Wrapping Up Week 3 (California Field Trip)

We’ve barely started back to school, but we had a family wedding to attend this weekend in Northern California, so we decided to make the whole week a “field trip” to supplement our study of state history.  We read a few books beforehand to introduce topics I thought we’d have a chance to learn more about, but the whole trip ended up being more educational than I ever imagined.

Lake Tahoe

For the first part of our trip, we spent five days camping at Lake Tahoe.  Unfortunately I had some computer/printer problems right before we left, so I wasn’t able to print out the Camping Preschool Pack from Homeschool Creations I planned to take to use with my little ones.  (Thankfully that’s all resolved, so they’ll probably get it next week since camping is fresh on the brain!)  I was also really disappointed that I couldn’t print out a scavenger hunt for the kids.  (There are lots of scavenger hunt lists online, but I liked this one because it was only nature items and I thought we’d be able to find most of them.)

Okay, so that’s what we DIDN’T do.  What we did do in Tahoe was having an amazing time hiking, swimming, kayaking, chopping wood, building campfires, observing insects, climbing rocks, and getting fantastically dirty.

One day we headed over to Virginia City, Nevada, where we had an awesome day of history lessons.  We started off taking a ride on the Virginia-Truckee Railroad, learning about the mining history of the Comstock Lode as we rode in train cars that were over 100 years old!

Then we walked through the town and learned about the mining process and life in an old mining town.  We even got to go on a tour in an old mine.

old wagonVirginia City mine


In preparation for the second part of our trip, I chose to focus on three topics I knew we’d get a chance to learn more about in Sacramento: the California Gold Rush, the Pony Express, and the Transcontinental Railroad.  These three parts of history (and much more) were made more tangible for the kids as we walked the streets of Old Sacramento.

old schoolhousetelegraph

Gold Rush

So much of California’s history can be tied back to the pivotal period of the gold rush.  Sacramento grew into a town because of the masses of treasure seekers flooding into the area.  The kids learned how to pan for gold at the Sacramento History Museum, saw how gold was measured and transported at the Wells Fargo Museum, and walked along the river front where the miners stepped off the boats to seek out their fortunes.

panning for gold weighing gold
Here are other resources we used to learn about the Gold Rush:

  • By the Great Horn Spoon by Sid Fleischman (The whole family listened to the recording of the book from Full Cast Audio as we drove, and it was a story even my husband and I enjoyed.)
  • Real Kids, Real Places The “Gosh Awful” Gold Rush Mystery by Carole Marsh
  • Levi Strauss Gets a Bright Idea by Tony Johnston (I really didn’t care for the repeated use of the word “Dang!” throughout the story, and it definitely is a “fairly fabricated story,” but it was still interesting to hear about how Levi Strauss started creating jeans.)
  • DVD Dig into History with California Jones: Gold Rush (from our local library), which unfortunately doesn’t seem to be available for purchase anywhere even though it was only made in 2009.  My kids really enjoyed this DVD and were hoping it was a whole series they could watch.  (Evidently there are two others, but our library doesn’t have them.)
  • John Sutter: California Pioneer by Chris Hayhurst
Pony Express

The Pony Express only ran for 19 months, but its importance for tying the remote state of California with the rest of the United States has given it a lasting legacy.  We saw part of the trail taken by Pony Express riders when we were on our way to Virginia City, and then we got to see where they ended their journey in Sacramento.

Pony Express exhibit Pony Express monument

Transcontinental Railroad

We saw where the western end of the Transcontinental Railroad began and learned much more about it at the California State Railroad Museum.  The museum was such a hit, we stayed for about five hours and only left because they were closing.  (I think the kids would have played at the toy train tables for at least another hour!)

Sacramento railroad California State Railroad MuseumTranscontinental Railroad
We watched two videos to learn about the Transcontinental Railroad before we went.

Finally, we visited two places that ended up adding even more to our study of California history.

Sutter’s Fort

Started back when California was a part of Mexico, Sutter’s Fort played an integral role in the development of the state.  Once the gold rush started, the city of Sacramento sprung up around the fort and it was no longer used until it was restored as a historical site.

Sutter's Fort 1 Sutter's Fort 2
We haven’t talked about the Donner Party yet, but after seeing Patty Reed’s doll (willed to Sutter’s Fort when she died out of gratitude for the part the people from the fort played in the rescue of the survivors), I’ve added the book Patty Reed’s Doll to my lesson plans for our continued study of California.

Patty Reed's doll

State Capitol

Okay, so the kids were sadly unimpressed with our visit to the beautiful State Capitol building, but I hope they learned a little bit nevertheless.  We got to peek into the chamber where the lawmakers meet together, see historically recreated rooms, talk about the different governors whose portraits line the gallery, learn a little about Ronald Reagan (who was the 33rd governor of California before becoming the 40th President), and see displays from each of the 58 counties in the state.

California State Capitol inside Capitol
Overall, we had a fantastic time on our week-long “field trip.”  The kids learned so much more than they would have by sitting in a classroom reading from a textbook!