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Teacher Feature

A Dollar Goes A Long Way


As more and more people discovered gold during the California Gold Rush, prices of every day items skyrocketed!  People realized that there needed to be a way to avoid paying such outrageous prices.  To combat this problem, The Old Spanish Trail, a series of three pathways between New Mexico and California, became a heavily traveled route of commerce.  Between 1829 to about 1850, New Mexicans carried their native goods along this trail in exchange for animals (such as mules and horses), as well as the gold that was being discovered in large quantities in California.


To further investigate life along the Old Spanish Trail, try one or all of the activities listed below. (Note:  These activities were intended to build upon each other, but they can also be carried out independently):

  1. Mapping the Old Spanish Trail (Social Studies/Art)
  2. Traveling along the trail (Social Studies/Language Arts)
  3. Traveling along the trail (Social Studies/Language Arts/Drama)

For more information about the Old Spanish Trail, you may want to visit one of the following sites:

Standards Reflected

The project described above reflects some of the national standards of learning as defined by the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS), the National Council for Teachers of English (NCTE), and the International Society for Technology in Education.  These standards are listed below:

    Time, Continutiy, and Change:  The students identify a pattern of change within a culture as they examine the need for a commerce route in the mid-1800s in the Western United States.

    People, Places, and Environment:  The students use information that they have researched on the climate and physical features of a particular area to create a map of that region.

    Production, Distribution, and Consumption:  The students explore the role that supply and demand plays in society.  Because gold was plentiful in California, prices rose tremendously, and sometimes people traveled hundreds of miles in order to find less expensive goods.

Language Arts

    Gather and use information for research purposes:  The students will explore the resources available to them in order to gather information on the Old Spanish Trail.

    Demonstrate competence in the general skills and strategies for reading a variety of informational texts:  The students will explore a variety of sources to learn about the physical environment surrounding the Old Spanish Trail.

    Demonstrate competence in the general skills and strategies of the writing process:  The students will apply their general writing skills to complete journal entries.

    Demonstrate competence in the stylistic and rhetorical aspects of writing:  The students will attempt a new style of writing - journaling.

    Demonstrate competence in speaking and listening as tools for learning:  The students will listen to each other's findings in order to develop an understanding of the physical environment around the Old Spanish Trail.

Activity 1—Mapping the Old Spanish Trail

With your class, explore the history, and the environment surrounding the Old Spanish Trail.  Break your class into small groups and assign each group an area of the Old Spanish Trail to research.  Have your students look for information about the landscape and climate, as well as the animals and plants native to their respective areas (Northwestern New Mexico , Southwestern Colorado , Central Utah , Southern Nevada , and Southern California).  Draw a chart of the Old Spanish Trail that covers 5 pieces of butcher paper (or any large paper) - one piece for each research group.  In their groups, have your students draw depictions of what they've learned about each region.  Make sure that your students are only including natural features, and not man-made elements.  Once your groups have completed their drawings, allow them to share their findings with the class.  Connect the chart and post it where all the students can see it clearly.

Activity 2—Traveling Along the Trail (Journaling)

Now that your students know what the landscape is like, read them a story about pioneers traveling through the west, such as "Covered Wagons, Bumpy Trails," by Verla Kay.  The book you choose should express the difficulty that pioneers experienced while they crossed unfamiliar territory.  This book should be a jumping off point for you to use to introduce a journaling activity.  Discuss the history of the Old Spanish Trail with your students, focusing on its purpose as a commerce route.  Tell your students that you are going to pretend that you are living in Southern California during the mid-1800s (the height of the Gold Rush) and your are on an imaginary journey along the Old Spanish Trail to purchase less expensive goods in New Mexico.  On the first day, tell them to think about the trail, and the different environments they will be traveling through to get to New Mexico.  As their first journal entry, have your students write about why they are going on this trip, what they intend to purchase, who are they traveling with, and what they will be bringing along with them on their travels.  Each day tell your students where they are headed (you can plot this on the map) and have them write about their journey.  You may even choose to tell them about weather changes along the way (sudden storms, severe heat waves, etc.).  Have a few students share their journal entries aloud each day.  Collect and read the journals each day and start off the next day's journal writing period by reading a well-written.

Activity 3—Traveling Along the Trail (Drama)

At the end of their journaling (after the students have written about their journey to New Mexico and their purchasing of goods), students may want to add a physical aspect to this activity, by performing a small play. Choose a different child's journal entry to represent each day of the trip. The author of each day's entry will have the chance to be a narrator for their piece. The other students will be broken into small groups and each group will reenact a day of the journey while the narrator reads. Make this into a big production with your students. Have them supply or make costumes and props, and invite their parents, or another classroom to come.

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