Grant brings nation’s teachers to Northern California Gold Rush sites

Each year, flocks of fourth-grade students from throughout California visit landmarks of the Gold Rush, but last week it was the teachers’ turn to take a field trip.

Teachers from across the United States spent Sunday through Friday visiting about 15 historic sites in the Sacramento area.

Striving to inform teachers and students nationwide about the historical effects of the Gold Rush, the Center for Sacramento History and California State University, Sacramento, received a $178,000 National Endowment for the Humanities grant to bring 72 kindergarten through 12th-grade teachers to Sacramento.

The NEH, a federal agency, offers similar seminars throughout the nation, but this was the first one focused on the California Gold Rush.

The story of the Gold Rush is of national importance, central to the westward movement and the development of the United States, said Marcia Eymann, a Sacramento city historian who helped to secure the grant.

“Learning about the Gold Rush is essential to understanding the native peoples, the industrialization of the United States and also very much that story of immigration and migration,” Eymann said.

Nationwide, most people don’t know much about the Gold Rush, said Al Hurtado, a Sacramento native and retired professor who taught Native American history and the history of the American West at the University of Oklahoma. “When you ask people what they know about the Gold Rush, they say, ‘Didn’t people build a sawmill somewhere?’ and ‘A lot of people went to California.’”

“But the Gold Rush was such a fundamental event in the 19th century, not only in California but in the world,” said Hurtado, who wrote two books on the topic. “The Gold Rush was a worldwide event, and people came from every corner of the globe. The gold that was discovered and mined in California tripled the world’s gold at the time.”

Mary Perez, a first-grade teacher in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., said she has not incorporated the California Gold Rush in the curriculum during her 17 years of teaching, but she now plans to include it in her lessons on frontier exploration. “The students need to know that their country is more than just their community,” she said.

Perez and the other teachers visiting Northern California last week stopped at historic Gold Rush locales such as Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park and Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park in Coloma. The teachers also learned about race relations and the role that American Indians played in the Gold Rush.

On Wednesday, they gathered under acorn-laden oak trees scattered among bark lodges at Indian Grinding Rock State Historic Park in Pine Grove. The teachers ate their bag lunches on benches while Hurtado gave an in-depth lecture on the effect the Gold Rush had on American Indians in the area.

American Indians were instrumental in building Sutter’s Fort, and while many lives were disrupted by white settlers, native peoples also benefited from the gold rush, he said. “The cooperative relations are often masked by the conflicts,” he said.

In the Southern states, many teachers and students don’t know much about how the West was settled, said Linda Hardee, who teaches second through fifth grades in Huntsville, Ala. Although teachers could learn through books or the Internet and pass their knowledge along to students, that can’t substitute for hands-on learning, she said.

Having the opportunity to spend a week learning about the California Gold Rush means not only being able to share it with your students but also bringing it back to other teachers, said Mandy Fontenot of Chataignier, La. “I came here not knowing much about the Gold Rush,” she said.

Fontenot also saw the trip as a travel opportunity. She had never been to California before, and this was the farthest she has been from home. The teachers received a stipend to help cover travel and accommodation expenses. Fontenot was one of 189 teachers who applied for the 72 spots, and said she plans to apply to join more NEH workshops in the future.

Attending these workshops will bring more enthusiasm to the classroom, she said. “The kids, they can feel that when I’m excited about something,” she said. “They get that.”

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