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Westward Expansion: The Gold Rush

By sarah_g_rooker on December 18, 2013 in Flow of History

Author: Beth Hayslett, Woodstock Middle School
Grade Level: 9-10
Length of lesson: Approximately 90 minutes

Historical Context

  • Theme: The Gathering and Interactions of Peoples, Cultures and Ideas
  • Era: Colonization, settlement, and communities (1607 to 1763)


This lesson on the Gold Rush is situated within a unit on Westward Expansion, in which students consider questions such as “What forces pushed and pulled people westward?” and “What was the experience of those who went westward, and how did this experience change over time?” Prior to this lesson, students read one document and answered questions for homework. They read a second document in class and did several tasks in small groups.

  • Magazine excerpt: A column written by Louise A. Clappe (provided).
  • John Cooper letter (provided), found in the manuscript collection of the Vermont Historical Society (Misc. File #541).
  • Map Worksheet with directions (provided).


  1. As homework, have students read the following description of “claiming” a mine and working it, written by Louise A. Clappe, a New Englander who traveled to California in 1851 with her husband, who was a doctor. Her column for Pioneer magazine was called “Shirley Letters,” and for this she came to be known as “Dame Shirley.” 1
  2. As a part of their homework, have students answer the following questions on a separate piece of paper.
    • ” During the Gold Rush, how did a man “claim” an area that he wanted to mine?
    • Why, according to the author, did some men work for others, rather than making a claim themselves?
    • Why did mining “companies” form? How did they get their names?
    • Using the description in this reading, draw a “Long Tom.” Be sure to label the various parts.
  3. In class, review homework assignment with kids. Encourage students to try to draw the “long tom” on the board.
  4. Provide students a copy of the letter, written by a man named John Cooper to his sister and brother-in-law, Sally and John Nealy of North Bolton, Vermont. In class, read it aloud. John Cooper was born in Vermont around 1821 and left Vermont for California in 1853 when he was 31 or 32 years old. In his letter, Cooper tells of his journey to California and his early days in a gold mining camp.
  5. After reading the letter, work through the following tasks (written on the board), (Do Task 1 with the whole group, Tasks 2-4 with pairs of students using small white boards or pieces of paper.)
    • TASK 1: AUDIENCE, PURPOSE, VERACITY Solicit answers to the following questions from the whole group. What was the original purpose of this document? Who was its original audience? Do you have any concerns about its truthfulness/accuracy? (lies, self-glorification, faulty memory)
    • TASK 2: MAKING CONNECTIONS (pairs using white boards/paper) Connect the document to prior knowledge. List 3-5 facts that are connected to this document that you have already learned about… Prompt students: What major historical event does this document appear to connect to? What other historical information does it make you think about? For example, in the letter the writer mentions that a woman was thrown overboard when she died. What factual information do you know about this?

    Afterward, have each pair share a fact that they listed, then move on to Task 3.

    • TASK 3: NEW KNOWLEDGE (pairs using white boards/paper) What did you learn from this document? (new knowledge) List 5 details from this letter that you found interesting. (Ask each pair to share a detail they found interesting. )
    • TASK 4: ASKING QUESTIONS (Pairs using white boards/paper) Ask students to write their question neatly on the white board so that others can read it; when done, put small white boards up on board. Write 1 question that you have after reading this document. What would you like to find out about?
  6. Have students examine the two maps provided in the Map Worksheet, and follow the worksheet directions


6.6 Being an Historian
6.7 Geographical Knowledge
6.8 Movements and Settlements


I did not formally assess the students on this particular lesson, although there are questions on their final unit test related to the lesson.


1 Excerpt found in Eyewitness to the American West: From the Aztec Empire to the Digital Frontier in the Words of Those Who Saw It Happen. David Colbert, editor. New York: Viking, 1998.