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Gold Rush
Teacher's Guide: Suggestions for Active Learning

Portrait of two miners Few other events in history so profoundly changed the American social, political, and cultural landscape as did the California Gold Rush. Through the letters, diaries, and photographs of the period, much can be known about the people who were there. The film The Gold Rush and this companion website offer insights into the discovery of gold and its impact on a rapidly expanding nation moving from agrarian to industrial output. Topics include: the discovery of gold and how the news spread; the impact of the discovery on the diverse populations already living in California specifically Native Americans and Californios; the rapid influx of population and its effects on San Francisco; who made the journey to find gold and what were the various routes they took to California; what were the successes and failures of the mostly young men and the few women; the living conditions of miners; the methods of mining gold and how this changed over time; lawlessness and freedom at the mining camps; how did the concepts of gender, class, and race change; what was the impact of gold fever on African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics, and Chinese; and the Gold Rush's impact on the geographic expansion of the United States and the idea of Manifest Destiny.

Use part or all of the film, or delve into the rich resources available on this Web site to learn more, either in a classroom or on your own.

The following activities are grouped into 4 categories: history, economics, geography, and civics. You can also read a few helpful hints for completing the activities.


History | Economics | Geography | Civics

At the beginning of the film, the historian J.S. Holliday says, "Next to the Civil War in the 19th century, no other event had a greater impact, more long-lasting reverberations, than the Gold Rush. It transformed obviously California, but more importantly, it transformed America."

1.   Consult the timeline and research how the Gold Rush transformed the city of San Francisco, the Territory of California and then describe its impact on the rest of the country.

  1. Divide the class into groups. Group One describes the city of San Francisco before, during and after the Gold Rush. Group Two describes the Territory of California before, during, and after the Gold Rush. Group Three will describe the United States before, during and after the Gold Rush. Students will use a poster size piece of paper to draw, use photographs, maps, and pictures from appropriate websites, and write descriptions of key events. Before each group presents their finding to the rest of the class, have the class predict what kinds of problems pioneers and argonauts will encounter as they migrate to the region.

  2. Imagine that you are a young person living in San Francisco and write a diary entry before, during, and after the Gold Rush. In your diary, describe your journey, the city and its people, whether you decided to stay in California and why.

Just as the nation was shifting away from independent workers like blacksmiths and becoming a nation of clerks and factory workers, the Gold Rush created a new model of the American Dream that was more about taking risks, gambling, and luck than about any particular skill or moral virtue. Previous success had nothing to do with whether they would make it or not and many people worried that this might corrupt the values that built America.

2.   Read the profiles of Alfred Doten and Hiram Pierce. Research and discuss the differences in lifestyle a forty-niner encountered that led to a rebellion against the standards of respectability they had left in the East.

  1. How did the draw of distant and exotic travel, hard outdoor work, and the possibility of independent wealth affect family relationships?

  2. How did concepts of race, gender, and class change?

  3. Give examples of how their new freedoms affected the forty-niners.

  4. How do you think the Gold Rush changed the moral landscape of the United States then and in the years to come?

  5. Look at several portraits of forty-niners. Do the pictures suggest they were from a middle-class culture? What were the origins, status, and values of these men?

On November 13, 1849, California held its first general election. Demands for some sort of civil authority had been mounting for months. Pressure grew for better communications and political connections to the rest of the United States. Unwilling to delay any longer, 48 Californians had convened in the town hall at Monterey in September and had hammered out their own constitution. Although only about 12,000 people cast ballots, the constitution passed -- and without waiting for approval from Washington, California promptly declared itself the nation's 31st state. On New Years Day 1850, one of California's newly-elected Senators set sail for the nation's capital to press for his state's immediate admission to the Union.

3.   What do you think was the primary catalyst for California statehood -- the issue of slavery in the United States, the idea of manifest destiny, the gold rush, or a combination of all three? Divide the class into groups with each defending one of these ideas.

  1. Examine the actions and motives of President James K. Polk in regard to the Mexican-American War. Then read his remarks to Congress when it is proven that gold is found.

