Our family spent many of our weekends this past spring and early summer visiting local history sites. Living in Northern California, we have an abundance of pioneer history as much of the early history of our state dates back to hundreds of thousands of pioneers coming out west to start a new life or to strike it rich with the gold rush. I’ve put together some enjoyable ways to learn more about the Gold Rush and the pioneers who came out west.
Historic Locations to Visit
We have an abundance of pioneer history sites in Northern California. I haven’t listed all of the places to visit–just the places I personally have been.
Image source: California State Parks (I can’t find the pics we took there)
John Sutter was a Swiss emigrant who established the first non-Native American settlement in California’s Central Valley in 1839, which he named Sutter’s Fort. One of the most interesting things my kids discovered in the Fort was Patty Reed’s doll. Patty Reed was a pioneer girl who crossed the country from Illinois to California with the Donner-Reed Party. After crossing the salt desert, most of the Reed’s oxen ran away crazy with thirst and the family had to walk. Patty couldn’t take any of her dolls, but she hid one small doll in her dress. Patty donated this doll to the Fort. Sutter’s Fort held a special place to Patty as that is where the survivors of the Donner-Reed party were taken after they were rescued. We found a great book we loved (see below) that was great to read aloud. Volunteers at the Fort our dressed in period clothing and it is fun to learn about the history of the Fort and its importance.
This is where the gold rush began! Explore Marshall Gold Discovery Center and learn more about the gold rush. It is a beautiful drive to Coloma and a fun area to explore. There also is great river rafting here, so if that is something that interests your family plan to also do some rafting!
We love this town! We have been many times and it is like stepping back in time. They have preserved all of main street and it is now a state park.
Check their website so you can visit on a day when they have volunteers dressed up in period costumes. They do parades and holiday celebrations throughout the year. You can take a stage coach ride (for a small fee) and get held-up by robbers.
The town has a theater that we would love to attend once our kids are a bit older.
They have an old fashion bowling alley.
You can pan for gold. There usually is a man playing a guitar and singing western songs and small children dancing along. There is a really great bakery in town that we always stop at for lunch. There are also a couple little shops. My husband always buys some sarsaparilla to take home with him here.
You can walk to the school house up the hill. It is in such a gorgeous setting. It would have been a beautiful place to go to school. I was told it is the oldest school in California.
The city airport is a short walk from town and every father’s day weekend they have a Father’s Day Fly-in and there is an airshow and you can also camp in the camping area right at the airport.
Sutter’s Creek is named after John Sutter. After first discovering gold in Coloma when they were up getting lumber there they then went to what is Sutter’s Creek to get lumber and again found gold! Sutter’s Creek is a charming town that is fun to walk on foot. There are lots of charming shops and historical sties within walking distance.
Make sure to visit Sutter’s Creek when the Knight’s Foundry is running. It usually is open once a month.
It is amazing to see all the conveyer belts moving and step back in time. It is amazing what they were able to build there for the mines.
Also, while in Sutter Creek check out the old school house.
We were told it is the second oldest school house in California. The first being in Columbia. I didn’t fact check that but that is what the volunteer told us. There is a swing set outside that my kids had fun swinging on.
There is an outdoor museum with all kinds of gold mining equipment and machinery you can walk around and look at and read about. We also drove to an old mine that you can’t tour but you can look at the outside of it.
We stopped twice for lunch in Amador City. It is a quaint little town with a cute bakery called Andrae’s that has delicious sandwiches and baked goods. There is outdoor seating right by a creek. Very charming.
In the spring, Daffodill Hill is a beautiful place to visit in Amador County. It isn’t related to gold mining but you could go and see the beautiful flowers on your way to see the golf mining sites. Make sure to check their website before going to make sure they are open and go early as the crowds are large!
Nevada City is a charming, well-preserved gold mining town. It is fun to walk around and there are a few historic spots to visit such as the old fire house museums, the old hotel, etc. There also is the Empire Mine nearby in Grass Valley that is neat to visit.
There also is a Renaissance Children’s Festival every July in town that is really neat.
Gold Bug Park in Placerville is another great stop. You can go explore a real mine. There also is a black smith shop and stamp mill. My kids love panning for gems. They also have a fun little gift shop. Sweetie Pie’s in Placerville is a good place to eat, especially breakfast. This would be a good stop on your way up to Coloma.
Folsom has a Pioneer Village with a black smith shop and panning for gold. Old Town Folsom is charming and has great shopping and restaurants. I love Karen’s Bakery if you are there for breakfast or lunch. Historic Folsom is right on the American River and you can rent kayak’s nearby or bikes to explore the wonderful trails.
Books to Learn More
Books are also a great way to explore history. One that my kids and I really enjoyed was Patty Reed’s Doll: The Story of the Donner Party by Rachel Kelley Laurgaard. We saw the book at Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento and the exhibit of Patty’s Reed’s doll was our favorite at the site so we decided to get the book and read the “doll’s” full story.
Rachel Kelley Laurgaard wrote the book about the Donner-Reed Party and the book is told from the point-of-view of Patty Reed’s doll. I read this to my older kids and we really enjoyed learning about the pioneers and what their journey was like. The book doesn’t go into great detail but gives just enough for young children. It does not mentioned the cannibalism that occurred with the Donners since that didn’t occur with the Reed Family.
Digital Learning to Learn More
Computer Game: The Oregon Trail
This classic computer game The Oregon Trail is still around. I grew up playing this and I love that my kids can also enjoy playing it. They’ve made improvements to it since I was a kid. We purchased this and my 10 year old loves to play it. He still hasn’t made it to Sacramento. He is learning what provisions to take and the perils that come to traveling across the country with limited supplies. We had to make a few adjustments to get it to work (read the q&a and someone give instructions there) with Windows 10 but we were glad to get it to work as the game hasn’t been revised in over 10 years.
Here are the instructions if you have Windows 10 from a user named 46and2 on Amazon:
- first make a folder called ot5 on your hard drive C:\ot5
then from the Oregon trail cd copy folders (HD and data) to ot5 folder on the hard drive.
then go to HD folder and then win folder there you will find Oregon5.ini, click on that and use notepad with it
3. then do this
4. save and exit
5. Then go back to data copy the oregon5.eng then go back to hd folder then Win folder and paste it there and it should work on Windows 10
There are lots of great movie clips about the gold rush and the Oregon Trail. This is a good Youtube video that also talks about the Oregon Trail that is really informative information.
I love California’s rich history and have loved exploring and learning with my family. I hope you do, too!