The Fraser River and Cariboo Gold Rushes: a clash over First Nation's Land


Gold rushes are often depicted as adventure tales with groups of hearty men braving the wilderness to wrest riches from the land. Hard-working, brave, and maybe a bit rascally, these men fight against all odds to strike it rich.  Or so the stories go.

Schools and museums, in order to make history more exciting for students have often tried to create stories, games or displays where students put themselves at the centres of these adventurous narratives. The student, no matter what her/his background, belief or family history is always situated as the adventurer, the miner. Nature, animals, and First Nations are generally situated as The Other; the ones to ‘deal with’ in order to get the treasure.

These types of narratives contain many myths. The idea that gold was ‘discovered’ and ‘mined’ by Europeans and Californians first and alone is not only untrue but leaves out many parts of the story. It not only omits the stories and rights of the First Nations who discovered and panned for gold long before the Europeans,  but it also leaves out the stories of the men and women from all over the world who came by the thousands to find gold for themselves or to work as labourers employed by the miners and road builders.

History has also generally ignored the documentation of the cruelty and violence that groups of miners perpetrated as they fought for control of the gold, the rivers, and the land itself.  These narratives also ignore the context in which gold rushes are a part of the colonial and corporate practices of taking resources out of the ground in order to sell them for one nation and out of the control of the nations and people who were already living on the land where the resources were located.

Part of the nature of a myth is that it resonates with almost everyone. The traditional gold rush story (as it is often told) has something in it to appeal to most people.  If you can’t relate to the quest aspect of the story, you can relate to the idea of getting rich quick. One day you are poor and the next, you pull a gold nugget out of the river, changing your life forever.  It’s fun to place ourselves at the centres of these gold rush narratives. It’s fun to read treasure maps and try to pan for gold. It’s not as fun to pretend you were a Chinese labourer, a First Nations road worker, or an African American packer.  The fun lies in being the protagonist, the hero on the quest.

Studying history serves several purposes, and, aside from learning as much as we can about the past, history is also about the future. When we teach, we hope that students become good global citizens.  In the case of the Gold Rush, we hope that they see this quest for wealth came at the expense of real people and real places - effects that we are still dealing with today.  If we do it right, maybe the next 'Gold' Rush will be tempered by a concern for the welfare of the people and places involved.  


Some Learning Outcomes:

  • Place the Gold Rush in the larger context of the fight for control of resources and land that still exists today.
  • Understand some ways in which history is a collection of stories that we want to add to and that have generally been told with one subject and one audience.
  • Identify evidence that could be used in land claims and the simulation.
  • Look for ideas that can help students negotiate in the final simulation by identifying possible alliances across cultures, corporations and nations.
  • Recognize that these alliances can make for powerful teams to help preserve resources, protect languages and culture and potentially empower new communities.

Instructions for Teachers:      

This lesson has two components - a presentation and a some readings with an activity. If you don't have time for the readings, just use the presentation with your classes. You can also assign the presentation so that students can go through it at their own pace. If you have the time, you can go through the activity instead of the presentation. It will make the learning 'keep' longer as it is based on the inquiry model.

Here is a link to the larger presentation.

Here is a link to download the activity packet.

Here is the presentation. It's a small file so it will load easily on the page: