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        Meriwether Lewis and William Clark | Explorers and Soldiers

        Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led the U.S. Corps of Discovery on an historic expedition across the uncharted western lands of North America in the early 1800s. Tasked by President Thomas Jefferson to map the territory, discover its flora and fauna, and establish friendly trade relationships with native tribes; Lewis and Clark journeyed more than 8,000 miles for two years, from Missouri to the Pacific Ocean. Their discoveries directed the future course of American exploration and expansion. Through two primary source activities and a short video, students will understand what this expedition meant for the future United States of America.

        Lesson Summary

        In this lesson, students will explore the incredible two-year expedition of Lewis and Clark. After viewing a short video about their exploration of the American West, students will analyze a painting that shows the explorers meeting a group of Chinook natives and then read journal entries that Lewis and Clark wrote about their experiences. The lesson will conclude with students creating a map of their own neighborhood and writing their own writing journal entries.

        Time Allotment

        Introduction – 5 minutes

        Video and Class Discussion – 10 minutes

        Visual Primary Source Activity – 10 minutes

        Written Primary Source Activity – 30 minutes

        Geography Activity – 20 minutes

        Culminating Activity – varies depending on format




        • territory –  an organized area that is not yet admitted to the full rights of a state
        • expedition – a journey or voyage made for a specific purpose
        • militia – a body of citizen soldiers as distinguished from professional soldiers
        • skirmish – a conflict or encounter between small groups


        Louisiana Purchase - Louisiana Purchase - The Louisiana Purchase was the acquisition of the Louisiana Territory by the United States from France in 1803. The United States paid $15 million dollars (about a quarter of a billion dollars in today’s dollars) for approximately 827,000 square miles of land. President Thomas Jefferson initiated the purchase, fearing that the French wanted to establish an empire in North America. The Louisiana Territory stretched from the Mississippi River in the east to the Rocky Mountains in the west and from the Gulf of Mexico in the south to the Canadian border in the north. Part or all of 15 states were eventually created from this purchase.

        To learn more about the Louisiana Purchase:

        Background on Meriwether Lewis and William Clark | Explorers and Soldiers

        When Thomas Jefferson became President in 1801, most of the population of the United States lived within 50-100 miles of the Atlantic Ocean. All that was known of the West was what had been learned from French traders or what was told in fantastical stories of the time—erupting volcanoes, mountains of salt, woolly mammoths, and seven-foot-tall beavers. 

        In 1803, the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory for $15 million from France. These 827,000 square miles of land instantly doubled the size of the United States. Jefferson wanted to know everything about the region—its land, people, plants, and animals. He hoped to establish trade with American Indians in the West and to discover a water route—called the Northwest Passage—that would lead directly to the Pacific Ocean. Jefferson formed the Corps of Discovery, a special unit of the U.S. army, to explore the new territory. The first person Jefferson thought of to lead the expedition was his personal secretary, Meriwether Lewis.

        Meriwether Lewis was born in 1774 in Albemarle County, Virginia, not far from Jefferson’s home of Monticello. Lewis had been interested in natural history since childhood; he was a skilled hunter and had learned from his mother how to gather wild medicinal herbs. After graduating from college, Lewis joined the Virginia militia, and then, in 1795, joined the U.S. Army. By 1800, he had risen to the rank of captain; the following year, President Thomas Jefferson asked him to be his private secretary. When Jefferson offered Lewis the chance to lead an expedition to the land west of the Mississippi River, Lewis was thrilled, and asked his old army friend William Clark to join him as co-commander.  

        William Clark was born in 1770 in Virginia, the ninth of ten children in a modest farming family. His family moved to Kentucky in 1785 and Clark joined a volunteer militia there, where he started keeping a journal, beginning what would become a lifelong habit. Clark had no formal education, but his journals indicate he was well read. In 1791, he enlisted in the Legion of the United States, an extension of the U.S. Army. Clark became friends with Meriwether Lewis when the two served together in 1795. The following year, Clark resigned from the army and returned to his family’s plantation. In 1803, he received a letter from his old friend, asking him to help lead the Corps of Discovery expedition. 

