Baker's Gold


Pen, paper, computer, Internet, Detective Technique Guide: Conducting Historical Research, Detective Technique Guide: Examine Art and Photos

Related Episode

History Detective Wes Cowan visits California gold mining sites and talks with Gold Rush curators to reveal the story behind a caricature-style drawing by the well-known Gold Rush photographer Isaac Wallace Baker.

Baker's Gold

What role did these drawings play in one of the largest migrations in American history?

Estimated Time Required

 2-3 class periods




In this lesson, students learn about the California Gold Rush of 1849 through miners’ letters and art/photos, then research the role of the “invisibles”—minority groups and immigrants—and write letters from their point of view.


Before Viewing

Have students read a brief article or review a timeline of the 19th century California Gold Rush. You might wish to share one of the following with them:

Gold Rush Overview from California State Parks Site
Timeline from PBS documentary The Gold Rush

Then, share with students the following images:

California Gold Diggers

This lithograph is dated between 1849-1852 and depicts California mining operations on the western shore of the Sacramento River. It shows a diverse crowd of men (including Native Indians and African-Americans) and one elderly woman at work along a busy river bank. Miners use various tools and wear costumes reflecting their backgrounds.

Two Miners with Gold Nugget Stick Pins

This daguerreotype by an unknown photographer shows two white gentlemen—perhaps mining partners—wearing shirts decorated with gold pins.

Native Californian

Another photograph taken by I.W. Baker, this image shows a member of the Maidu Indian tribe, and represents the American Indian world that existed in California before the discovery of gold. The Maidu were displaced and hurt by the onslaught of gold seekers in 1848 and thereafter.

Chinese Man

A photograph taken by I.W. Baker, this is one of the earliest known images of an Asian in California. The man in the image is most likely a worker in the mining camps of California.

Have students examine these photographs and share their impressions. Ask: Who do you think these people are in context of gold mining in California? What strikes you about each of these images?

Then, provide students with a description of each image and tell them that they are going to watch an episode of History Detectives which examines an artifact that sheds light on the California Gold Rush and features an image created by I.W. Baker, one of the few photographers to capture images of the miners and everyday people, including immigrants, who were involved in mining for gold at the time.



After they have watched the History Detectives episode, “Gold Rush,” tell students that they are going to be researching and writing about the lives of gold miners.

First, have students make a list of the different communities from which miners came (African American, Native Indian, Chinese, etc.). Then, divide students into groups of three or four and ask each group to select an ethnic or immigrant group that they want to learn more about.

Ask students to research their group using the Detective Technique Guide: Conducting Historical Research, Detective Technique Guide: Examine Art and Photos, and the following resources:

Gold Rush, Statehood, and the Western Movement from Calisphere

Chinese Immigrants in the Gold Rush (PBS)
Feature about Chinese immigrants and their role during the California Gold Rush

Native Americans in the Gold Rush (PBS)

Natives and Immigrants

Learn about how various cultures—Native Indian, Chinese, African-American, Californian/Latino-experienced the Gold Rush in this interactive online exhibit by the Oakland Museum.

Diversity in the Changing State

A collection of images depicting the ethnic diversity in California during the Gold Rush

Native Americans in California

Next, show students this photograph of miners reading a letter and the following examples. Tell students that most miners were many miles away from their homes and used letters to communicate with their families. Ask students to spend some time reading some of these letters, most of which were not written by minority ethnic or immigrant groups.

1850 letter from S. Schufelt, a goldseeker from Windham, NY

1851 letters from Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clapp (“Dame Shirley”) describing life at a California gold mining camp

1850-1853 The Diary and Letters of James Burr

The Land of Glittering Dreams: Selected Letters & Photographs from the Gold Rush

After students have read the letters and investigated their selected ethnic group, ask them to write a letter from the point of view of their group (eg: Chinese immigrant, Native Indian tribal leader, etc.). They should base their letters on their research.

When students have completed this activity, have them create posters depicting “Top Ten Facts” facts about the ethnic group they selected (including statistics such as population, migration, income, etc.) and share their letters in a reading.

Ask: Whose story did you find most compelling? How did you use your research to write these letters? Why do you think letters by members of these ethnic groups are missing? How do you think differently about the Gold Rush after this exercise?


Going Further

Have students research, then create a timeline or a map depicting various gold rushes throughout the world and the impact they had on migration and immigration. Invite them to illustrate the movement of peoples from different parts of the world or within countries in a visual manner. (Advanced or AP students might wish to use IBM’s Many Eyes, a tool that allows users to generate “visualizations” (or infographics) using existing or their own data sets.


Related Resources

Memoir: Bury My Bones in America, by Lani Ah Tye Farkas

PBS Documentary: Gold Rush

Sacramento Bee Gold Rush Resources for the Sesquicentennial

PBS Documentary: Ancestors in the Americas: Chinese in the Frontier West

Silver and Gold: Oakland Museum’s exhibit of rare and daguerreotype images from the Gold Rush, including daguerreotypes by Isaah Wallace Baker.

Gold, Greed, and Genocide: A look at the plight of Native Indians during the Gold Rush


McRel Standards TK

  • Visual Arts, Standard 3: Knows a range of subject matter, symbols, and potential ideas in the visual arts
  • Visual Arts, Standard 4: Understands the visual arts in relation to history and cultures
  • Historical Understanding, Standard 1: Understands and knows how to analyze chronological relationships and patterns
  • Geography, Standard 12: Understands the patterns of human settlement and their causes
  • Geography, Standard 14: Understands how human actions modify the physical environment
  • Historical Understanding, Standard 2: Understands the historical perspective
  • United States History, Standard 9: Understands the United States territorial expansion between 1801 and 1861, and how it affected relations with external powers and Native Americans
  • Language Arts, Standard 4: Gathers and uses information for research purposes
  • Language Arts, Standard 7: Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of informational texts
  • Language Arts, Standard 7: Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of informational texts