All U.S. states are known for something: Idaho for potatoes, Georgia for peaches, and Arizona for the Grand Canyon and State Bill 1070. California, however, is the only state widely associated with gold, one of the most prized metals known to man—so prized, in fact, people uprooted their lives, migrating and immigrating from all over the nation and world in 1849, to hit pay dirt in Northern California. Few became rich. Some broke even. Most died poor.
I learned this basic bit of California history during my grade school years in the Midwest. The other bit, about the Native people of Northern California before, during, and after the 49ers’ arrival, was not included in the lesson. Curious to know what California students are learning about the gold rush today, I asked Anjali Kamat, an Instructional Coach at Anna Yates Elementary in Emeryville, California, who said California teachers are to adhere to “History/social science content standards, but they must also teach Common Core, which is more skills-based than content-based, focusing on language arts.”
According to the Common Core Standards website, forty-two states, including California, the District of Columbia, and four territories have adopted the same standards for Math, English, history/social studies, science, and technical subjects in order to help students nationwide succeed under shared educational expectations and goals.
When asked if there are certain books students are required to use to meet the standards, Kamat explained that Common Core Standards are not a curriculum, so lesson planning and implementation are left to teachers within the California Department of Education History/Social-Science curriculum framework, the most recent adopted by the California State Board of Education on July 14, 2016. This means that the depth and balance of a student’s formal gold rush public school education depends on the combination of her teachers and texts.
Per the curriculum framework, teachers usually focus on California History in the fourth grade. Though the grade four History/Social-Science curriculum framework isn’t the only one that asks students to analyze aspects of the gold rush, it does hone in on that period more than the others. The timeline of the framework spans from the lives of California’s Indigenous people before European arrival, California history after European arrival through statehood, and growth and development after statehood. The gold rush component outcomes ask students to “consider how the Gold Rush changed California by bringing sudden wealth to the state; affecting its population, culture, and politics; and instantly transforming San Francisco from a small village in 1847 to a bustling city in 1849” among other thinking points regarding cultural and gender diversity during the period.
From a random sampling of textbooks, westward expansion, including the gold rush, is covered in varying degrees of detail, depending on grade level and curriculum. This means encounters between indigenous people and Europeans are sanitized less with each increasing grade. For example, the fourth grade text, Our California, uses words and phrases like “problem” and “forced to give up their way of life”; the fifth-grade text, Our Nation, uses “conflict,” “assimilate” and “massacre”; and the eighth grade text, History Alive: The United States through Industrialism, drawings of Spaniards burning and hanging resistant Indians next to a quote from Bartolomé de Las Casas, who accused colonists of being “wild beast” who took pleasure in “killing…, torturing and destroying the native peoples.”
Even though contemporary narratives continue to slant toward the colonial telling of American history, critical thinking is usually encouraged in these texts by way of prompts such as “How justifiable was U.S. expansion in the 1800s?” and “As you read, think about how each new area was acquired and whether the decisions that led to U.S. expansion across North America were justifiable” to get students to weigh the presented information and come to their own conclusions. In History Alive, Chapter 2: European Exploration and Settlement, there is a section titled “How Historians Use the Sources,” in which the process for evidencing history is examined; Cristobal Colon (Christopher Columbus) is shown in various lights, such as noble, destructive, or a man with good and bad qualities who committed “errors of the times,” as noted by Washington Irving in his book The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus. The problem remains, however, regarding the vast number of pages dedicated to the lives and deeds of male European explorers compared to the handful devoted to other cultural and ethnic groups.
Outside of textbooks, there are a plethora of educational guides and resources online for teachers. A general internet search revealed a mixed bag of lesson plans, ranging from total omission of an Indigenous presence during the gold rush to full inclusion and consideration. As with textbooks, the level of education a student receives depends on his or her teachers’ abilities and willingness to unpack available materials. So, hypothetically, if Mr. Adams wants to focus on miner dredging techniques for most of the gold rush instruction period and gloss over discussions about settlers massacring Indigenous people and stealing their land, it would be his choice.
There was no internet during my grade school years, so any specialized subject searches required skulking about libraries and picking the brains of people more knowledgeable than I was. With the information age upon us, however, we have the luxury of search engines and high-speed downloads; gold rush history from many different angles is available as fast as our internet connections allow in the form of books, news articles, documentaries, and social media platforms. But I wondered about the information being disseminated to the average person searching for a gold rush experience at the many gold-rush-themed attractions and historical organizations across the state.
My first inclination was to set out on an adventure of my own, visiting each major attraction in a 70-mile radius, but with time and money constraints, I decided to start local. The Gallery of California at the Oakland Museum is an ever-evolving collection of stories and experiences through the years to ambitiously illustrate the diverse history of California, beginning with its indigenous people and continuing through to present day with the increasing global influx of people. Within the gallery is the gold rush exhibit, which focuses on “different cultures, languages, ambitions, and experiences of the gold rush era.” Although the histories of various Native nations are told more expansively in other sections of the gallery, especially before the arrival of the Europeans, the gold rush exhibit includes descriptions of Native people in various aspects during the gold rush as miners, defenders of their homes and families, outlaws, victims, and successes.
The museum also offers a supplemental curriculum series titled Myth & Reality: The California Gold Rush and Its Legacy, which, according to the curriculum website, relies on primary source materials. The site also notes that volumes have been created separately for grades four, five, eight, and eleven and all lessons presented in the volumes relate “directly to strands in the History-Social Science Framework for California Public Schools.”
