The California Gold Rush

Contributor: Meghan Vestal. Lesson ID: 11858

Did you know California's motto is "Eureka"? That doesn't mean "you smell funny" but "I found it," referring to the gold rush, as does its nickname, "The Golden State." Find out why and become a 49er!


United States

learning style
Kinesthetic, Visual
personality style
Grade Level
Intermediate (3-5), Middle School (6-8)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!


Today, the 49ers are a popular NFL football team, but who were the original 49ers?

The mid-1800s was a time period marked by tension and exploration in the United States.

The Civil War had yet to begin, and disagreement over slavery was creating mounting conflict between the northern and southern states. At the same time, there was excitement in the air as the United States looked to expand westward.

In 1806, Lewis and Clark had returned from their expedition, bringing back reports that there was a vast terrain of uninhabited land waiting to be settled. In this lesson, you will learn about one of the motivating factors that led people to move out west.

In the 1840s, increasingly more Americans were moving west. The term "manifest destiny" was coined to describe Americans' beliefs about westward expansion. According to the theory of manifest destiny, the United States was divinely appointed by God to expand their civilization and belief system across North America. This idea of manifest destiny embodied more than territorial land claims; it was also about spreading democratic values. To encourage Americans to move west, the government began giving away large areas of land for little to no cost, if the person would agree to build on and farm the land.

In 1848, California was not a state, and was inhabited by only 14,000 people. This population grew exponentially overnight when a mill worker, James Marshall, found a chunk of gold at a sawmill near present-day Sacramento. The sawmill, owned by a German immigrant named John Sutter, was used for cutting logs into boards. Other Californians began venturing to Sutter's Mill, also finding chunks of gold. Word of gold soon spread to the other side of North America, and eventually around the world. The growth of the American population on the East Coast meant fewer jobs, and men decided to move out west to try their luck at finding fame and fortune with gold.

In 1849, hundreds of thousands of people from around the world showed up in California. These people were known as 49ers, nicknamed according to the year they moved to California. This nickname is where the San Francisco NFL football team's name comes from. By 1850, the population of California grew to more than 250,000 people. San Francisco, which only had 400 inhabitants in 1848, became home to more than 25,000 people in 1850. Also, Sacramento, that did not even exist in 1848, grew to a population size of 12,000 people. Unfortunately, most of the people who showed up after 1849 were too late — the majority of the gold had already been discovered.

The California gold rush had many positive outcomes.

First, it enabled people to find wealth and prosperity. Poor frontier men and miners became some of the wealthiest men in America overnight. The gold rush also enabled California to become a state. California's quick population growth officially made it a state in 1850. The success men found as a result of the gold rush made California one of the wealthiest states when it was admitted to the Union.

While the gold rush created many positive outcomes, it also created many problems. Since California became a state in 1850, there was no government or police oversight while the gold rush was happening. With thousands of men living in camps and greedy for gold, California became a place with a lot of crime. Within the mining camps, gangs were formed to protect the gold from being stolen. In addition, many of the miners terrorized the small population of people that had already been living in California. The miners stole and ate cattle, destroyed and stole land, and consumed crops. By the time the gold rush was over, John Sutter's mill, crops, and cattle were completely destroyed, and squatters had overtaken much of his land. While others had found fortune, Sutter had lost his career, land, and cattle overnight. He attempted to win back his losses in court, but was unsuccessful. Unfortunately, this was the story for many who were originally from California.

To continue learning about the gold rush, watch America the Story of Us: Gold Rush | History from HISTORY and The Start of the California Gold Rush (1849) (John Fitz):


When you are finished watching the videos, explain your responses to the following questions to your teacher or parent:

  • Why did so many people believe it was worth traveling across the entire country to look for gold?
  • Did most miners actually find gold? Why or why not?

When you are finished discussing the questions, move on to the Got It? section to see if you have what it takes to find gold in California.

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We help prepare learners for a future that cannot yet be defined. They must be ready for change, willing to learn and able to think critically. Elephango is designed to create lifelong learners who are ready for that rapidly changing future.