The year 1849 changed the course of American history. Flocks of people rushed to California seeking their fortune in gold. The impact that this gold fever had on the country holds important lessons that appear in most history curriculums. Incorporate hands-on activities to give your students an up close and personal look at what life was like in 1849 California.
Go for the Gold
Finding gold was the primary objective, and younger children will enjoy a chance to pan for gold like people did back then. Ahead of time, spray paint several small pebbles gold, making sure to have enough for each student. Fill a sensory table with water, sand and the spray painted pebbles. Give two or three students at a time aluminum pie plates and show them how to scoop up some of the sand, shaking the pan to reveal the gold. Add some math to the lesson by having the students compare the sizes of the gold nuggets. Do the same lesson with older students, but don't put enough gold in the table for everyone. This will help teach them that not everyone was successful at finding gold.
Go Back in Time
Ask older students to take on the character of someone famous from the Gold Rush days, such as Alfred Doten, Hiram Pierce, James Marshall or John Studebaker. Once the children have researched their person, ask them to write a paragraph or two about what it would have been like to be that person. Younger children can pretend to be average citizens heading west in search of gold. One student might pretend to be a child going west with his parents, while another might pretend to be someone disappointed she didn't find any gold. Students of all ages can do crafts, cooking and other hands-on projects that teach them more about what life was like during the Gold Rush. Students might make hardtack, a type of biscuit travelers ate on the trail, or make dioramas of a gold mining town.
Become a Geographer
Younger students can color maps of Gold Rush areas or trace the trails that travelers took on their way west to learn more about where the rush took place. Older students can choose one of the routes, plot it on a map and then write a description of why they would choose that route over the others. This will teach them about the hardships, such as adverse weather and illness, that many people faced. Older students might also pretend to be on the trail and write letters to loved ones back home about the geography and landmarks they see along the way. Plotting areas where gold was found or making topographical maps of California out of clay are additional geography activities appropriate for upper elementary and middle school students.
Read a Good Book
Children of all ages can learn a great deal about the Gold Rush by reading books. In addition to informative text, some books also include pictures of famous people from the era, as well as images of gold mines and gold mining equipment. "Gold Fever," by Verla Kay, tells of Jasper, a farmer lured west to find gold, and is appropriate for younger elementary students. "Gold Fever! Tales from the California Gold Rush," by Rosalyn Schanzer, is for upper elementary students. It describes what miners ate, what they wore, how they struggled and what they did for fun. "How to Get Rich in the California Gold Rush," by Tod Olson, is written from the point of view of a prospector, and includes real historical images, as well as posters and postcards from Gold Rush days.
- PBS.org: The Gold Rush: Teacher's Guide: Suggestions for Active Learning
- California History for Kids; Katy S. Duffield
- California State University: The Gold Rush - What Was It Like? 4th Grade
- Gold Fever; Verla Kay
- Gold Fever Tales from the California Gold Rush; Rosalyn Schanzer
- How to Get Rich in the California Gold Rush; Tod Olson
- Robert Kacpura/iStock/Getty Images