Westward Expansion

Examine collections of the Museum's key resources on major themes in American history and social studies teaching.  Additional resources can be found in the main search areas of the website.

1848 Gold Nugget

Westward Expansion

Create a virtual exhibit around the nugget that started the gold rush, follow one man’s journey to California in 1849, build a sodhouse and more with these lessons and interactives on westward expansion.

Van Valen’s Gold Rush Journey

Grade Range: 6-12
Resource Type(s): Worksheets, Interactives & Media, Lessons & Activities, Primary Source
Duration: 220 Minutes
Date Posted: 4/27/2010

Investigate the authentic journal of Alex Van Valen, a man who set sail in 1849 to stake his claim in the California gold fields, to discover what life was like during the gold rush. This dynamic project from the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History includes student questions to help guide research, rich primary sources, images of artifacts and background information. The student materials can be completed on paper or using the interactive PDF format that allows students to create beautiful publications from their research. The teacher guide includes suggested discussion questions for the introduction and conclusion classes, answers to the student questions, a sheet of Frequently Asked Questions about the gold rush journal, and a summary of what Smithsonian curators learned about the journal's author. Although intended as a project, elements of the site could also be used independently to develop historical research skills.

The Gold Nugget and the California Gold Rush

Grade Range: 9-12
Resource Type(s): Lessons & Activities, Interactives & Media, Primary Source
Date Posted: 11/7/2009

This object-based learning activity revolves around the gold nugget that began the California gold rush. In this resource, students will learn how examining the gold nugget can help them understand the story of the gold rush and its importance to the story of westward expansion. After exploring the gold nugget and its importance as a source of historical information, students will visit the forum section of the site to hear the Museum's curators and historians discuss the object and then use what they have learned to complete the Virtual Exhibit Activity.

This resource is part of The Object of History, a cooperative project between the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History and George Mason University's Center for History and New Media.

Building a Sod House

Grade Range: K-12
Resource Type(s): Lessons & Activities, Interactives & Media
Date Posted: 6/10/2008

In this interactive activity, students will attempt to build a sod house by making choices regarding the construction of their house. Too many wrong answers and the house will collapse! This engaging and lighthearted activity will help students understand the challenges settlers faced while trying to survive on the open prairie. OurStory is a series of modules designed to help children and adults enjoy exploring history together through the use of objects from the Museum's vast collections, quality children's literature, and engaging hands-on activities. Ideal for afterschool use, OurStory resources will allow students to think critically, to be creative, and to achieve academic standards both in and out of the classroom.

1848 Gold Nugget

Grade Range: K-12
Resource Type(s): Primary Source, Artifacts
Date Posted: 1/22/2009

This small piece of yellow metal is believed to be the first piece of gold discovered in 1848 at Sutter's Mill in California, launching the gold rush.

John Marshall was superintending the construction of a sawmill for Col. John Sutter on the morning of January 25, 1848, on the South Fork of the American River at Coloma, California, when he saw something glittering in the water of the mill's tailrace. According to Sutter's diary, Marshall stooped down to pick it up and "found that it was a thin scale of what appeared to be pure gold." Marshall bit the metal as a test for gold.

In June of 1848, Colonel Sutter presented Marshall's first-find scale of gold to Capt. Joseph L. Folsom, U.S. Army Assistant Quartermaster at Monterey. Folsom had journeyed to Northern California to verify the gold claim for the U.S. Government.

In August of that year, as evidence of the find, this piece and other samples of California gold to Washington, D.C., for delivery to President James K. Polk and for preservation at the National Institute. Within weeks, President Polk formally declared to Congress that gold had been discovered in California.

The gold samples then traveled with U.S. Army Lt. Lucien Loeser by ship to Panama, across the isthmus by horseback, by ship to New Orleans, and overland to Washington. A letter of transmittal from Folsom that accompanied the packet lists Specimen #1 as "the first piece of gold ever discovered in this Northern part of Upper California found by J. W. Marshall at the Saw Mill of John A. Sutter."

In 1861, the National Institute and its geological specimens, including this gold and the letter, entered the collections of the Smithsonian Institution. The Marshall Nugget remains in the collections as evidence of the discovery of gold in California.

Use this Investigation Sheet to guide students through describing the object and analyzing its meaning.

Conflicting Voices of the Mexican War

Grade Range: 9-12
Resource Type(s): Lessons & Activities
Duration: 120 Minutes
Date Posted: 4/30/2010

This lesson plan outlines topics for short research projects and classroom performances related to the Mexican War. Have students select individuals connected to the Mexican War, perform research, and then interview each other to showcase the disparate views on the motivations behind the War and perspectives on its outcomes. This lesson plan (which includes background information) was produced to accompany the exhibition The Price of Freedom: Americans at War, by the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

Tracking the Buffalo: You Be The Historian

Grade Range: 4-8
Resource Type(s): Lessons & Activities, Interactives & Media
Date Posted: 6/10/2008

What can we learn by studying a buffalo hide painting? In this activity, students will learn about the culture of the Plains Indians by determining the meaning of stories told on a buffalo hide painting and compare their interpretations to that of a Smithsonian historian. This activity is meant to help students learn more about Native American culture by analyzing and learning from objects; a guiding student worksheet is included. It is included in the website Tracking the Buffalo: Stories From a Buffalo Hide Painting

A Pioneer Sampler: The Daily Life of Pioneer Family in 1840

Author: Barbara Greenwood
Reading Level: Late Elementary School, Middle School
Genre: Fiction

An informational guide about the daily life of pioneers

Children of the Wild West

Author: Russell Freedman
Reading Level: Late Elementary School, Middle School
Genre: Non Fiction

A photographic look at life for kids on the frontier.

Chinese Railroad Workers

Author: Susan Sinnott
Reading Level: Late Elementary School
Genre: Non Fiction

An account of the labor, treatment, and accomplishments of Chinese workers on the railroad during the 19th century.

Dakota Dugout

Author: Ann Turner
Reading Level: Early Elementary School
Genre: Fiction

A story of life on the prairie.

The Buffalo Are Back

Author: Jean Craighead George
Reading Level: Early Elementary School, Late Elementary School
Genre: Fiction

This picture book is a hybrid of nonfiction and fiction, as George tells the story of how the buffalo made a comeback in the American...

The Journal of Sean Sullivan: A Transcontinental Railroad Worker

Author: William Durbin
Reading Level: Late Elementary School
Genre: Fiction

A young boys experience of working on the Transcontinental Railroad. (Part of the My Name Is America series)

Wagon Wheels

Author: Barbara Brenner
Reading Level: Late Elementary School
Genre: Fiction

An African-American family moves to Kansas after the Civil War to create a new life.

Want to suggest a different theme topic?

Visit the Contact us page to request a theme that would help you in your classroom.