Lesson Plans: Grades 6-8

On This Day With Lewis and Clark

Created September 28, 2010


The Lesson


On This Day With Lewis and Clark: Lewis

Portrait of Meriwether Lewis by Charles Wilson Peale C. 1807-1808 Oil on paper on canvas

Credit: Courtesy of Independence National Historic Park

As evidenced by a popular PBS documentary and a best-selling book, the adventures of Lewis and Clark have captured the American imagination once again in the last few years. Why such a strong interest?

During much of their journey, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark had no idea what they would encounter next. And, in a sense, that is how everyone lives every day. Even when we think we know what's around the corner, life can throw surprises at us. The story of Lewis and Clark is the universal story of human beings dealing with the unexpected. It's also great entertainment with a compelling cast of characters—an adventure, a road trip, a buddy story. It's about teamwork and failure and success. It brims with history and science.

Looking at historic maps of the West, students can begin to appreciate the immensity and mystery of the mission Lewis and Clark accepted. As "experts" investigating specific subjects assigned to Lewis by President Jefferson, students will conduct careful research. Reading brief diary entries of the men of the Corps will spark the interest of students as they relive the discoveries of the original participants.

Guiding Questions

  • How were the day-to-day experiences of the Lewis and Clark Expedition colored by a lack of knowledge about what the expedition members would face?
  • How did the expedition members fulfill the charge given by President Thomas Jefferson?

Learning Objectives

  • Describe some of the hazards faced by the Lewis and Clark expedition.
  • Trace the journey on a U.S. map.
  • List some of the discoveries made on the journey.

Preparation Instructions

  • This lesson is intended for use by classes studying the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Before beginning, students should have some understanding of the geographic extent of the U.S. prior to the Louisiana Purchase, and the benefits of acquiring more territory. Gather basic background information on President Jefferson, the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition through these EDSITEment resources:Additional research materials for teachers seeking historical background on Lewis and Clark are the books Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose and Lewis and Clark and the Image of the American Northwest by Dr. John Allen.

    Another useful instructional tool is the Ken Burns documentary "Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery," around which the EDSITEment-reviewed website Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery was created.
  • For the "Specialists" activity (Lesson 4), select an appropriate number of diary entries for each group from the list provided—zoologists, botanists, meteorologists, Native American experts and geologist/geographers. If a greater number of groups is desirable, consider creating two groups for each type of specialist (i.e., early zoological entries and later zoological entries), since there are many entries available.

    This activity works best using two large maps:
    • A standard classroom display map of the U.S. (commercial) on which students can write with erasable marker or to which items can be taped without harm. On this map, important dates will be affixed to guide in the creation of a map-based summary of the expedition.
    • A large, simple outline map of the U.S. (homemade, on the bulletin or chalk board) on which students will eventually draw or attach symbols to represent information from the expedition.
    NOTE: It might also be helpful to provide groups with individual outline maps to use as working drafts.
  • Teachers' Resources (formerly, The Digital Classroom), available through EDSITEment, offers a series of worksheets for analyzing primary source documents, including written documents and photographs, that you may wish to use or adapt to help students in reviewing the materials presented in this unit.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. What They Didn't Know

To help students understand the degree to which the American West was unknown before the Lewis and Clark Expedition, give them the following quiz. Before you begin, ask the students if they think they know a lot about the West. Do they think they know more than Thomas Jefferson did?

Have students number their papers from 1 to 10. For each item you name, they should write "T" if they believe the statement to be true, or "F" if they believe it to be false.

Give students a moment to write their response to each of the following statements, all beginning with:

At the time Thomas Jefferson was living …

  1. there were woolly mammoths roaming the West.
  2. there was a tribe of blue-eyed Indians living in the West who spoke Welsh, the language of people from Wales, a region on the west coast of the island of Great Britain.
  3. there was a river or series of connected rivers, starting at the Mississippi, that crossed the western mountains and reached the Pacific Ocean.
  4. the Blue Ridge Mountains were taller than the Rocky Mountains.
  5. the West had many erupting volcanoes.
  6. unicorns could be found in the West.
  7. there were mountains in the West made of undissolved salt.
  8. some beavers in the West were seven feet tall.
  9. buffaloes were friendly and had slim waists.
  10. Peruvian llamas roamed the West.

When the quiz is over, tell the students that though all of these statements are false, it is likely that Thomas Jefferson believed many of them to be true because such "facts" were included in books in his library. (Note: The students can put the quiz away. No one will ever have to share answers.)

According to Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery, maps of the West proved as fictitious as the books in Jefferson's library. European geographers, for example, drew maps depicting California as an island. Other maps showed the Rocky Mountains to be narrow and undaunting.

