For Richer or For Poorer:

The California Gold Rush

Hook | Questions | Procedures | Data Investigation | Analysis | Findings | New Questions

Student Page

Kelly Beitz

Amy Allen

Torey Davis


The student page contains the hook only. It is intended to spark interest in the topic and lead students to ask questions or make predictions.

It's been a long day at school and you're exhausted. You lay down to take a nap in the sun and begin to dream. Your dream takes you back into the late 1840's during the California Gold Rush...

Who do you see? Who are the people and what are they doing? Are you a gold miner or just a passer by? You're hungry, tired and low on cash (gold). Where will you sleep? How will you survive?

Take a look at this PowerPoint presentation to get you thinking about the big decision of joining the Gold Rush.


Students might ask similar but different questions than those listed here. The more students are guided to ask specific questions, the less inquiry-oriented the activity.

The Web Inquiry Project described below asks students to take on the role of historian, exploring the life of the miners and history of California in the era of the Gold Rush. The following list of questions are intended to have the students really think and contemplate the aspects of the California Gold Rush. 

  • Who were the gold miners?
    • What was their background like (culture, race, ethnicity) and where did they come from?
    • How did they travel?
    • What were their long-term plans/intentions in California? 
  • What was it like to live as a 49er?
    • What were some of the common diseases or illnesses that the gold miners had to face and what were the effects of some of these illnesses?
    • What were some of the forms of entertainment for the gold miiners?
    • Describe the typical diet of a gold miner?
    • What was life like in the mines?
  • What were some of the various effects of the discovery of gold?
    • Who discovered gold?
    • How did the population of cities change after the discovery of gold? (chart)
    • How have gold prices changed over the years? (chart)
    • Timeline of gold discovery
    • How did the Gold Rush influence Californiaís statehood?


After students have asked questions related to the topic, they will need to decide a number of things, including:

  • Type(s) of data needed to answer the questions
  • Defining important terms
  • Choosing tools for data manipulation
  • Defining how data will be manipulated and presented

Type(s) of Data

Students will gain a general understanding of the topic through the PowerPoint presentation's links to the American Memory primary resource collection, titled, "America As I Saw It: First Person Narratives of California's Early Years, 1849-1900." If the students browse this collection, they can find letters, diaries, songs, official documents, and other primary resources to get them started.

Defining Important Terms

  • miner - a person who digs or pans for gold
  • prospector - another name for a miner
  • 49er - the term used to describe people who came to California in 1849 in search of gold
  • John Sutter - the first person to discover gold in California. Sutter's Mill was named after him
  • James Marshall - announced the discovery of gold, began "Gold Fever"
  • panning - method of gold discovery, to sift through sediment in a river
  • hydraulic - a controversial method of gold discovery, involves water pressure and machinery
  • population - number or count of individuals living in a given geographical region
  • settlement - the beginning of the formation of a town

Investigation Tool(s)

Students may choose to use a combination of tools to gather their thoughts:

  • concept maps 
  • graphs 
  • KWL charts 
  • spreadsheets

In addition to the resources students will find in the PowerPoint presentation, you will need to provide them with the additional websites with specific information on California's population and the change of the value of money over time. For a more detailed description on these websites and the collection of this data, see the Analysis section.

Manipulating Data

Students using a concept map should continually update the map, adding new information throughout their investigation.

Students using spreadsheets and graphs will create these after researching a data-rich Internet site. They should organize the data from the site into a logical sequence and then graph that data to make a visual representation and explanation of the information.

Students using KWL charts will begin the chart before the beginning of their research and then revisit it at the conclusion of the investigation.

Data Investigation

There is often a giant leap from defining the type(s) of data desired and actually finding the data. Providing guidance to students in finding the necessary data is necessary.

In order to aid students in their research under each topic area, here is a list of web resources you might want to direct them to:

1. Who were the gold miners?

2. What was it like to live as a 49er?

3. What were some of the various effects of the discovery of gold?


Raw data/information usually has to be manipulated before it can answer any questions. Students might be unaware of how data can best be manipulated, so teacher guidance may be appropriate.

After completing the data investigation section of the inquiry, students should revisit their original concept maps or KWL charts. An original concept map for the subtopic, "Who Were the Gold Miners," might look like this:

After revisiting their original maps, students should expand on them, adding new information they have learned or any changed ideas. The revised concept map for the subtopic, "Who Were the Gold Miners," might look like this:

To analyze the data on population and the change of the value of gold over time, students should use the provided websites to create spreadsheets and graphs to represent the data. Below is a sample of a spreadsheet they use to analyze the information:










% Increase from 1850 to 1860

% Increase from 1860 to 1870

New York City
























New Orleans


















St. Louis












San Francisco








No result is meaningful unless communicated appropriately. Discussion of findings should be supported. There may or may not be definitive answers to the questions students raised.

By using the provided websites, students are expected to present the information in a way that accurately represents what they have learned. This may include the tools listed above or any additional, creative method. Students are expected to explore at their will. Their findings may not represent the samples we have provided, but they need to answer the topical questions. 

Below are examples of ways that students may choose to present their findings:

  • To demonstrate their general understanding of the Gold Rush, it's people, the hardships, and the effects, students may develop a KWL Chart similar to the following:

What I Know

What I Want to Know

What I have Learned

The gold rush was in 1848.

Who first discovered gold in California?

John Sutter

People moved to California.

What was life like for a gold miner?

Long, hard hours with uncertain outcomes

They used pans to dig for gold.

What kind of people were gold miners?

Many cultures/ethnicities, both men and women. 

Gold made people rich.

How much has the price of gold changed?

Although the price has had fluctuated it hasnít changed considerably.

  • Student may also choose to represent their findings in the form of a concept map like the following example.

Click here or on the above graphic to see the full concept map with working links

  • To depict some of the changes that resulted from the Gold Rush, students can Graph the change in population or the value of gold over time:

Possible New Questions

Answers often lead to new questions, starting the inquiry cycle over again.

Here are some possible follow up questions and extension activities you may wish to have your students investigate at a later time:

  • What do you think would have happened to California if the Gold Rush never happened? Would it have developed so quickly? Would explorers continue their westward expansion? Or was the Gold Rush inevitable?
  • Write a RAFT using one of the following guidelines:
R (Role) Gold Nugget

People throughout the words


I'm lost somewhere in California - Come find me!

Miner in California

Family members who did not migrate


Trials and tribulations of gold mining

A (Audience)
F (Format)
T (Topic)
  • Make a crossword puzzle using the facts and vocabulary you have learned.