Students explore how gold mining helped shape Idaho’s economic future. Students observe two images that show gold miners in the west. Students also learn about the history of Chinese immigrants in Idaho in the 19th century, many of whom came to work on the railroads and mine for gold. Students write a letter to family back home in the east about life as a miner.
This lesson is part of "Great States: Idaho Unit 4: Explorers", which helps students to develop a balanced view of people who took the risk to travel, work, or settle in a new place. The materials and activities will highlight the strength and courage they demonstrated, however, the conflicts, struggles, and disappointments experienced by various groups of pioneers will also be examined.
4.SS.1.2.2: Describe the role of fur trading and the discovery of gold and other minerals such as silver in the settlement of Idaho.
4.SS.1.2.3: Analyze and describe the different immigrant experiences across Idaho.
Boise District 413.17: Describe the role of the discovery of gold and other minerals in the settlement of Idaho.
- Image: Gold Mining in the West
- Image: Panning for Gold
- Image: Four Chinese field hands
- Class set of Idaho Gold Miner Journal handout
Explain to students that in 1860, gold was discovered in the mountains of Idaho. It caused an influx of settlers and prospectors to come to the land. Families uprooted their lives for a chance at striking gold. Gold prospectors were those that surveyed the land for which areas contained rich gold deposits. The miners are those who were physically panning the soil, digging, and looking for gold.
Project the following images for the class. Have students spend a few minutes studying the two images of gold miners in the west.
Image: Gold Mining in the West
Image: Panning for Gold
What are the men doing in the photos?
What tools are they using?
Mining is slow work. Do you think you could be a miner?
Explain that the hopeful prospectors and miners did not only come from the East Coast, but internationally as well. By 1870, more miners in Idaho came from China than anywhere else. Chinese miners were willing to work for less pay than American miners, so many prospectors employed the cheap labor in order to make more money off of the gold that was found. Project the image of Chinese miners in Idaho to the class.
Photo Citation: Public Domain. Released under CC by University of Southern California Libraries and California Historical Society
Explain to students that many Chinese immigrated to work in the US because there were better paying jobs than in China at the time. The US was advertised as a “mountain of gold.” The Chinese workers were paid very low wages, but it was enough that they could send money back home to help their families. Chinese miners were willing to work for as low as $2 per day, while other miners would rarely take a mining job that paid less than $5 per day. Many Chinese workers thought that they could eventually travel back to China, but most found out that it was not an option. Unfortunately many Chinese were at the mercy of the merchants who helped to finance their trip over to America, who would then take a percentage of the (low) wages the workers earned here—effectively controlling their fate. Others could simply not save up enough money for a return trip home with the low wages they were paid.
Distribute the Idaho Gold Miner Journal handout. Have students write a letter from the perspective of a gold prospector or Chinese miner to a family member back home. Students can pick one of these options:
You are a prospector or miner who struck gold!
You are a prospector who still hasn’t found much.
You are a Chinese miner and found out you can’t travel back to China.
For step 3:
The men are mining for gold.
Shovels and gold pans (sifting tools that allowed for rocks to stay in pan while water washed the dirt through the screen along the bottom, so that miners could search for gold)
Sample answer: It seems like it would be fun at first to look for gold, but after a while I’m sure my body would get tired of bending down and constantly searching.
For more background information on Chinese miners in Idaho, click here: https://history.idaho.gov/sites/default/files/uploads/ES4_Chinese.pdf