This experience, however, was an exception. Upon calling a handful of other sites, I found “Unfortunately, we don’t have any information about Native Americans” to be a standard refrain. The Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park’s Gold Discovery Museum and Visitor Center attendant told me by phone the park has an exhibit that features Native people before prospector arrival, but not during the gold rush. I asked about the offered “Living History Days” tours; the attendant said the tours usually focus on the miners’ experiences due to knowledge of Native life during that time being “few and far between.” She added there were not many American Indian tour volunteers available to depict Indigenous life during that period, and that the park only offered an exhibit with Indigenous artifacts. The term “Living History” is a medium museums and other history-related organizations use to educate the public about various aspects of a historical period. Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park’s “Living History Days” event features docents dressed in period clothing who discuss the 1850s and give demonstrations in rope making, candle dipping, dutch oven cooking, sawmill wood working and games.
Not having more information, the attendant referred me to the proprietor of the local bookstore, Floyd D.P. Øydegaard of The Columbia Booksellers & Stationers. Floyd said via phone he didn’t have extensive knowledge of California Indians during the gold rush, but said members of the Paiute tribe had killed miners for “any reasons they wanted to” and the miners retaliated. He also mentioned tensions between the Paiute and Miwok nations and how the Paiute caused more trouble to the Miwoks than the Miwoks did to themselves. He continued, saying Indians also “danced in the streets,” performing for money and attempting to launder clothes for pay “like the Chinese, but not as good.” He added that some Native people worked alongside the miners, but “they didn’t care about the gold as much.” He said the museum didn’t have much beyond Indigenous artifacts and the museum store didn’t have an extensive collection of books about Native people, but he mentioned specifically Tending the Wild and Tribes of California.
Gold Prospecting Adventures, LLC has, according to the company website, earned the title of “best of the best” in gold prospecting and gold rush history, however, the attendant told me during a phone call their packages, such as school programs, mining camp, prospecting courses, and travel, don’t include Indigenous history. She said there is a huge Miwok history available through other avenues, such as from the tribe itself, though, the Gold Prospecting Adventures, LLC staff is “still learning” and she wouldn’t feel comfortable teaching Indigenous history without more knowledge.
The Wells Fargo History Museum attendant said not in “either one of our museums do we have anything about Native Americans in the West at all.” One of the locations she referred to is in the Old Sacramento Historic District and the other is on Capitol Mall about half a mile away. Similar “I’m not aware of anything specific to Indian history” phone conversations were had with the Sacramento History Museum and Gold Country Visitors Association staff members.
A visit to Old Sacramento revealed a 19th-century frontiersman ambience that lingers in the small town replete with horse-drawn carriages trotting down the cobblestone streets, brick and wooden buildings with wood plank walk ways, and a riverboat and railroad station lining the Sacramento River.
The Sacramento History Museum website says the museum is “dedicated to Sacramento’s rich and diverse history” and its “galleries and exhibits explore the history and stories of the area’s first inhabitants, the pioneers who settled here during the Gold Rush, life on the farm, and more.” When asked by phone, a Sacramento History Museum guide said there was nothing extensive regarding Native Americans, that only a small portion of an exhibit was dedicated to Indigenous people. “And some books,” she added. In person, I spoke with Me’Lisa James, Educational & Interpretive Programs Manager, and tour manager Shawn Turner, whose alter ego is Thomas Legget, the name of a man of Irish descent who reportedly resided in Sacramento in the 1850s. Turner’s name tag read “Thomas Legget, Proprietor,” though he was not in character at the time we spoke. Both James and Turner confirmed the museum had mostly gold-rush-era artifacts with Indigenous mentions before and after the gold rush—not during, and said that I would find more information at Sutter’s Mill and the State Indian Museum.
I browsed the store merchandise to find various elixirs and vials of “real” gold and silver amid dream catcher kits and shiny rocks and marbles. There was a bookshelf of general American Indian interest made up of dream catcher bracelets, American Indian fun activity books, which included inspirational Native American leader puppets, corn husk doll kits, archeological dig kits for Indian relics, and several books geared toward adult readers, such as Grave Matters and Deeper Than Gold. I then toured the museum myself, walking the gold rush exhibit four times to find not one mention of California Indians.
The Sacramento Visitor Center, located down the walkway from the Old Sacramento Wells Fargo History Museum, contained as the extent of its Native history offering a small, three-panel display that described the dwelling place of the Nisenan people in that very spot over 200 years ago. The attendant suggested the State Indian Museum for more offerings. That was about the third or fourth time I had been told to ask Indians about Indians, so I took the hint.
While there was no specific exhibit related to Indigenous people during the gold rush in the State Indian Museum, there were images displayed from that time period. One of the attendants gave me a page-and-a-half long handout titled, “California Indians & the Gold Rush: Discovery, Devastation, Survival,” which highlights the decimation of Indian people in California during the gold rush and their determination to rebuild in its wake. Along with the Native-made items, snacks, and usual museum swag, such as t-shirts and key chains, the museum also had several books among its large bookshelves related to California Indians and the gold rush.
The American history narrative is multifaceted and has many voices. And while educational standards in the California public school system seem to be slowly evolving, classic institutional barriers to true understanding and healing remain stubbornly embedded. In my search for Native history, I recognized the theme of “ask Indians about Indians” to be a directive, a call to action, as if the burden of history must be lifted largely by those underneath its girth, hidden by its shadow.
The “unfortunate” gaps in historical knowledge must be filled by those who hold the history. Yes, California Indigenous history during the gold rush and beyond exists but, like gold in the foothills today, we must dig for it.