        Before the journey began, President Jefferson sent Lewis to Philadelphia to study map making, botany, and medicine with some of the leading scientists of the day. By October 1803, Lewis and Clark set up Camp Dubois near the east bank of the Mississippi River, where they trained volunteers and stocked up on supplies. On May 14, 1804, the “Corps of Volunteers for North West Discovery,” which included Lewis and Clark and four dozen other men, started up the Missouri River aboard a 55-foot-long keelboat and two smaller boats. As they traveled, Clark spent much of his time making maps and charting the course, while Lewis studied the region’s rocks, soil, animals, and plants.

        By the fall of 1804, the expedition had reached the villages of the Mandan and Hidatsa in North Dakota. Lewis and Clark began construction of Fort Mandan, where they spent the winter. During this time, Lewis and Clark invited Toussaint Charbonneau, a French-Canadian fur trader, and his wife Sacagawea, a Shoshone Indian, to join the expedition as interpreters. 

        During spring 1805, the expedition traveled up the Missouri River westward, deeper into unknown territory. They found the river, with its fierce rapids and waterfalls, to be increasingly impassable, and were forced to carry all of their gear, including their canoes, in order to get around it. By August 1805, the expedition had reached the summer home of the Shoshone people. Sacagawea’s brother was the Shoshone chief of the first village they contacted, and she helped negotiate for the horses needed to cross the Rocky Mountains. As the party began their journey across the mountains, it became clear that the Northwest Passage, the direct water route to the Pacific Ocean that they had been hoping to discover, did not exist. By October, the expedition emerged from the mountains and reached a branch of what is now the Columbia River in Oregon. In November, they finally reached the Pacific Ocean--their ultimate goal. They set up a winter encampment south of the river. 

        In March 1806, the expedition prepared to make the return journey. In July, Lewis and Clark divided into two groups: Lewis followed the Missouri River and Clark took a group to explore the Yellowstone River. During his exploration, Clark carved “W Clark July 25 1806” onto a rock formation—the only physical evidence of the entire expedition. Lewis and his party skirmished with eight Blackfeet warriors; two Blackfeet were killed—the only documented violent deaths of the expedition. By August, the two parties reunited near the junction of the two rivers. The following month they arrived in St. Louis, Missouri. Lewis wrote to Jefferson that they had “penetrated the Continent of North America to the Pacific Ocean.”

        After the expedition, Lewis was named governor of the Louisiana Territory. He planned to publish the journals from the trip, but had trouble completing them. Just three years later, Lewis died, possibly by suicide. Clark was appointed agent for Indian affairs in the West and became a brigadier general of the militia. He also served as governor of the Missouri Territory. Clark died in 1838 in St. Louis. 

        The Corps of Discovery traveled nearly 8,000 miles by boat, foot, and horseback. Lewis and Clark returned with a wealth of information about the new territory west of the Mississippi River—its people, land, plants, and animals. The expedition also helped map the entire North American continent, claimed the Oregon Territory for the United States, and marked a pathway for the new nation to spread westward. 

        Introductory Activity

        (5 minutes)

        • Ask students:
        1. Have you ever been to a foreign country, a state park, or one of our country’s national parks? How did it differ from where you live? Describe your feelings being in this new place. 
        2. Have you ever met people whose lives were very different from your own? Describe the differences from your own life. What did you notice that you had in common despite these differences?
        • Introduce Meriwether Lewis and William Clark; discuss Lewis’s connection to Thomas Jefferson:

          Lewis worked as Thomas Jefferson’s personal secretary. Although Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were born into families of different means, they had a lot in common. Both men loved the outdoors and learned to hunt, fish, and trap. They both served in the military, where they met and became friends, and they were both self-reliant people, who understood the importance of working together to accomplish a task. Each man became a leader and a public servant.

        Learning Activities


        Video and Class Discussion (10 minutes)

        Distribute Graphic Organizer for students to fill out while viewing the video. 

        Download the Graphic Organizer [PDF]

        Play the video, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark | PBS World Explorers.

