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Beyond Discovery Day

‘Cultures of Coloma’ part of yearlong look at Gold Rush diversity
By: Gus Thomson, Reporter/Columnist
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Every California schoolkid knows the story of how James Marshall discovered gold at Coloma.

The 170th anniversary of the discovery is Jan. 24 and the James Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park in Coloma will be holding its annual commemoration on Saturday.

But what about the times and the people who came before Marshall and the horde of gold seekers starting in early 1848?

State Parks is making sure those people who populated the Coloma Valley for thousands of years are not forgotten and they’re teaming with members of the El Dorado County Indigenous Tribe to help bring that history to life.

Also, James Marshall re-enactor Ed Allen will be on hand to weave not only the gold discoverer’s positive interactions with Coloma Valley Indians into the story line — but also talk of tragedy that came with a clash of cultures.

Saturday’s exploration of cultures starts at 11 a.m. in the park museum with a lecture by Allen, a docent at the park who has taken on the role of James Marshall for the past 13 years. He will be looking at the Indian experience and other ethnic groups in a lecture that delves into the many “Cultures of Coloma.”

Dressed in full costume, Allen inhabits the image of a historic figure with a “live-let live” personality whose understated interactions with people worked well with Indians.

“He got along real well with them actually,” Allen said.

But the clash of one civilization bumping up against another had a dark side of prejudice that Allen will also delve into during an hour-long talk.

“When seven Native Americans were murdered by Oregon Territory miners, Marshall tried to protect them and was threatened with death himself,” Allen said. “He broke free and was able to survive.”

With no government in the area until 1851, some of the rampaging miners were brought to justice and some weren’t, Allen said.

He compares the Gold Rush years to the 1960s novel “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding  — a book that crash lands schoolboys on a deserted island, resulting in a breakdown in the civilized order and murder.

“The average age here was 22 and some of them went feral,” Allen said. With alcohol added and the civilizing steadiness of a female population basically absent, it was a recipe for serious problems, he said.

Moving away from the dark side of the Gold Rush, the heritage of the Coloma Valley Indians will be celebrated Saturday.

Visitors can walk to a bark house at the park and grinding rock exhibits before watching a granary — called a chakka by Indians — used to store acorns in operation.

After visiting the indigenous peoples, visitors can visit the Sutter’s Mill reproduction and talk with Allen, in James Marshall character. Park docents will also be present to explain routes and types of transportation used by the first emigrants to California, as well as share gold-panning techniques used in the early days of the Gold Rush.

In addition to the living history activities, park visitors can celebrate the reopening at noon of the park’s research library housed in the back of the museum. There will be refreshments and a tour of the library.

The event is the starting point for a year of exploration of diverse peoples and cultures found in Coloma before, during and after the Gold Rush. On the second Saturday of each month in 2018, during the park’s monthly living history event, a different cultural group will be explored. In October, all cultures are to come together in the melting pot of Coloma Gold Rush Live, the park’s annual four-day living history event.