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Striking It Rich!

by Becky Jones
University of Idaho

Grade: 5th
Time Allotment: 5 class periods.

Subject Matter: History; Language Arts; Science; Fine Arts; Technology; Math; Geography; Geology

           In this lesson, students will learn about the California Gold Rush. They will explore the lure of gold and the Wild West, how pioneers traveled to the West, and the hardships and people they encountered along the way. Activities will be authentic, hands-on, and inquiry-based. There will be a variety of activities that will make the Gold Rush come alive for the students.

           In 1848, James Marshall discovered gold at Sutter's Mill in northern California. John Sutter was one of only a few hundred people living in California at the time, and had big plans to become wealthy off of his mill. He had thousands of cattle and a lot of employees. James Marshall was sent by Sutter to a place about fifty miles northeast of Sutter's fort to build a mill on the American River. This was where Marshall first saw the glitter of what he thought might be gold. Not wanting to disrupt the building of his sawmill, Marshall continued working, but kept stumbling upon more and more gold. Finally, he took it back to Sutter's Mill to be tested and they found that it was, indeed, gold. The Gold Rush did not immediately follow, though. Neither Sutter, nor Marshall wanted news to get out-Sutter did not want competition for the wealth of the area, and Marshall had plans of his own. Soon, though, Sam Brannan, a San Francisco merchant, found out about the gold discovery and spread the word and the hype. In 1849, thousands of people headed out west to strike it rich, changing America forever.

Learning Objectives:
Students will be able to:

  1. list and describe various reasons the discovery of gold and moving out west was alluring to Americans.
  2. describe different forms of transportation in getting out west.
  3. describe several different routes the pioneers took to reach the west.
  4. describe some Native groups encountered by the pioneers.
  5. describe various hardships of traveling during and participating in the Gold Rush.
  6. describe various effects the Gold Rush had on the future of the United States.

National Standards (found in Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies, printed by the National Council for the Social Studies)

  • Strand II: Time, Continuity, and Change: Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of the ways human beings view themselves in and over time.
    c. Identify and describe selected historical periods and patterns of change within and across cultures, such as the rise of civilizations, the development of transportation systems, the growth and breakdown of colonial systems, and others.
    e. Develop critical sensitivities such as empathy and skepticism regarding attitudes, values, and behaviors of people in different historical contexts.
  • Strand III: People, Places, and Environment: Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of people, places, and environments.
    h. Examine, interpret, and analyze physical and cultural patterns and their interactions, such as land use, settlement patterns, cultural transmission of customs and ideas, and ecosystem changes.
    i. Describe ways that historical events have been influenced by, and have influenced, physical and human geographic factors in local, regional, national, and global settings.

Idaho State Standards for fifth grade social studies (found on the State Board of Education website:

  • 448-01-e: Students will know the factors that contributed to westward expansion in the United States in the early 1800's.
  • 449-01-d: Students will be able to explain the motives of the major groups who participated in the Westward expansion by leaving the east and heading west.
  • 449-01-e: Students will be able to identify the significant Native American groups that were encountered with the Westward movement.

Media Components:
The Course of Empire Takes Its Way (The Way West) Episode 1, Directed by Ric Burns. Videocassette Dist. By PBS Home Video, 1995


  • The OCTA Trail Map website
    This website is an excellent place for students to go to in order to view the many different routes taken by pioneers, miners, and explorers during the gold rush. Shown on the map are many of the important sites located along the different trails. This map is also interactive, allowing students to click on the sites along the trails and learn about their importance.
  • The PBS website
    This website is a great place to learn the facts about the California Gold Rush. There are many historical photographs, quotes from journals and old newspapers, and even a special place for kids to learn fun and crazy facts about the Gold Rush.
  • The California's Gold Rush Country website
    At this website, students can explore more information about the Gold Rush. Facts, quotes, pictures, and even a virtual tour are available and easily accessible.
  • The Oakland Museum of California website
    This website provides many facts about the Gold Rush. Students can experience artwork done during the period of the Gold Rush, read tales from the mines, and take a virtual tour.
  • Travelocity website
    At this website, students can enter in a city from which they are starting, and the city to which they are going, and find the exact mileage and directions to the specified destination. This is a great place for students to go during the introductory activity.

