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Talk about exciting potential in a unit study! The activities that I've gathered for this unit study can make for an activity packed, very hands-on, fun time. Even if you live in New England or Florida, which are both at opposite ends of the country from the California Gold Rush area, you can still have a dynamic unit study on this time period. This can be both a mini-unit to be used with a study of the Wild West or it can be a stand-alone study.
A component that I have not gone into in great depth that could be added is studying the impact of the immigrant on the California Gold Rush. There were large numbers of Chinese and Spanish who participated in the gold rush as well as European immigrants who traveled from the East Coast of the United States seeking the great American Dream.
Other extensions to this study could be the study of: California history, trails west, Native Americans, and the geology of the west.
Cooking - (1) many Chinese and Spanish influences can be visible in a study of the gold rush. (2) Why not try some new food at a restaurant or some that you cook yourself...eat it in your camp. (3) Try cooking over an open fire, or on a grill, using foods that would have been available to the miners...lots of potatoes, wild or preserves meats, other wild foods. (4) make beef jerky... or buy a sample at the grocery store. (5) Try cooking in a box oven - check a boy scout or girl scout manual for this idea... biscuits and brownies are especially good this way.
Create a camp as your reading center - pitch a tent, have a campfire, sit by a stream made by a blue blanket. Just use your, and your child's, imagination to let the area come alive. You could get some white butcher paper or white bulletin board paper and tack it into a corner of a room and let the kids paint their mine or claim.
Camping is a dynamic way to experience some of the feelings of the Gold Rush era. You can pretend camp by setting up camp under the dining room table or by setting up a small two-man tent in an low-traffic area of your home (especially if you have anti-bug kids ). You can do more reality-based activities by pitching your tent outside or creating a shelter between trees with a branch and a tarp. However you choose to do this, it should prove to be a learning experience for everyone. Here is a great article with tips for building shelters outdoors. Extend your experience by only eating foods that the miners and panners would have had access to.
Study the mining methods of the Gold Rush era and then study the difficult environment impacts that mining had during the gold rush - panning, windlass and shaft, hydraulic mining, cradle mining, and the long tom.
Mining Town Diorama: Construct a shoebox diorama of a gold town. Include miners' camps, staked-out claims, and various mining techniques.
Make your own gold nuggets or coins: spray small pebbles or stones with metallic gold paint to simulate gold nuggets. OR Mint your own gold coins from clay and then after they dry you can paint them with gold paint or spray paint.
map the overland trails men (and women) used to reach the California gold mines.
map the sea routes that were used to reach the California gold mines.
make a topographical model of the state of California and show where the main mining areas were located.
Music: if your local library has a music collection (or cassette or CD) you will probably be able to find some selections on music of the old west or specific to California's history. Use the music to add another dimension to your unit and if you or your children are musically inclined, learn to play or sing some of the songs.
Geology: Study the geology of the gold fields. What geological formations or minerals were present in the gold fields that helped the miners locate gold? How is gold formed?
Discuss the many illnesses suffered by the miners. What were some of the risks that they took with their health? Were men on their own more likely to become ill than a man who brought their family with them?