Gold Rush


Our Gold Rush lesson plan introduces students to the Gold Rush, which was part of the westward movement in the United States. Many students may have heard of the term “Gold Rush” but most likely do not know of its origins.

Included with this lesson are some adjustments or additions that you can make if you’d like, found in the “Options for Lesson” section of the Classroom Procedure page. One of the optional additions to this lesson is to invite an expert who understands panning for gold to speak with your class.

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What our Gold Rush lesson plan includes

Lesson Objectives and Overview: Gold Rush introduces students to the Gold Rush, which was part of the westward movement in the United States. Many students may have heard of the term “Gold Rush” but most likely do not know of its origins. At the end of the lesson, students will be able to define the Gold Rush, and list reasons for its occurrence in America. This lesson is for students in 4th grade, 5th grade, and 6th grade.

Classroom Procedure

Every lesson plan provides you with a classroom procedure page that outlines a step-by-step guide to follow. You do not have to follow the guide exactly. The guide helps you organize the lesson and details when to hand out worksheets. It also lists information in the orange box that you might find useful. You will find the lesson objectives, state standards, and number of class sessions the lesson should take to complete in this area. In addition, it describes the supplies you will need as well as what and how you need to prepare beforehand.

Options for Lesson

Included with this lesson is an “Options for Lesson” section that lists a number of suggestions for activities to add to the lesson or substitutions for the ones already in the lesson. To add on to the lesson activity, you can create a class book with all of the individual stories. As an adjustment to the activity, you can have students write a story with two characters traveling through California talking about ghost towns and boomtowns. You could also have them create a short graphic story with multiple images. As an additional activity, you could gather supplies like screens, minerals, and rocks to demonstrate panning for gold. Finally, you could invite an expert who understands panning for gold to speak with your class.

Teacher Notes

The teacher notes page includes a paragraph with additional guidelines and things to think about as you begin to plan your lesson. This page also includes lines that you can use to add your own notes as you’re preparing for this lesson.


The United States Expands

The Gold Rush lesson plan includes three content pages. The lesson begins by explaining that once cities become crowded, many people will move to the suburbs or rural areas outside of the city limits. People in the United States have always looked for more space to live or for resources.

In 1700, the original 13 colonies had about 250,000 people. 75 years later, about 2.5 million people lived in the colonies, mostly along the East Coast. People felt like it was getting crowded and they started to look for new places to live, hunt, and farm. This is when people starting looking for land west of the Appalachian Mountains, which run about 2,000 miles from Canada to Alabama.

The Northwest Territory was the first expansion. This included the present day states of Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Illinois. Daniel Boone also led settlers across the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky.

The largest expansion happened in 1803 when President Thomas Jefferson negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, which almost doubled the size of the United States. He bought a large piece of land west of the Mississippi River from France for $15 million. This included much of the present day states of Montana, North and South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, and more.

This really set the Westward Expansion in motion. In the 19th century, tens of thousands of people moved to California in search of gold.


The state motto of California is “Eureka!” which people often cried out in celebration when they find or discover something. People used this term often during the California Gold Rush between 1848 and 1855. On January 1948, they discovered the first gold in California, causing thousands of people to come to California to try to find their own gold.

A man names James Marshall discovered the first gold while working on the construction of John Sutter’s sawmill on the South Fork of the American River. Marshall found tiny pieces of gold in the water runoff near the mill, which he showed to Sutter. They agreed to keep the gold a secret.

However, other people started to notice the gold in the runoff as well and soon people were coming to California from all over the United States and abroad. People traveled from China, Mexico, Australia, Europe, and elsewhere. Before 1848, about 14,000 non-Native Americans lived in California. By 1849, there were 90,000!

The Search for Gold

Gold miners used a method called panning to look for gold in rivers, where they put water and gravel into a pan and shook it back and forth, letting the heavy gold sink to the bottom.

Later, they discovered more intricate methods that allowed miners to work together to search large areas of gravel for gold. The first people to arrive in California found the most gold and made the most money. During the first five years of the Gold Rush, people found about 12 million ounces of gold. In 2017 prices, that amount of gold is worth $16 billion.

We call this first group to arrive the 49ers. Many of these people settled in California, in an area that is now the city of San Francisco. In 1946, about 200 people lived there, but by 1952, the population had grown to about 30,000.

Thousands of prospectors moved to California and needed supplies. They used mining pans, shovels, and picks for work and also needed food to eat. They also needed coffee, bacon, beans, sugar, flour, bedding, lamp, a tent, and a kettle or pot.

The people selling these supplies often became even richer than the prospectors themselves. They raised the prices of their goods and the prospectors had no other choice but to buy them from them.

California became a state in 1850 because of the Gold Rush. New cities, churches, schools, businesses, and roads appeared on previously empty land. People were able to earn a good living because of the Gold Rush. However, these people displaced and even killed the Native Americans who lived there already.

They called the areas where businesses and miners camps boomtowns. Columbia, California was a boomtown. Many boomtowns failed.

Eventually, the gold ran out and boomtowns became ghost towns. Businesses closed and left empty buildings behind. Bodie, California was a ghost town for a time but is now a thriving tourist spot. Other gold rushes also happened in U.S. in places like Pike’s Peak in Colorado and Klondike in Alaska. Neither of these were as large or as popular as California’s Gold Rush.

The two men who found the first gold, Marshall and Sutter, did not benefit from the Gold Rush because prospectors took over the land. Both of these men died in poverty.


The Gold Rush lesson plan includes three worksheets: an activity worksheet, a practice worksheet, and a homework assignment. You can refer to the guide on the classroom procedure page to determine when to hand out each worksheet.


Students will work with a partner to complete the activity worksheet. Each pair will write two separate stories from perspective of a visitor to California during the Gold Rush. They will write the stories in first person. The worksheet includes additional guidelines for each story.


For the practice worksheet, students will first match the description with the correct place. They will then match the definition or identification with the correct person or term. Finally, they will answer two questions about the lesson material.


The homework assignment asks students to use the information provided to complete the chart. Students will need to calculate the value of different things based on their value in different years and the amounts of each material listed.

Worksheet Answer Keys

This lesson plan includes answer keys for the practice worksheet and the homework assignment. If you choose to administer the lesson pages to your students via PDF, you will need to save a new file that omits these pages. Otherwise, you can simply print out the applicable pages and keep these as reference for yourself when grading assignments.

Additional information


4th Grade, 5th Grade, 6th Grade


Social Studies

State Educational Standards

CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.4.3, CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.5.3, CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.6.3

Lessons are aligned to meet the education objectives and goals of most states. For more information on your state objectives, contact your local Board of Education or Department of Education in your state.

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