  • computers (1/student if possible, otherwise students can get into pairs)
  • internet access
  • television and VCR
  • video cameras (4-5)
  • blank video cassette tapes (4-5)
  • brown paper bags (2/student)
  • rope
  • markers
  • dried leaves, berries, etc.
  • parchment paper (5 pieces/student
  • overhead (available for student use during presentations)
  • poster board (available for student use during presentations)
  • fake gold nuggets/coins, etc.
  • children's wading pool
  • tarp
  • assorted pans (4-5)
  • sand/gravel (enough to fill wading pool 1/3 full)
  • advertisements previously created by teacher (announcing discovery of gold in California

Prep For Teachers
Prior to the lesson teacher must:

  • Bookmark websites listed above (to bookmark a website, type in the URL, then go to "Favorites", then select "Add Favorite".)
  • Cue The Way West to 18:32 on the counter.
  • Create advertisement posters to hang around the room for Introductory Activity. These advertisements should have basic information about the discovery of gold and should entice people to "head out west".
  • Fill wading pool with sand/gravel, fake gold, and water
  • Put blank tapes in each video camera, make sure batteries on each video camera are charged, make sure each video camera works properly.
  • Prepare background notes on the Gold Rush (background information on front of lesson plan), make copies of this background for students (1/student)
  • Organize journal materials (i.e. parchment paper, rope, dried leaves/berries, glue, markers, brown paper bags)
  • Prepare note cards with role playing information on them (each student receives a card with his/her character's occupation, or character's husband/father's occupation, home town, and family information. Each card will also have 1-3 sentences describing the views of that family on traveling out west).

Introductory Activities:

  • Posters should be hung around the room advertising the discovery of gold and enticing pioneers to head out west and strike it rich.
  • Pass out character note cards to each student.
  • Give students time to look over their character note cards.
  • Explain to students that they are about to take on the role of the characters on their cards.
  • Write Travelocity website on the board where all students can easily see it. Direct students to computers.
  • Explain to students that they are going to enter the city listed on their note card into the "origin" space on the screen, and Sacramento, CA into the "destination" space on the screen.
  • They will then receive a number representing the mileage from their hometown to California.
  • Direct students back to their seats and ask them to take into consideration that mileage, the information on their note cards, and their own thoughts, and make a decision as to whether or not they are going to travel west in search of gold. They must weight the pros and cons and make a careful decision.
  • Have a short sharing time, in which students share their characters, situations, decisions, and reasoning behind those decisions. Whether students choose to go to California, or remain where they are, they must defend their decisions and give reasoning behind them.
  • Give a brief history of the California Gold Rush. Begin by asking students if they know anything about the California Gold Rush. Allow students to reply, and discuss any information they might have, whether correct or incorrect. Then, using the paragraph in the overview, tell students who first discovered gold in California, how it was discovered, when it was discovered, and the events that followed.

Learning Activities

  1. Give students a focus for watching the video. Say the following: "While watching this video, be aware of how enticing the gold in California was to these people. What was so appealing about it? Also, was it an adventure for them? Was that part of the appeal? Make sure you look for these things while watching this video."
  2. Show segments from The Way West. Video should be cued to 18:32 on the counter. Push PLAY on the VCR. This scene begins with rocky cliffs shown from a birds-eye view. No one is talking, but music is playing in the background. Students will watch video.
  3. Push STOP at 20:31 on the counter. Ask the following question: "What was so enticing about the discovery of gold in California that made so many thousands of people give up their lives, homes, and everything they know to travel so many hard miles?" Allow students to discuss briefly. Then ask, "How did the discovery of gold in California change America?" Again, allow students to answer this open-ended question and discuss briefly. Tell them the next segment of the video will describe some of the ways the gold rush changed America.
  4. Push PLAY once again (20:32 on the counter). A man is standing next to a mountain with a pick (black and white photo) and a narrator will be just beginning to speak on the changes of America after the Gold Rush. Push STOP at 22:08 on the counter.
  5. FAST FORWARD to 47:35 on the counter. Push PLAY. There will be two kids and an adult on horses near a small house (black and white photo) and a narrator will be speaking. Watch video until 52:02 on the counter. Push STOP once again.
  6. Have students create two lists-What was enticing about the Gold Rush? and How did the Gold Rush change America?. List students' ideas under appropriate categories on the board.

