Lesson Plan

Famous Gold Rushers

How some pioneers found success without finding any gold

Students will be able to...

  • summarize the effects of gold fever on the growth of California.
  • identify several well-known historical characters from the Gold Rush era.
  • create a fictitious account of a gold miner’s experience.
Social Studies
Grades 3 – 5
All Notes
Teacher Notes
Student Notes

1 Hook

Activity: Presenting

In the 1800s, diseases were one of the main reasons a pioneer would not make it all the way west. Ask students which 19th century diseases they have heard of. Introduce these main threats:

  • Cholera - #1 killer, spread through contaminated water and food, caused diarrhea, vomiting, and often fatal dehydration within a day’s time
  • Diphtheria – caused difficulty in breathing, deep cough, and chills
  • Dysentery – spread through contaminated water and food, causing loose bowls
  • Measles – highly contagious virus, known for its red, bumpy rash, often brought on fatal complications like pneumonia or bronchitis
  • Typhoid fever – spread through contaminated water, very high fever, often fatal

Next, describe how in 1848, a new fever had global effects – gold fever

2 Direct Instruction

Introduce students to facts about the California Gold Rush, 1848-1955.

  • On the morning of January 24, 1848, James T. Marshall, a sawmill constructor and operator, found gold nuggets from a mill construction site near the American River. He informed his partner, John Sutter, and the two confirmed they were indeed gold. Despite their attempts to keep the discovery a secret, word leaked out …
  • More than 300,000 came west with dreams of striking it rich. They came by land over the Oregon- California Trail and by sea (around Cape Horn or over the Isthmus of Panama), often leaving behind their wives, children, and livelihood. Although many had “gold fever”, few actually became rich through panning for gold.

Next, show the Schooltube video, America the Story of Us: Gold Rush (2:48). Then, continue the discussion by detailing how San Francisco’s population grew from about 1,000 in 1848 to over 20,000 in two years.

  • Boomtowns popped up along the mountains and valleys. Yet, even if a prospector did find gold (>750,000 lbs. were discovered overall), the living expenses (boardinghouse, supplies, food) often wiped out profits. Instead, mining towns were filled with despair, disease, and death.

Point out that many prospectors did not find their fortunes through discovering gold.

  • Many did find great success during the gold rush without ever mining. Instead, they capitalized on the rapid changes in No. CA. These entrepreneurs focused on what the miners needed. Many women, often widows, found success by running boardinghouses, doing laundry, and baking (one woman was said to have made $18,000 baking pies). Men outnumbered the woman 10 to 1. 

3 Guided Practice

Free, Paid

Have groups of students create image-based flashcards for famous historical characters with Quizlet. Consider assigning roles to students – image locator, fact finder, summarizer, flashcard creator.

  • Samuel Brannan: newspaper publisher and supply store merchant, who bought all the supplies in San Francisco, and resold them for a much higher price
  • Lola Montez and Lotta Crabtree: Famous dancers who entertained miners in the gold fields
  • Mark Twain: a failed miner who found national success as a journalist drawing on his experiences as a traveler and miner
  • Henry Well & William Fargo: provided services such as mail carrying, banking, and coach services to miners
  • John Studebaker: a blacksmith who made wheelbarrows for miners, eventually returning to Indiana to found a wagon company and later a famous automobile company.
  • Eliza Farnham, a former matron at Sing Sing Prison who tried to convince women to make the trip west with her to “civilize” the miners
  • Levi Strauss: A dry good store owner, who reinforced canvas (heavy cotton) overalls’ pockets with a metal rivet so that the pockets wouldn’t tear from the weight of the nuggets

If time permits, engage students in PBS’s American Experience interactive simulation, Strike It Rich! (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/goldrush/sfeature/game.html)

4 Independent Practice

In a brown bag, place small rocks (same number as students). Include a handful of painted gold rocks to represent actual gold nuggets. Have each student pick (without looking!) a nugget from the bag. Tell them that the nuggets, gold or not, represent their fate during the Gold Rush. They need to write a letter home to a loved one (parent, best friend, spouse, child) detailing the ups and downs of life as a prospector and their next moves (heading home, changing careers, keep mining). Finally, using Fotobabble (consider making a generic account for students to use), ask students to upload an image of a miner and bring their letter alive by reading it aloud. 

5 Wrap-Up

Free to try, Paid

Instruct students to create a humorous comic using Pixton, in which a character (think doctor, peddler, mother) is trying to cure a prospector’s gold fever. In the scene(s), students should describe the illness, common symptoms, and remedy. For example, imagine a miner saying, “I just have this insatiable hankering to head west in order to strike it rich in them there California hills! I have a nagging itch, jumpy legs, and foolish dreams,” and a doctor responding, “You have gold fever! It will take months to cure, but the remedy includes a mining pan, lots of coffee, riveted jeans, and a hearty spirit.”