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        Montana | Activity 4.2: Thomas Jefferson's Instructions for Meriwether Lewis

        Students read Thomas Jefferson's instructions to Meriwether Lewis for the Lewis and Clark expedition. They then write a letter to Thomas Jefferson, from the point of view of Lewis or Clark, discussing their new discoveries. Alternatively, students draw pictures depicting their new discoveries.

        Lesson Summary

        Students read instructions given to Meriwether Lewis for the Lewis and Clark expedition. Students then write a letter to Thomas Jefferson, from the point of view of Lewis or Clark, discussing their new discoveries. Alternatively, students draw pictures depicting their new discoveries.

        This lesson is part of "Great States: Montana | Unit 4: Early Exploration" which focuses on the factors that drew people to explore Montana, and how these early visitors impacted American Indians.

        Time Allotment

        45 minutes

        Learning Objectives


        4.1: Identify and use various sources of information (e.g., artifacts, diaries, photographs, charts, biographies, paintings, architecture, songs) to develop an understanding of the past. 

        4.4: Identify and describe famous people, important democratic values (e.g., democracy, freedom, justice) symbols (e.g., Montana and US flags, state flower) and holidays, in the history of Montana, American Indian tribes, and the United States.

        Supplemental Standards:

        Helena District 4.1: Identify and use various sources to develop an understanding of the history of Montana (including the Montana Constitution). 

        Helena District 4.3: Use a variety of literature to connect figures in Montana history to historical events.



        1. Project images from the manuscript of Thomas Jefferson's instructions for Meriweather Lewis. Explain that the letter was the charter for federal exploration throughout the 19th century. It provided instruction for Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery, which was charged with exploring the western continent in hopes of finding a potential Northwest Passage, a waterway path to the Pacific Ocean. Lewis and Clark kept journals of their journey noting the land, plants, animals, and people they encountered along the way.
        2. Distribute the Excerpts of Jefferson's Letter to Lewis handout. This handout includes transcript excerpts from Jefferson’s instructions, as well as vocabulary for some of the harder words. Have students read the passage. Explain tough words as needed.
        3. Discuss some of the key points of Jefferson’s manuscript:
          1. These were the comprehensive instructions for the exploration of the American West.
          2. Jefferson’s requested exploration combines the national desire to expand westward as well as its desire for scientific discoveries of the natural world.
          3. The Corps of Discovery had one central mission: to discover a passage of water that crossed the continent, which was desired primarily for commerce purposes.
          4. There were many additional objectives as well, including learning about the plants, animals, and people that lived on these lands, and establishing diplomatic relations with native inhabitants.
        4. Explain that Lewis and Clark described lots of plants and animals during the expedition, many of which they discovered. List some of the new flora and fauna Lewis and Clark found on their journey on the board. Pictures have been provided for each of the examples listed below that can be projected to the class. Some examples are:
          1. Grizzly Bear
          2. White Sturgeon
          3. Clark’s Nutcracker
          4. Lewis’s Woodpecker
          5. Silvery Buffaloberry
          6. Bushy-tailed Woodrat
          7. Golden Currant
          8. Channel Catfish
          9. Western Rattlesnake
          10. Gumbo Evening Primrose
        5. Have students either:
          1. Write a letter to Jefferson posing as Lewis or Clark, reporting back on what they’ve found and obstacles they’ve faced. (Provide the Letter to Jefferson handout.)
          2. Pick three discoveries and draw pictures of them. Pass out loose-leaf paper and drawing materials.

        Extend the Lesson (15 minutes):

        A lot of Lewis and Clark’s discoveries were named after them in scientific terms. For example, the blue flax plant is officially called, “Linum lewisii.” Have students pretend they’ve discovered a new species. Is it a plant or animal? Have them draw the new species, and then name it scientifically after themselves.

        Teacher Prompts

        To read the full transcript of Jefferson’s Instructions for Meriwether Lewis, click here. [Source: Rivers, Edens, Empires: Lewis & Clark and the Revealing of America, Library of Congress.]

        For information the flora and fauna discovered by Lewis and Clark, click here. [Source: Images of Plants & Animals, Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.]

        Some things they encountered were already known, but their journals helped further describe the species.


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