8th Grade, Part I:

Manifest Destiny and California

by Donna Leary

Overview and Rationale:

California has long been a place associated with myths. For example, Garcí Ordóñez de Montalvo, an early 16th-century Spanish novelist, wrote of an island called California peopled with black women. Gold was the only metal that existed there. Not long after, Hernando Cortés referred to a province populated by women and rich in pearls and gold. 

Myths like these have lured people with dreams of a better life to California's shores. In the mid-19th century the possibility of striking it rich by mining gold was the dream. Though few miners actually made a fortune in gold, many found other ways to strike it rich, such as Levi Strauss making jeans or Boudin making sourdough bread. The Gold Rush brought the world's diversity to California, offering a golden opportunity, a chance to strike it rich, with seemingly no drawbacks. For some it was indeed a golden opportunity, yet many fell ill or died, failed to make a fortune or acquired their riches by other means. Still, they all had their dreams. 

How often do we hear students question: Why are we studying this? What does it have to do with anything? Today, California is a state not only of various climatic regions and types of agricultural produce, but more importantly, it is a state of diverse ethnic groups. In the early 21st century, there will be no ethnic majority in California. The issues of how we, as Californians, can coexist are complex, but the imperative is clear. Students must be able to analyze situations and information and make knowledgeable decisions that will affect their future. 

Eighth-grade students need to be actively involved in their own learning. Many primary sources, both written and visual, are included in these lessons. Such a rich array of historical information provides students with content knowledge and an understanding of the Gold Rush period. Pivotal discussion questions challenge students to explore issues of the 1850s that remain issues even today. 

To augment their learning, students will keep a journal as they venture through the California Gold Rush. Sometime during these lessons an opportunity will arise to expand on the idea of dreams vs. goals. Eighth-graders, like many adults during the Gold Rush and today, want to believe that dreams just magically come true, rather than being a process of setting goals and achieving them. Seize the opportunity, when it arises, to discuss the importance of goal setting, making plans and following through. 

Focus Question:

What part did the belief in Manifest Destiny and the myths of California and the Gold Rush play in the migration of people from around the world to the California goldfields? 

Framework Connection:

"The Divergent Paths of the American People: 1800-1850" of the California Framework looks at the region of the West and its influence on the nation. "Students should be encouraged to view historical events empathetically as though they were there, working in places such as the mines... This was a period marked by a strong spirit of nationalism and 'manifest destiny.'" The introduction to the Framework also "calls on teachers to recognize that the history of community, state, region, nation, and world must reflect the experiences of men and women of different racial, religious, and ethnic groups." These lessons can follow lessons on the Mexican-American War. The focus is on the California Gold Rush as a pivotal event in the migration to California of diverse peoples from all parts of the young United States as well as the world. 

Part I, Overview 
Page 1