The Gold Rush
by Tim and Vicky Scott
Suitable for Whole School (Sec)
To explore the historical event of the Gold Rush and what it reveals about attitudes to wealth.
Preparation and materials
- You will need a gold ring, necklace, bracelet or watch to show why gold is highly prized and, if possible, a gold pan used for panning for gold. If you can’t find one, display an image of one (check copyright).
- As research, you can read the lesson plans prepared by the US National Park Service (NPS) about the Gold Rush, available at: www.nps.gov/klse/forteachers/curriculumactivities.htm, and National Geographic Xpeditions' has a two- to three-hour lesson plan about the boom and bust of Gold Rush towns, at: http://education.nationalgeographic.com/archive/xpeditions/lessons/16/g35/boomtown.html?ar_a=1 Also, Jack London’s novels are about this subject, there is Charlie Chaplin’s film The Gold Rush and poetry about this time can be found in Robert William Service’s writings, as well as his novel set during the Gold Rush, The Trail of ‘98.
- On 16 August 1896, gold was discovered in the Klondike region of the Yukon in north-western Canada by prospectors George Carmack and his wife Kate, her brother Skookum Jim and their nephew Dawson Charlie. When news of the discovery reached Seattle and San Francisco, it triggered a migration to the region between 1896 and 1899 by an estimated 100,000 prospectors, all in search of their fortune.
Show gold item.
The perilous journey through mountainous terrain and the freezing climate that had to be endured in south-east Alaska on the way to the isolated region of the Klondike meant that, of the initial 100,000, only around 30,000 arrived. Some of these became wealthy, but the majority went home in vain and only around 4,000 struck gold.
- The Canadian authorities required the prospectors to bring with them a year's supply of food, in order to prevent starvation, plus all the equipment they would need. This meant, however, that they had to transport a heavy load of mining equipment and supplies long distances to the Klondike.
Even once they got there, the mining, was challenging as the ore was distributed in a manner that could fool even experienced prospectors and digging through the tough permafrost was slow and exhausting.
Show the dish used to pan for gold or display image of one.
- To accommodate the prospectors, boom towns sprang up along the routes and, at their end, was Dawson City. It was founded at the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon Rivers in 1896.
Dawson City grew from a population of 0 to 30,000 in two years. The town was poorly built and unsanitary, prone to fires and epidemics. The wealthiest prospectors became local celebrities, often spending extravagantly, gambling and drinking in the saloons.
- The native Han people suffered considerably as a result of the Gold Rush. Many of them died after being relocated to a reserve to make way for the ‘stampeders’, due to the contaminated water supply and smallpox. The mining for gold led to environmental damage to the rivers and forests of the Klondike.
- From 1898 onwards, media attention was diverted away from the Klondike Gold Rush and when news arrived in the summer of 1899 that gold had been discovered in Nome in west Alaska, many prospectors left the Klondike for the new goldfields, marking the end of the Rush. The boom towns declined and the population of Dawson City fell away.
- Today the legacy of the region continues to attract tourists interested in the culture of the frontier areas.
- Gold rushes probably extend back as far as gold mining in Ancient Egypt. Since then, throughout history there have been many other gold rushes and they still happen today. Major gold rushes took place in the nineteenth century in Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Canada, South Africa and the United States, while smaller gold rushes took place elsewhere.
- For most of the prospecters, gold mining was unprofitable, but some people made huge fortunes almost instantly and the merchants and transport facilities made large profits. Miners typically spent about £20,000 researching the region. Most people who did find gold squandered their fortunes and often died penniless. Why? Once they had struck gold, many were driven to find more, never being satisfied that what they had found was sufficient. This led to them accumulating more and more land in the hope that it would yield gold, but their money would then run out.
- So, what happened to those who first discovered gold in the Klondike? The three discoverers had different fates. George Carmack left his wife Kate – she had found it difficult to adapt to their new lifestyle –remarried and lived in relative prosperity; Skookum Jim had a huge income from his mining royalties, but refused to settle and continued to prospect until his death in 1916; Dawson Charlie spent lavishly and died in an alcohol-related accident.
The richest of the Klondike saloon owners, businessmen and gamblers also typically lost their fortunes and died in poverty. Gene Allen, for example, the editor of the Klondike Nugget, became bankrupt and spent the rest of his career in smaller newspapers; the prominent gambler and saloon owner Sam Bonnifield suffered a nervous breakdown and died in extreme poverty. Nonetheless, some of those who joined the Gold Rush prospered. Kate Rockwell, ‘Klondike Kate’, for example, became a famous dancer in Dawson and remained popular in America until her death.
- Today there are estimated to be about 20–30 million small-scale and artisanal miners around the world. Approximately 100 million people are directly or indirectly dependent on small-scale mining. For example, there are 800,000 to 2 million artisanal miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo, 350,000 to 650,000 in Sierra Leone and 180,000 to 200,000 in Ghana, with millions more across Africa.
Time for reflection
If you had been around during this time, would you have joined the 100,000 people who made their way towards the region of Canada called ‘the Klondike’ for what is known as the ‘Last Great Gold Rush’?
In the Bible, there is a book called Proverbs. Let’s listen to a couple of quotes from it:
How much better to get wisdom than gold, to choose understanding rather than silver!
(Proverbs 16.16, NIV)
A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.
(Proverbs 22.1, NIV)
Finally, a more recent quotation:
‘Affluenza’ is ‘a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.’
(J. de Graaf, D. Wann and T.H.Naylor, Berrett-Koehler, Affluenza, 2014)
Teach us to use the resources and wealth that you give us wisely and generously, helping those who are in need, and to not become greedy, selfish, uncaring and wasteful.