. Towns sprung up in the hills northeast of Sacramento with names like Rough & Ready, Last Chance and Happy Camp. Last Thursday, a bus left Live Oak Elementary School to travel 12 miles to the De Luz Ecology Center, taking 30 students back in time 162 years.
Like all fourth graders throughout the state each year, Miss Irwin’s class had been exploring California history. Since Sutter’s Mill, the site of the first discovery of gold, is too far north for a field trip, local students get to go to De Luz to experience a Gold Rush Days program tailored just for them by Scott Gordon, the center’s teacher.
Divided into three groups, the students perched excitedly on wooden benches in the old De Luz schoolhouse. Each group picked the name of one of the old mining camps, Hang Town, Angel Camp and Gold Hill. They learned what gold is used for (jewelry, coins, fillings in teeth and in electronic devices), the price of gold ($20 an ounce in 1848 and $1200 an ounce on June 3, 2010), and how to identify it (when biting on real gold, your tooth will leave a mark on it).
Each student started out with 10 small gold nuggets (painted pebbles) in a bag, with the goal of collecting as many additional rocks as possible in the group activities. In an exercise called “What’s our fate?” Gordon had each child pick a piece of paper from a bucket that detailed either a windfall or a misfortune, and sometimes both, that might have happened to a miner. If a windfall was picked, (i.e. you’re hired to sweep the saloon and find seven pieces of gold on the floor), the student received more nuggets to add to his or her bag. If a misfortune was chosen, (i.e. you ate a bad piece of meat and got sick), nuggets were taken away.
Next, Gordon reviewed the story of how gold was first discovered at Sutter’s Mill. I learned a few new details that I am sure weren’t part of the history lesson I had in grade school, especially the fact that John Sutter was a Swiss man who fled Europe to escape debtors prison.
After recess, Gordon explained why the miners were called Forty-niners when gold was first discovered in 1848 – people didn’t believe the news at first and when it was confirmed, it took a long time to travel to California from the East coast (three to five months over land or six to eight months by sea going around Cape Horn, South America).
Other activities that kept the students busy included constructing miniature shelters out of rocks, wood and grass. If their shelters did not blow over or leak too much water when tested with “wind” and “rain,” the builders were rewarded with more “gold.”
The students learned how to identify different kinds of minerals by their luster, color, hardness and physical properties. Something else I learned was that fingernails have a hardness rating of 2 (1 is soft and 10 is hard). A penny is rated a 3 and glass is 5.5 whereas gold is between 2.5 and 3. In teams of two or three, they earned more nuggets by correctly identifying the minerals in a timed match-up.
At lunch time, picnic tables under trees made a good shady spot to take a break and a nearby tether ball gave the kids a chance to burn some energy.
When the gold nuggets were all totaled up, the Hang Town team members had the most nuggets, so they were given the best spot at the creek to pan for gold. Gordon demonstrated the use of various tools that were used to sift gold from dirt and water including a cradle and a sluice box. He also showed diagrams of a creek and the spots where gold would most likely be found.
The students put on rubber boots and were led down to De Luz Creek, each carrying a green pan. They seemed to enjoy the whole experience but, judging by the excited voices on the trail, getting to wade into the creek to look for gold was the highlight of the field trip. A few small gold rocks were found but they were most likely painted. Despite the empty pans, it was a great field trip and one that I enjoyed observing.
This week is the last week of the school year for the De Luz Ecology Center, but its three miles of hiking trails on 120 acres are open all year round. The center is on De Luz Murrieta Road, which is off of De Luz Road, roughly 12 miles from West Mission Road, (head north on Pico Avenue which becomes De Luz Road, then turn west where Sandia Creek Drive continues north). A map of the trails can be found on the display area next to the old Post Office across the parking lot from the schoolhouse.
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