Courage · Discovery · Family · Gold Rush Guides

I Gather My Courage!

Our training class met every Tuesday. We bustled in, some with notes and binders as if carrying them would keep us from forgetting important facts. This Tuesday I was charged with my tour as I had “lucked out” the last week when time ran out just as it was my turn.

I spent hours in preparation for my tour. I visited the History Gallery almost every day, made notes, and practiced at home using my chairs, tables, and couches as gallery landmarks.

Marshall had encouraged us to find our own “story” as we prepared our tours. I struggled trying to interweave my great grandfather’s “coming to America” story with one that would actually take us on a trip through the Gold Rush. Although my great grandfather, Mike Kelly, came from Ireland post Gold Rush, traveled overland and homesteaded in what is now Sea-Tac (Seattle-Tacoma where Boeing first resided), I could imagine him taking a ship from Ireland to Boston, as many did. And so my story began with Mike Kelly as my anchor.

Mike Kelly

In preparation for my tour I had to put together some props. I ordered a 10″ x 12″ poster online from of a miner who had his photo taken to send home to his family.

I folded it in quarters, rolled it up and gave it an “aged look.” Finding paper among my art supplies, I dyed paper with black tea, dried it and using flour and water, which was the paste of the day, fashioned an envelope for the photo and a letter from Mike Kelly to his kin back home. This was how I was going to “get into” my story for the group.

Black tea leaves
Soaking paper

On Tuesday, armed with an aged, hand-written letter from Mike Kelly in an envelope, his photo and a carefully  tattered and scorched photo of his ship, I entered the History Gallery with confidence.


I gathered my group in front of the Scientific Ship and took my stuffed envelope from my orange bag.

“Hey, everyone, welcome to the Oakland Museum of California. Is this your first visit?

“We are going to do some time traveling. Are you ready to come along?”

Goofy, ya. But our audience is going to be fourth grade elementary students—nine years old.

My group graciously regressed decades into their youth, volleying nine-year old banter so that I could have real practice.

I handed the envelope to one of my students and ask him to open it. Out slid a letter addressed to me from my great grandfather! We were all set to pretend that I had gone back in the past and had come from Ireland to Boston after my great grandfather came to the California Gold Rush.

“Let’s read what the letter says!”

Dear Emily,

I have made it to San Francisco from County Cork, Ireland. I am in the gold fields and it is a lot harder than I thought to live here. If you want to, come to San Francisco and I will meet you. I have sent you a photo of me and a picture of the ship I sailed on. Good luck.


Mike Kelly, your great-grandfather

“Are you with me? Want to check out the California Gold Rush?”

All agree!

We were standing in front of the replica of a scientific ship and I cautioned everyone to stay on the pier and not fall into the water. Then, I slinked close to the ship, following the hull and stopped. Before we went any further, I asked, “Who can be a scout and see if there is enough room to climb aboard?”

A hand went up and I sent someone into the ship to see if there was room. Engaging the group in this way is a great technique Marshall demonstrated for us. It’s perfect when you have a wiggly one in your group who needs something to do!

Inside the ship we were able to see where we were and where we were headed on a large map.

I pointed out that we were starting in Boston because that is where my great grandfather arrived from Ireland.

“Do any of you know of the routes the ships took to make it to the Gold Rush?”

One of the members of my group pointed to the overland route.

This was a test. We are not supposed to say “no” to the students. So, I replied, “Yes, some of the people came overland.” Then I tried again, “If they don’t come on the land, though, how did they get all the way over here (pointing to the Bay Area)?”

This helps give the student an opportunity to rethink an answer with a possible response of, “Oh ya, they had to go all around South America!”

Some members of my group even pointed out that the travelers could have taken the Isthmus of Panama, secured passage across the 60 miles of land, and then took their chances on finding another ship to take them from Panama to San Francisco, a much shorter trip, but one that involved the hazards of tropical disease and danger in the Panamanian forests.

“Have any of you brought money?” I asked next.

No one did. So we all had to get jobs for the long voyage.

I demonstrate with great theatrics several of the many jobs available while making the voyage:

  1. Swab the deck—I asked everyone to swab along with me…
  2. Climb up the masts to raise and lower the sails—Some were asked to climb higher!
  3. Patrol the oceans from sun-up to sun-down
  4. Scientist who collects samples both at sea and on land
  5. Cook meals
  6. Survey and draw maps
  7. Carpenter, a skilled woodworker
  8. Plugging holes
  9. Coiling ropes—A few had to redo the coil as it was not ship-shape!
  10. Spinning yarn
  11. Washing the deck
  12. Repairing rigging and sails—the Boatswain
  13. Going ashore for food, firewood
  14. Cleaning the bottom of the boat when ashore
  15. Written records kept by the clerk
  16. Surgeon
  17. Illustrator

These boats were out to sea for two to three years and had to be maintained during the long voyage, I explained.

Then I told the story of a young Spaniard, José Cardero. It is a story that all the docents learn.

“Well, José was just about your age (he was actually about 23) when he joined a ship. He was a lowly deckhand. Does anyone like to draw?” Many hands shot up.

“José loved to draw and when he wasn’t working hard, he got out his sketchpad and drew what he saw; birds that might fly by, the sails and masts or fish in the sea. On board was one job José would have loved: the ship’s illustrator and map drawer. But this job was held by another young man. Everyone always admired and talked about José’s drawings. Then on one visit to shore in Peru, the official illustrator was let go, and José got a new job!”

Then I show the students some of José’s actual drawings.

I could easily stay too long in the ship and have to find a way to transition out. So I pretended to lose my balance and bumped into the bulkhead and exclaimed, “Did you feel that?” After a brief pause, “It’s not an earthquake, it’s the peer! We’re in San Francisco! Let’s get off our ship. Careful of the water!”

We gathered outside the ship and I surveyed the gallery for an empty bay then asked the students, “Do you want to go to the Gold Fields or to San Francisco first?”

Letting the visitors decide where to go invests them in the tour.

By now I was well on my way to being settled in my tour. I was feeling pretty confident. I now had a scaffolding on which to add some more interesting twists and turns later on. Although, I was unaware at this point that I would need to add anything else.

I circled through the Gold Rush Bay, showing the group the four areas that people came from to “get rich quick,” (Europe, East Coast of North America, Asia and South America), Sam Brannan’s Store, a quick spin of the “Wheel of Fortune” and wrapped up the tour with our display of Placer Gold, which had to be replenished after it was stolen from the museum one dark and stormy night last year, well not really—but the gold was stolen!

When I finished the tour, the group gathered to give me feedback. Being an elementary school teacher, I’ve had plenty of practice in 3rd-grade theatrics, which my group noticed. “I’m not sure I could do that,” some of them said, referring to my heightened role playing.

“You mean like when I yelled out, ‘Be careful, don’t fall in the water?’”

“Yes, that was great,” someone replied.

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