Share with the class a copy of The Aaron Arrowsmith Map of 1802, available on the EDSITEment-reviewed website Exploring the West from Monticello, which depicts the West prior to the Lewis and Clark Expedition. (Note: The map is the lower half of "A Map Exhibiting all the New Discoveries" from an edition labeled "1795, with additions to 1811." The lower half of the map is identical to the 1802 edition.)

What do the students notice? The map is largely blank!

According to Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery:

The lack of detail in maps circa 1803 hinted at the enormous task to be faced by the Lewis and Clark expedition. Before the journey, Meriwether Lewis had map collector Albert Gallatin make a special map that showed North America from the Pacific coast to the Mississippi."

The map depicted only three points of certainty: the latitude and longitude of the mouth of the Columbia and of St. Louis, and details of what was known of the Missouri River up to the Mandan villages in the Great Bend of the river (today's Bismarck, North Dakota). The map also estimated how the Rockies might look and the course of the Columbia River, which no one had charted beyond its mouth.

But the area that lay west of the Mandan villages was blank, and the best minds in the world could not fill in that blank until someone had walked the land, taken measurements and described the flora, fauna, rivers, mountains and people. Observations of the commercial and agricultural possibilities of the regions were equally crucial.

After reviewing the map, students will vicariously experience the discoveries made by the men on the journey by reading excerpts from their diaries. But first, students will become oriented to the journey by tracking some key dates on a contemporary map.

Activity 2. If It's November 24th, This Must Be Astoria

The students begin by looking at a map of the U.S. showing the Louisiana Purchase, accessible through the EDSITEment resource American Memory from the Library of Congress. In the days when travel was limited to the capabilities of boat, horse and foot travel, what route would students have chosen to take through the territory to reach the Pacific Ocean?

Have students look at an 1802 map of the West that includes more detail: Soulard Map of the Missouri and Upper Mississippi, 1802 by William Clark, available in the map section of the EDSITEment resource Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery. Compare it to a contemporary map of this region. In what ways is Clark's map close to being correct? In what ways is it incorrect?

If desired, students can research the average mileage covered by car, foot, horseback, raft or boat. Lewis and Clark traveled a total of 8,000 miles. How long would it take to travel that distance using these modes of transportation?

The purpose of the next activity is to develop students' sense of the progress of the outbound journey of Lewis and Clark. They will affix dates relevant to the expedition onto the large contemporary political map as guides for eventually placing their "specialist" information (see Activity 4) on the large outline map. (Note: The locations are those specified in the Timeline of the Trip, from the EDSITEment resource Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery.)

Hand out an appropriate number of small cards with any, or all, of the following dates and locations:

 March 14, 1804 St. Louis, Missouri
August 3, 1804Omaha, Nebraska
August 20, 1804Sioux City, Iowa
September 25, 1804Pierre, South Dakota
Oct. 24, 1804 - April 7, 1805Bismarck, North Dakota
April 29, 1805where the Yellowstone River flows into the Missouri
June 2, 1805fork in the Missouri
June 13, 1805Great Falls, Montana
July 5, 1805Three Forks, Montana; Gallatin, Jefferson, Madison Rivers
August 8, 1805Dillon, Montana
August 12, 1805border between Idaho and Montana
September 9, 1805Missoula, Montana
September 22, 1805Weippe, Idaho
October 7, 1805Orofino, Idaho
October 16, 1805conjunction of the Snake and Columbia Rivers
November 24, 1805Astoria, Oregon

Each card represents a date when the expedition reached or departed from a specific location. Using the names of towns and rivers shown on contemporary maps, students should work alone or in pairs to determine the location of the expedition on the date(s) on their card(s). Once the students have confirmed each location, they should put the dates on the map chronologically showing the progress of the expedition.

Note: An excellent array of maps is available on the EDSITEment-reviewed National Geographic Xpeditions. Students can obtain state maps with most of the locations using the site's Atlas feature. Many locations can be found by searching within the Mapmaker 1-Page Maps.

When all of the dates and locations have been plotted on the map, students should work alone or in their groups to determine how many miles were traveled (approximately) in each segment of the journey and how many days it took to travel that far. Within each segment, about how many miles were covered each day, on average?

Discuss issues that arise from tracking the expedition over time. For example, why did the expedition stop from October 1804 to April 1805? Where did the expedition make swift progress? Slow progress? At this point, interested classes might enjoy seeing The Route of the Corps of Discovery to the Pacific, copied from William Clark's original, available on the EDSITEment resource Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery. On this map, the outbound route is shown in red, and the return route is in blue.

Activity 3. What Did Jefferson Say, Anyway?

As a class, review President Jefferson's charge to Meriwether Lewis as to the goals of the expedition. Jefferson's orders may be accessed on the EDSITEment-reviewed website American Memory by searching for the exact phrase "Thomas Jefferson to Congress, January 18, 1803" (the text is found on page 841 of the transcription, starting with the words "The commerce which may be carried on…" and ending with "…insects.")