        Discussion questions after viewing:

        1. What experiences in Lewis’s and Clark’s lives prior to leading the Corps of Discovery made them good choices to head this expedition?
        2. Today you can travel across the United States in a few hours by airplane or a few days by train or car. Would you have liked to have been part of the Lewis and Clark expedition that traveled for nearly two years from Missouri to Oregon and the Pacific Ocean?
        3. What sort of attitude and mental preparation does it take to live off of the land for two years; traveling through places you’ve never been with little idea what might happen tomorrow?
        4. Why were Lewis and Clark’s accomplishments so important for shaping the attitudes and expansion of the United States during the 1800s?
        5. Without their discoveries, what might our country look like today?

        Answer Key

        Video Graphic Organizer

        Achievements of the Lewis and Clark expedition

        Challenges faced by the Lewis and Clark expedition

        • Charted and mapped the new Western territory of the US
        • Marked the U.S. claim on the Oregon territory
        • Documented the different species that lived along the Louisiana Purchase’s land
        • Explored and recorded natural resources
        • Researched the (lack of) a direct waterway route to the Pacific
        • Helped to establish friendly but authoritative relationships with the American Indians who lived on the purchased land
        • Away for a long time: almost two full years
        • Dangerous weather conditions
        • Had to build settlements to live on during the winters
        • American Indians didn’t speak English
        • Low food rations
        • No direct waterway to the Pacific Ocean
        • Had to lug resources on horseback over the Rocky Mountains


        Discussion Questions  

        1. Both Lewis and Clark had served in militias and would be able to fend for themselves and defend their team from any harm that came their way. Both had joined the newly formed Army and become Captains, so they were proven leaders.
          • Meriwether Lewis had always had an interest in the outdoors and natural history. When he was younger, his mother taught him how to gather medicinal herbs. His interest in wildlife made him a good fit for documenting the plant and animals species that the expedition encountered. Lewis was also an avid hunter, which would help provide the team food along their trip. 
          • William Clark had grown up in a farming family and was a hard worker. When in the militia, he started keeping a journal—a skill that would help document the expedition and its discoveries. When Clark served in the militia, he gained experience fighting American Indians. He then served in the Army with Lewis, and they were good friends who could work together to make the expedition a success. 
        2. Example answer: It would be a great adventure, but I’m not sure I could do it for two whole years. 
        3. It certainly takes a strong attitude. One would need courage, strength, and perseverance to head out on a two-year-long journey. You have to be willing to be apart from your family and friends back home. You have to be resourceful and have a working knowledge how to gather and hunt for food. You have to be able to adapt to whatever comes your way.
        4. Lewis and Clark’s expedition was crucially important for understanding the layout of our newly acquired land. They not only mapped the land of the US had just purchased, but they also staked claim on the Oregon territory, extending America’s reach to the Pacific coast. Lewis and Clark’s team established (mostly) friendly relationships with American Indian tribes they encountered along the way, helping to smooth their transition into being governed by the United States of America. 
        5. Our country’s Westward Expansion would have been slower. A different country could have claimed the Oregon Territory. There would have been a delayed discovery of gold and other Rocky Mountain minerals, most likely. 

        Examining Primary Sources 

        Visual Primary Source Activity (10 minutes)

        Project or make copies of the following image.

        Lewis and Clark on the Lower Columbia, painted by Charles Marion Russell in 1904-1905. This painting depicts the Corps of Discovery meeting the Chinook people on the Columbia River. (Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas)

        Charlie Russell (1864-1926) loved to paint the “Wild West,” depicting current and historic scenes of the western United States as it was becoming settled. Russell grew up in Missouri, but left home for Montana when he was only sixteen, where he lived and worked as a cowboy. In 1888, Russell spent almost a year living with the Blood Indians of the Blackfeet nation. This experience infused Russell with a perspective that was unique among most Wild West painters. He always depicted American Indians with dignity and humanity. In 1904, Russell and his wife traveled from Montana, where they lived, to St. Louis to visit family and attend the Louisiana Purchase centennial exposition. What Russell saw intrigued him, so he began to research the Corps of Discovery expedition, reading their journals, among other things. Based on what he learned, Russell created a series of tableaux depicting the expedition. This painting is one of those scenes.


        1. Where has the painter situated himself in the context of the painting—on shore; in a boat? If in a boat, is it a Corps boat or a Chinook boat?
        2. Lewis and Clark are standing up in the boat in the foreground. Why do you think the artist put them there? 
        3. Who do you think the shirtless man is in the front of the boat facing you? Why do you think that? With whom is he interacting?
        4. What is the mood of the scene? Imagine what the outcome of this interaction might have been.