  2. Examine the sectional crisis between the North and the South and the balance that existed before California was admitted as a free state. Read African Americans in the Gold Rush and write about the experiences of Stephen Spenser Hill.

  3. Examine the Compromise of 1850, which brought California into the Union, along with other provisions that would keep the Union together for a while but soon would lead to Civil War.

In 1847, the United States defeated Mexico in a two-year conflict known as the Mexican War. When the peace treaty was signed in early February 1848, Mexico was forced to cede an enormous swath of territory, including California, to the United States. Neither country was yet aware that gold had been discovered just days before.

4.   Using a map, find the boundaries of Mexico before and after the war.

Do you think there would have been a different outcome had both sides known of the gold deposits?

  1. Read Mexicans in the Gold Rush and the entries for Antonio Coronel. How did the outcome of the Mexican-American War affect the attitudes of the miners working side by side with diverse ethnic groups?

  2. Write a letter from Coronel to another family member. In the letter describe his early successes, his eyewitness accounts of violent discrimination as more miners arrived from elsewhere, and his decision to leave and why.

President James K. Polk used the philosophy of Manifest Destiny to expand the territories of the United States.

5.   Define "Manifest Destiny".

  1. Using the timeline give specific historical milestones of Manifest Destiny in the U.S.

  2. How did the idea of Manifest Destiny create racial and ethnic tension?

  3. Do you see any examples of the idea of "manifest destiny" today in American or international politics?

In the film, historian Brian Roberts said the California Gold Rush was America's first large-scale media event.

6.   Explain what he means by this.

  1. Specifically what was the role of the media in the expansion of the United States?

  2. How was the Gold Rush characterized by the media? Do you see parallels today of the media and political events?

  3. What were newspapers like before, during, and after the Gold Rush event?

  4. Read about Samuel Brannan. Find examples of newspapers from the Gold Rush era and design your own 1848 newspaper front page. Include interviews and stories with forty-niners and others. What will your headlines be and how do you make this decision?


History | Economics | Geography | Civics

In the film, historian James Rawls says that the real chance for success in the Gold Rush was not in mining the gold but mining the miners. There were people who had the foresight to see the economic possibilities the Gold Rush would create (examples: Samuel Brannan, John Studebaker, Levi Strauss, Charles Crocker). Today San Francisco's streets are named after many of these people.

1.   Research a historical figure that went on to amass great wealth as a result of mining the Gold Rush, not gold. Write a one-two page paper about this person.

2.   One of history's great ironies was the fact that neither James Marshall nor John Sutter became rich as a result of their discovery of gold in 1848. Research the lives of these two men and what became of them. Then compare and contrast these men to the historical figures above who amassed great wealth. Was this fair?

3.   Read the profiles of Brannan and Wilson. What profitable businesses arose as a result of the Gold Rush? What was the impact of supply and demand? Give examples of the price of commodities and entertainment.

4.   Read about Wilson. again and examine the document Gaming and Entertainment in the Gold Rush Towns. How did the roles of woman change as a result of the Gold Rush? What were the primary occupations of the few women who were actually there?

5.   By their own accounts, Alfred Doten, Hiram Pierce and Vicente Rosales were failures at finding gold. Roleplay their responses to this failure and how they did or did not cope with the failure. Look at photographs of these men and develop costumes for the roleplay.

6.   Explore the Strike It Rich! Game and consider how it was made.

  1. What are some of the assumptions about the characters that affect game play? What are the factors that the game developers decided were important enough to include? What didn't they include? How would you improve the game? To make it simpler? To make it more complex?

  2. Develop a board game called Gold Rush in an imaginary place very much like San Francisco (use the computer game SimCity as an example). Players build the city. What infrastructure would be necessary to handle this sudden influx of people? What goods? What law enforcement would be necessary? What about the government, commerce, transportation? Establish a point system that will determine whether you find success or fail and return to your original home.

The Gold Rush occurred during a time when the U.S. was rapidly changing from an agrarian republic to modern industrial nation. Take a look at The Gold Rush's Impact on California's Landscape.

7.   What were the positive and negative aspects of unbridled capitalism -- the social, economic and environmental consequences of the forces unleashed by the Gold Rush that ultimately led to a manufacturing output that was greater than that of Britain, France and Germany combined by the end of the nineteenth century?

