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Questions to Consider

What risks did people accept when they came to California to take advantage of the Gold Rush?

What types of catastrophic events did they experience? Were they responsible for any of them?

How did people deal with disasters? How did they commemorate them?

About the Images

The images in this group suggest that life during the Gold Rush could be harsh and unpredictable. But the ever-present risk of floods, earthquakes, shipwrecks, and other disasters did not deter determined would-be miners from continuing to seek their fortune in the Golden State.


The people who came to California in search of gold were faced with the threat of disaster in every step of their journey. Many came by ship, even though shipwrecks were commonplace — one set of lithographs depicts four shipwrecks that occurred within 60 days. Earthquakes were another fact of life in California. Sensational newspaper illustrations like "Earth Quakey Times," and photographs showing buildings in shambles, helped build the state's reputation as an "earthquake capital."

Earthquakes were not the only disasters. Several images show the city of Sacramento flooded and on fire, others show fires that destroyed parts of San Francisco and other cities. As the photograph of the firefighters at the Eureka firehouse show, some services were in place to deal with this constant threat.

The popular culture of the time reflected these recurring disasters. Artists drew pictures based on survivors’ accounts of train crashes and shipwrecks. Composers wrote music such as the "Flood Mazurka," about a flood in Sacramento, and songs such as "I Do Not Want to Be Drowned," dedicated to survivors of the shipwreck of the Golden Gate.

Despite the many potential dangers and risks of traveling to and living in California, new people kept flowing into the state. In many ways, this situation still holds true today.

California Content Standards

English-Language Arts

Grade 4:

1.0 Writing Strategies: Research and Technology

2.0 Writing Applications
2.3 Write information reports.

2.0 Speaking Applications
2.2 Make informational presentations.

Grade 5:

2.0 Writing Applications
2.3 Write research reports about important ideas, issues, or events.

2.0 Speaking Applications
2.2 Deliver informative presentations about an important idea, issue, or event.

History-Social Science

Grade 4:

4.3 Students explain the economic, social, and political life in California from the establishment of the Bear Flag Republic through the Mexican-American War, the Gold Rush, and the granting of statehood. (4.3.3)

Grade 5:

5.8 Students trace the colonization, immigration, and settlement patterns of the American people from 1789 to the mid-1800s, with emphasis on the role of economic incentives, effects of the physical and political geography, and transportation systems. (5.8.4)

Visual Arts

3.0 Historical and Cultural Context Understanding the Historical Contributions and Cultural Dimensions of the Visual Arts. Students analyze the role and development of the visual arts in past and present cultures throughout the world, noting human diversity as it relates to the visual arts and artists.

Analysis Tools

6C's of Primary Source Analysis (PDF) (Source: UCI History Project)
Photographs (PDF) (Source: Library of Congress)
Posters/Visuals (PDF) (Source: Bringing History Home)
Primary Source Activity (PDF) (Source: Library of Congress)

What is a lithograph?

Lithographs — prints made from drawings on stone or metal plates — became a popular form of newspaper illustration in the 19th century.