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California Gold Rush & Pony Express Lesson for Kids

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I am a Christian. I was an 8th-grade American History teacher. I am currently a freelance writer, public speaker, & homeschooling mom of 9.

California Gold Rush & Pony Express Lesson for Kids

California Gold Rush & Pony Express Lesson for Kids

This is the 21st lesson in a series of 27 hands-on lessons covering U.S. American History through 1865. This lesson focuses on the California Gold Rush & the Pony Express. I used this plan while teaching a 45 minute history class for children in Kindergarten, 1st, & 2nd grades. Each lesson includes a biography report, history notebook page, history song, our favorite children's books, YouTube video, a history joke, & a variety of hands-on activities to make each lesson engaging & memorable. Use these fun lessons with your classroom, homeschool, after-school program, or co-op!

Student biography presentation on Levi Strauss

Student biography presentation on Levi Strauss

Student Biography Presentation: Levi Strauss

1. Student biography presentation on Levi Strauss

Review & Presidents Song

2. Review: Name the 3 branches of government our Founding Fathers described in the Constitution. (legislative, executive, judicial) Lewis & Clark and Sacajawea explored what territory? (Louisiana Purchase) Who had made the Louisiana Purchase in 1803? (Thomas Jefferson) During the War of 1812, James Madison declared war on which country? (England) What did the Monroe Doctrine say? (Europe must stay out of America) What was the Trail of Tears? (President Andrew Jackson forced the Cherokee to leave their homes & move West) What trail did many pioneers take to travel out West? (Oregon Trail) Which 2 groups were fighting during the Battle of the Alamo? (Mexicans & Texans) Why was the Battle of the Alamo important? (It inspired others to fight harder for Texas Independence from Mexico)

3. Now let's go through all the Presidents. Sing through the entire song 2 times while either showing the video or flipping through pictures of the Presidents. (Be sure to add in "Donald Trump" at the end.)

You will need:

  • Screen to show the below video or a book showing Presidents or point to their pictures on a President place mat

California Gold Rush

4. Have each child locate Oregon, Texas, & California on a map of the United States.

You will need per child:

  • map of the United States with state outlines

5. Summarize the main events of the California while flipping through the pages of Gold Fever!: Tales from the California Gold Rush by Rosalyn Schanzer.

You will need:

  • Gold Fever!: Tales from the California Gold Rush by Rosalyn Schanzer or other book on the California Gold Rush
Panning for "gold"

Panning for "gold"

Panning for Gold

6. Pan for "gold" outside

  • Prep: Ahead of time I placed multiple plastic dishpans outside. I tossed in some "gold" (amber colored glass beads), scooped in some dirt (to hide the "gold"), and filled them with water. I had a metal pie pan for each child.
  • The children got to take turns at the "river" (plastic dish pan) of their choice & use their gold pan for getting a big scoop from "the bottom of the river.
  • They could then swirl around the water or just pick out any pieces they found. I made sure everyone was able to get at few pieces.
  • Afterward we washed off our hands & the "gold." I let them keep their "gold."

You will need:

Scroll to Continue
  • plastic dishpan or tub
  • sand or dirt
  • "gold nuggets" (amber colored glass beads found in the fake floral department at Walmart or pebbles & rocks spray-painted gold)
  • water source
Showing off their "gold nuggets"

Showing off their "gold nuggets"

Levi Strauss jeans

Levi Strauss jeans

Levi Strauss jeans

7. Before everyone sits down, have all the children line up in a straight line facing the person in front of them. Tell them to raise their hand if the person in front of them is wearing jeans. Then tell them to keep their hand raised if the person in front of them in wearing Levi jeans. [If no one is wearing a pair of Levis, show a pair you brought & point out what is on the tag.]

  • Tell them to imagine if they had to do gold panning like that every single to an actual river. They'd get pretty dirty wouldn't they? Their clothing would wear out pretty quickly, wouldn't it?
  • That's how an entrepreneur, Levi Strauss, came up with the great idea of creating pants that would last longer. He created jeans because of the gold rush. Some people struck it rich from finding gold. Levi Strauss stuck it rich by inventing the idea of jeans for them. His business is still in existence today.
  • You can thank the California Gold Rush & Levi Strauss for your comfortable jeans!

You will need:

  • a pair of Levis (jeans or jean shorts)
California Gold Rush Coloring Page from https://www.thoughtco .com

California Gold Rush Coloring Page from https://www.thoughtco .com

Gold Rush Notebook Page

8. Allow children to color some of the Gold Rush Coloring Page. As they color, be sure to point out & briefly the various types of methods for finding gold: panning, slue, & pick ax. Also point out that even though the coloring page has a woman, very few women were out on the gold mining field.

You will need per child:

Gold vs. pyrite (fool's gold)

Gold vs. pyrite (fool's gold)

Gold vs. Fool's Gold

9. (Optional - if you have pyrite/fool's gold) As children continue to color, quickly discuss the differences between gold and pyrite, also called fool's gold.