Westward Ho! Westward Maps

  1. Pass out one brown paper bag to each student.
  2. Instruct students to retrieve their markers.
  3. Tell students they will be making their own maps of a trail they will take to get "out west".
  4. Send students back to the computers. Write the URL for the OCTA Trail Map website on the board.
  5. Tell students to go to that website (again, it should be book marked as well) and to look at the various routes taken by people in search of gold. Tell them to explore the different sites along the way, and learn about the importance of some of them.
  6. Have students come back to their seats. Tell them to crinkle their brown paper bags up, to give them an old-fashioned look.
  7. Students will then create a map based on what they learned from the OCTA Trail Map website. Tell students they must each place 4-5 important sites along their trails.

Pioneer/49er Journals

  1. In this activity, students will be given several sheets of parchment paper, a brown paper bag, several pieces of dried leaves and/or berries, and a scrap of rope.
  2. Tell the students they are to create a journal from the viewpoint of either:
    1. A 49er (someone seeking gold)
    2. The wife of someone going out west for gold
    3. The child of someone going out west for gold
    4. A native encountered by the gold seekers
  3. Instruct students to crinkle the bags for a more authentic look. They can then glue any leaves or berries to the covers of their journals. Next, they must place several sheets of parchment paper between the covers and tie them together with the rope.
  4. Inside the journals, the students must write about hypothetical events, situations, and people they encountered and endured from the viewpoint of the person they take on.

Panning for Gold

  1. Describe the process of panning for gold to the students. Miners pan for gold to separate the rocks, sand, and gravel from the gold nuggets and pieces. Demonstrate this process at the wading pool.
  2. Allow students to pan for gold in groups of 4-5.

Culminating Activity

Gold Rush Documentaries

  1. Divide students into 4-5 small groups.
  2. Explain to students that they are going to be doing their own documentaries on the California Gold Rush. They will then share these videos with the remainder of the class to bring all the Gold Rush learning together. Tell them that each group will be given one video camera, and that they must be extremely careful with and respectful of them. Demonstrate to students how to use the video cameras (instructions will depend on specific type of camera).
  3. Write the following topics on the board:
    native groups
    the start of the gold rush
  4. Allow each group to choose one of these categories (or other categories of choice as long as it is approved by the teacher and matches what they have been learning). (Each group must have a different category, allow class to work this out.) "
  5. Instruct groups to do research on the designated topics on the computers. Write a list of websites on the board (helpful websites listed under media components). Tell students that each of these websites is book marked. Instruct students on how to find the book-marked sites.
  6. Once the students have researched their topics, tell them to create their own video documentary on the California Gold Rush. Tell class to be creative, having an anchor, reenacting certain scenes, etc. Tell students (as well as writing this on the board) that the videos must be no more than 5 minutes long. Each video must include the following:
    At least 3 famous people
    At least 2 different scene enactments
    At least 1 map, showing location of documentation
  7. Bring class back together, rewind videos, and view each group's documentary. Through this activity, students can learn about the various aspects of the gold rush.


  • For science, students could learn about geology by studying gold, fool's gold, and exploring the difference between the two. They could examine samples of each to see if they notice a difference. Students could also learn about other precious metals that people mine for.
  • Math could be incorporated with activities that make students figure the mileage of the different trails people traveled when going west. They could compare these distances and choose the quickest trail.
  • Incorporate economics by having the students learn about the gold standard and how it compares to what we base our money on today.
  • To integrate Language Arts, have students choose an aspect of their choice regarding the Gold Rush. They can then research that topic and create presentations to share with the rest of the class. Their presentations can be PowerPoint, overheads, posters, or any other means the students wish to use.

Community Connections:

  • Invite a gold panner into the classroom to discuss and demonstrate the process of panning for gold.
  • Invite a banker into the classroom to discuss the gold standard in the time of the California Gold Rush. This person could also discuss what our money value is based on today, what the value of gold is today, and how that compares.
  • Students could travel to an historical museum to explore clothing, artifacts, tools, and other exhibits from the time of the Gold Rush. Here students could learn about the lifestyles of people their age during the Gold Rush (i.e. what children's roles were, what kinds of clothes they wore, what kinds of games they played, how early they were married, who was educated, etc.).
  • Students could collect artifacts, clothes, tools, etc. from the period of the Gold Rush (perhaps family members, neighbors, etc. would have these).

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