8.   What was the effect of the Gold Rush on California's environment?

  1. Research the three types of mining (placer, hard rock and hydraulic) and trace the evolution in mining technology during the Gold Rush and its impact on the environment. Research how the individual's wash pan gave way to the team operated Long Tom and then to elaborate systems of dams and chutes that facilitated hydraulic mining through which whole hillsides were washed away in a matter of hours. How much gold did the mines yield in total?

  2. Divide the class into two groups. Discuss and vote on approving a hypothetical nearby mining project. One side is pro and the other con. What are the benefits of moving ahead? What are the costs to the community? Compare the cost and benefits today to the time of the Gold Rush.

  3. How do the entrepreneurial forces of the Gold Rush continue today on the exploitation of ever-diminishing natural resources?

9.   What were the "Gold Rushes" of the 20th century? What do you think they will be in the 21st century?


History | Economics | Geography | Civics

Imagine San Francisco on the day that gold was found at Sutter's Mill. No one knew yet but in just a few short days, the city would change forever in untold ways dominating the Far West for three decades following 1849.

1.   Describe a before and after scenario. Use photographs, drawings, and documents to enhance your descriptions. Why did the population explode? What were the geographic considerations that favored San Francisco as a starting point for those seeking gold?

2.   What were the primary routes and who took them? What were the hardships they experienced on the way to California? You may want to read about the Donner Party.

3.   Visit the online poll. Which route would YOU take to the Gold Country? Answer the poll questions and check the poll's results to date. Write a short essay in which you advise a friend which route to take and why.

4.   Look at a map of the Great Migration. What was the role of the Gold Rush in the Great Migration particularly on the development of California?


History | Economics | Geography | Civics

1.   The rich cultural and racial diversity of California today has its origins in the Gold Rush.

  1. Who lived in California before the Gold Rush?

  2. What new ethnic groups arrived after the Gold Rush?

  3. What happened to these ethnic groups at the peak of the gold rush and then later once the gold began to run out?

  4. Using the timeline, carefully trace the ethnic and class warfare that determined who would control the riches and the definition of "society." The mining district was daily becoming more crowded and more contested; examine the differences in social behavior when people are prosperous versus bankrupt.

  5. The Gold Rush created much wealth but excluded many people in the process. Divide the class into four groups and research and discuss the exclusion of minorities including Native American Indians, Spanish speaking immigrants, Chinese, and free blacks and slaves accompanying southern migrants.

2.   Greed and competition among the miners in the spring of 1850 caused Anglo gold seekers to persuade the newly-elected legislature to pass the Foreign Miners Tax, a steep levy that was meant to be imposed on all non-Americans. Spanish-speaking miners were most often forced to pay and within one year of that law's passage, an estimated 10,000 Mexican miners left California.

  1. What exactly was the Foreign Miners Tax and how did the Mexican miners respond to it?

  2. Read about Antonia Franco Coronel. What kind of law and order existed at the gold rush camps?

  3. Compare Mexican and Chineseresponses to the tax.

  4. Who was Joaquin Murieta? Discuss the myth versus the facts. Are there other examples in modern history of one person becoming a legendary scapegoat?

3.   In the film, historian Richard White called what happened to the Native Americans during the Gold Rush "close to genocide." Other historians say it was legalized and subsidized mass murder.

  1. How did this happen? Research the Indians that lived along the overland routes to the West. Map the different tribes and their relationship with immigrants and settlers. Graph what happened to the population demographic of Native Americans during the Gold Rush.

  2. What was the relationship of Native Americans to the rich resources of the land of California?

  3. What happened when their land became overrun with gold-seekers? Explain the impact on the fish when the streams were mined. Explain the actions of Native Americans when miners depleted the game they depended on. What did California lawmakers do to bring this situation under control?

Read Chinese Immigrants and the Gold Rush.

4.   How did the Chinese fare during the Gold Rush? Compare and contrast their treatment to that of the Hispanic and Indian populations at the time. Pay close attention to the differences in their responses to discrimination.

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Gold Rush American Experience

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