  • Everything that looked like gold wasn't gold. Many times minors would find iron pyrite and think it was gold. They were so disappointed when they realized it wasn't gold, so they referred to it as "fool's gold."
  • [Pass around samples of gold & pyrite if you have them.]
  • Can anyone see some differences? 1. Pyrite has sharper edges, & gold has smoother edges. 2. Pyrite is harder & can scratch copper (what pennies used to be made from). Gold is softer; copper will scratch it. (They had to be careful with this test as they didn't want to scratch up a nice gold nugget.) 3. When you scratch both on a piece of porcelain (a streak test), pyrite will leave a greenish-black powder. Gold will leave yellow gold powder. 4. Gold sparkles & shines. Pyrite only sparkles & shines if you hold it in the light a certain way.

You will need:

  • samples of gold and pyrite (You can get a vial of gold flakes from amazon .com or ebay you can just use your wedding ring.)

Pony Express

10. As the children continue to color, tell them that the men who headed out to California to find gold wanted to stay in contact with their families, many of whom were living thousands of miles away.

  • They did not have phones, emails, or text messaging back them. How do you think they communicated with each other? [Let some children guess.]
  • They had to write letters. Someone had to deliver those letters.
  • For 1 1/2 years those letters were delivered by the Pony Express.
  • [Have the children put away their crayons & put their coloring sheets in their history notebooks.]
  • Read Buffalo Bill and the Pony Express (I Can Read Level 3) by Eleanor Coerr.

You will need:

  • Buffalo Bill and the Pony Express (I Can Read Level 3) by Eleanor Coerr or other book on the Pony Express
Pony Express Relay Race

Pony Express Relay Race

Pony Express Relay Race & Review

11. Go outside to do a Pony Express Relay Race.

  • Space out the children so that they are about 20 feet from each other (or longer if you have older children). These spots will be the changeover stations where a fresh “rider” will be to receive the mailbag and take it on the next leg of the journey.
  • Give the first person the mochila (a purse with envelopes of mail inside) and have them "ride" a stick horse or do a horse gallop it the next person, who will continue on with the mochila to the next person, and so on.
  • After each person has delivered the mochila, they should wait at their "station" to rest because they will eventually be delivering the mail coming from California to St. Louis.
  • If you have a large group of children, you can divide the children into 2 or more teams and have them race.

You will need:

  • purse to act as the mochila
  • envelopes or junk mail to add to the mochila
  • stick horses, sticks, & brooms (optional - kids can just horse trot if you don't have these)

12. Go back inside to review. In 1948, what did they discover in California? (gold) Lots of men headed West to find gold. What do we call this? (California Gold Rush) What is one way they looked for gold? (panning, slue, pick ax) Who created jeans for the gold miners? (Levi Strauss) What is one way mail was delivered between the gold miners and their families living in the East? (Pony Express) Tell me something you learned about the Pony Express.

13. Assign next week's biography report on Eli Whitney.

We read through a huge stack of books. In addition to the 2 books used in this lesson, these were our top 7 favorites:

  • Striking It Rich: The Story Of The California Gold Rush (Ready-To-Read Level 3) by Stephen Krensky
  • Levi Strauss and Blue Jeans (Inventions and Discovery) by Nathan Olson
  • John Sutter and the California Gold Rush (Graphic History) by Matt Doeden
  • Gold! Gold from the American River!: January 24, 1848: The Day the Gold Rush Began (Actual Times) by Don Brown
  • Off Like the Wind!: The First Ride of the Pony Express by Michael P. Spradlin
  • They're Off! : The Story of the Pony Express by Cheryl Harness
  • You Wouldn't Want to Be a Pony Express Rider!: A Dusty, Thankless Job You'd Rather Not Do by Tom Ratliff

America the Story of Us: Gold Rush (History Channel)

Native Americans & Columbus Lesson
Jamestown Lesson
Pilgrims Lesson
Thirteen Colonies Lesson
French and Indian War Lesson
Colonial Period & Revolution Rumblings Lesson
Boston Massacre & Boston Tea Party Lesson
First Shots & Declaration of Independence Lesson
American War for Independence Battles Lesson
Valley Forge & Battle of Yorktown Lesson
American Literature Lesson & American War for Independence Review
Colonial Christmas Party
Constitution Lesson
Three Branches of Government Lesson
President George Washington Lesson
Louisiana Purchase Lesson
War of 1812 Lesson
Monroe Doctrine Lesson
Trail of Tears Lesson
Oregon Trail & Battle of Alamo Lesson
California Gold Rush & Pony Express Lesson
American Industrial Revolution Lesson
Underground Railroad Lesson
Abolitionists & Women Suffragists Lesson
Civil War: The Confederate States & Abraham Lincoln Lesson
Civil War Battles Lesson
Civil War Party & End of Year Review Game
Fun, Free Hands-on Unit Studies (My Lessons in All Subjects)

© 2018 Shannon


Shannon (author) from Florida on August 09, 2018:

Thank you so much!

Liz Westwood from UK on August 09, 2018:

This is another interesting lesson.

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