From Greenhorns to Sourdoughs

Last week I joined almost 90 fourth graders on a pilgrimage to the place that changed the state of California forever: Coloma.

In January 1848, James Marshall discovered gold in the tailrace of Sutter’s Mill on the South Fork of the American River. There is much dispute about these facts but the effects can not be disputed. The discover of gold in Coloma set off the largest migration in human history. People from across the globe flocked to this quiet valley, displacing the native people and altering the landscape. Now, in the Spring of 2015, the town of Coloma is flooded with nine and ten year olds, with their makeshift gold pans and their unquenchable desire to see the glint of gold in their pans.

For my school, this is the highlight of their fourth grade year. An adventure that lingers long in the mind and also creates students that are stronger, more independent, and resilient by the time they recross the American River on the 1915 Coloma Bridge for the final time. The true gold that they find are not the tiny flecks of gold, swishing in the bottom of their gold pans but the transformational journey they have taken over the course of three days. The journey from Greenhorn to Sourdough.

This is the field trip where I really see my students shine. They have been on a journey of joy, scrapped knees, and tears. Along the way, they have lived the life of a gold miner, felt a connection with the earth, danced the Virginia Reel, and conquered many of their fears. A journey that has all the highs and lows of a tide chart and they somehow come out the other end changed in some way.  This metamorphosis is symbolized and celebrated in a ceremony on the banks of the South Fork of the American River. In the ceremony, they dip their gold pouches in the waters of the famed American River, just upstream from the site of Sutter’s Mill, and when they put their pouches back around their necks, they have become experienced Sourdoughs.

While the Greenhorns were dipping their pouches in the waters, I walked out to a rock that faced downstream, filled a cup with American River water and made a quick sketch of the scene to capture the mood and moment.


Corvidsketcher dipping his own gold pouch into the waters of the South Fork of the American River on his first journey to Coloma in May of 2014, almost 166 years after gold was discovered just downstream.

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