In what kinds of discoveries was Jefferson interested? After the students have read from the diaries, they should be able to determine if the expedition members did a good job of "acquainting" themselves with the items Jefferson listed.

Activity 4. Scientists Study the Corps' Diaries

Historians rely on primary source material to learn about the past. In this activity, students will act as scientists gleaning information from primary sources—the journals of members of the expedition. Journal entries are available through the EDSITEment resource Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery. What did the expedition members discover? Students will gain an appreciation of not only the knowledge acquired during the famous journey but also the difficulties endured.

Assign small groups specific aspects of the expedition and related diary entries to explore. Groups could include "specialists" in zoology (animals), botany (plants), meteorology (weather), Native American cultures, and geology/geography. Each group is given or searches online for the diary entries related to the assigned "specialty." Pertinent information from the entries will be noted on the large outline map, or on the chart provided in PDF format for each group's specialty.

(Note: The original spelling of the diarists has been maintained, and the diaries were written before spelling had been standardized. However, most of the selected entries are very short, and should not cause too many comprehension problems. You may wish to form student groups with a range of reading levels within each group, so that students can help each other understand the diary entries.)

Click here to download a list of the diary entries by category (In PDF format. Download Adobe Acrobat Reader®).

If possible, keep wildflower, insect, trees, animal and other identification handbooks on hand for students to use as they discover what the expedition members saw along the route.

Activity 5. Mapping the Discoveries of the Corps

As a culminating activity, have the student groups work together to complete the large outline map. Each group should place on the map, in approximate respective locations, markers representing discoveries made by the expedition or any events the students deem important. Postings should include the date. Proceed chronologically. The dates previously attached to the classroom map will serve as guideposts for determining the location of the Corps on a particular date.

Once all the discoveries are posted, discuss the journey as a whole. Judging from the diary entries the class studied, did the expedition members take seriously President Jefferson's charge? How difficult was the journey?

If desired, for assessment purposes, ask students to trace on a blank outline map of the continental U.S. the approximate journey of the Corps. On the back, they should list some of the hazards faced by the Lewis and Clark Expedition and some of the discoveries made on the journey.

Extending The Lesson


Selected EDSITEment Websites
American Memory Project Library of Congress
The American President
Center for the Liberal Arts
Exploring the West from Monticello
History Matters
Internet Public Library
Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery
National Geographic Society Xpeditions
Mapmaker 1-Page Maps
Native Web
New Perspectives on the West

Other Resources:

Recommended readings from American Memory

  • Jefferson and the Louisiana Purchase
    Blumberg, Rhoda. What's the Deal? Jefferson, Napolean, and the Louisiana Purchase. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1998.
  • Westward Expansion
    Silverman, Jerry. Singing Our Way West: Songs and Stories from America's Westward Expansion. Brookfield, Conn.: Millbrook Press, 1998.
  • Maps
    Bacon, Josephine. The Doubleday Atlas of the United States of America. N.Y.: Doubleday, 1990.
    Chambers, Catherine. All About Maps. New York: Franklin Watts, 1998.
    Clouse, Nancy L.Puzzle Maps USA. N.Y.: Henry Hold and Co., 1990.
    Glickman, Jane. Cool Geography. N.Y.: Price Stern Sloan, 1998.
    Knowlton, Jack. Maps & Globes. N.Y.: HarperCollins, 1985.

Recommended readings from Native Web

  • Bruchac, Joseph. Sacajawea: The Story of Bird Woman and the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Hardcover, 128 pages (February 28, 2000) Silver Whistle; ISBN: 0152022341. Reading level: Young Adult
  • Roop, Coonie and Roop, Peter Geiger. Girl of the Shining Mountains: Sacagawea's Story. Hardcover, 144 pages (October 1999) Hyperion Press; ISBN: 0786804920. Reading level: Ages 9-12

Recommended readings from Women of the West Museum

  • Rowland, Della. The Story of Sacajawea. New York: Dell Publishing, 1989. Illus. by Richard Leonard. Reading level: Grades 3-5

Additional readings (originally written for adults) available as e-texts

  • From Internet Public Library's Online Texts Collection, search by title:
    "Along the Trail with Lewis and Clark," Lewis, Meriwether
    "First Across the Continent: The Story of The Exploring Expedition of Lewis and Clark in 1804-5-6," Brooks, Noah
    "Sac-A-Ja-Wea, America's Greatest Heroine: From the Lewis and Clark Diaries," McCreight, Major Israel

The Basics

Time Required

4-6 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Revolution and the New Nation (1754-1820s)
  • History and Social Studies > U.S.
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Expansion and Reform (1801-1861)
  • History and Social Studies > People > Native American
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. History
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Exploration & Discovery
  • Analysis
  • Map Skills
  • Using primary sources


Activity Worksheets