        Answer Key

        1. Sample answer: The painter situated himself in the middle of the river, so it appears it’s the view from another one of the boats. 
        2. Sample answer: I think the painter put them in the foreground to show their importance and make sure the viewer focused on them. Having Lewis and Clark standing displays their leadership of the expedition team. 
        3. Sample answer: I think the shirtless man is a Chinook tribal leader. He is standing tall, coming forth as the first of his men to the unfamiliar expedition team. He is interacting with Lewis and Clark’s American Indian translator/interpreter, probably trying to understand whom this team of men are and if they are a threat to his tribe. 
        4. Sample answer: The mood is calm but tense. Both the Corps of Discovery and the Chinook people are trying to establish both their strength but also their willingness to extend their hand in peace, if the other chooses to do so. I imagine and hope that the translator was able to convey that Lewis and Clark’s team come peacefully to explore the lands and meet the American.
        Written Primary Source Activity (30 minutes)

        Download the Written Activity [PDF]

        Tell your students that the following passages are from Lewis and Clark’s journals from their time on the Corps of Discovery expedition. One of the major objectives of the Corps of Discovery expedition was to take a census of the fauna and flora in the Louisiana Territory. Other major objectives were to map the territory and to befriend the American Indians who lived there.

        Have your students read the passages and then answer the questions and complete the activities on the handout. After completing the first set of questions and activities, show students photographs and paintings of the Clark’s Nutcracker: 



        Have students compare their drawings to the photos of Clark’s Nutcracker. How are they similar and how are they different? After comparing, have students resume work on the handout.

        Answer Key

        First two passages (March 5 and May 28 of 1806) 

        1. These passages show that Meriwether Lewis had great observational skills. He noticed many details about each species, and he gave thorough descriptions in his writings about their measurements, color, texture, size, sounds, and more. 

        Third passage (December 7, 1804) – Sample prompts

        1. Today is bitterly cold. My fingers can barely finish this letter to you. Food is hard to come by in such temperatures, but thankfully we teamed up with the Indians and caught several buffalo yesterday. The Native Americans have been very kind and warned us that the buffalo herd was nearby.
        2. The Corps had an excellent relationship with the Native Americans. The Native Americans helped the Corps survive through the winter by give them tips about when to hunt and joining forces with them to hunt droves of buffalo. American Indians value the buffalo. No matter who makes the initial kill, they share the buffalo amongst their people (and in this case, with the Corps, too). 


        Geography Activity (20 minutes)

        Materials Needed


        1. Distribute the Lewis and Clark Journey map handout, which includes grid identifiers and numeric identifiers of the geographic locations discussed in the Google Earth Story. If possible, project the Lewis and Clark Journey map as well
        2. In class, or independently, have students launch the Google Earth Story so they can follow the journey of Lewis and Clark. Have students make notes on the map; encourage them to include aspects of the journey that they find interesting as well as any questions that arise.

        Answer Key

        1. Answers will vary
          1. a. 1d
          2. b. Missouri River
          3. c. Columbia River
          4. d. 1c
          5. e. Native tribes, overwintering locations, meeting/trading locations

        Culminating Activity

        (time varies depending on format)

        This can be done as an in-class follow-up to the lesson, as a homework assignment, or as a multi-day in-class project.

        Explain that Lewis and Clark each kept a journal in which they wrote about the ordinary and the extraordinary things they experienced every day of their journey. Instruct students to keep a personal journal for a week, two weeks, or a month, describing what they do, what they see, and their interactions with the things and people around them. Tell them to include emotional reactions and opinions about what they observe.

        Share passages aloud in class or compile passages into a single volume (hard copy or electronic) for students to share with family and friends. Ask students, what kinds of things are included and what things might be left out of a journal? How important are the journals of Lewis and Clark to historians today. Why?

        Extend the lesson:

        Lewis and Clark also mapped their entire journey (8,000 miles, round trip). Instruct student to create a map of their neighborhood based only on what is seen as they walk, bike, or drive around. Have them use a compass or compass feature on a smartphone if it is helpful and available.

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