Student Activity

Lewis and Clark: Exploring Uncharted Territory

Lewis and Clark
Photo caption

Lewis and Clark.

"Fort Mandan. Our vessels consisted of six small canoes, and two large perogues. This little fleet altho' not quite so rispectable as those of Columbus or Capt. Cook, were still viewed by us with as much pleasure as those deservedly famed adventurers ever beheld theirs; and I dare say with quite as much anxiety for their safety and preservation. We were now about to penetrate a country at least two thousand miles in width, on which the foot of civilized man had never trodden; the good or evil it had in store for us was for experiment yet to determine, and these little vessells contained every article by which we were to expect to subsist or defend ourselves."

—Journal entry of Meriwether Lewis, April 7, 1805

The Louisiana Purchase

On July 4, 1803, the territory of the United States doubled in size. At the conclusion of negotiations between Napoleon Bonaparte and President Thomas Jefferson, the nation acquired the Louisiana Purchase for $15 million -- approximately 3 cents per acre of land. Covering land west of the Mississippi River from New Orleans through Montana, the new territory was largely unknown to Americans in the East. To explore this newly acquired territory, Jefferson persuaded Congress to allocate $2,500 to his secretary, Meriwether Lewis, his friend, William Clark, and 31 other companions, creating the "Corps of Discovery."

After gathering supplies in Pittsburgh and waiting for the official land transfer of Louisiana from France to the United States, the expedition finally set sail from Camp Dubois, just north of St. Louis, on May 14, 1804. Traveling up the Missouri River, the Corps of Discovery began their explorations, which would continue over the next two years. Scientific discovery was among their aims. The Corps recorded over 400 new plants and animals previously unknown in the East. Among these were many of the species for which the West is now known, such as antelope, prairie dogs, and grizzly bears.

Fort Mandan

With the first winter approaching during their travels, the team settled in Fort Mandan, just across the river from the villages of the Mandans and Hidsatas. Aware of the additional Native American tribes they would encounter in their coming journeys, Lewis and Clark hired French Canadian fur trader, Toussaint Charbonneau and his Shoshone wife, Sacagawea (who had been captured by the Hidsatas and sold to Charbonneau) as translators. Departing from Fort Mandan on April 7, 1805, Lewis and Clark began their more extensive travels and their encounters with Native Americans. Encountering nearly 50 tribes, such as the Nez Perce, the Blackfeet, the Yankton Sioux, and the Teton Sioux, Lewis and Clark engaged in extensive trade, and claimed the tribal land for the United States of America.

EDSITEment offers several lesson plans you can use to teach your students about the Lewis and Clark expedition and the exploration of the West. In the EDSITEment lesson plan, On this Day with Lewis and Clark, 3rd through 5th grade students consider the daily life of those on the expedition and map the journey West. In On the Oregon Trail, 6th through 8th grade students are asked to trace the paths of pioneers exploring the West 150 years ago Finally, middle school and high school students can research the impact of geographical work and Lewis and Clark's mapping of the American West in Mapping the Past. The richness of the cultures already present in the Louisiana Territory before Lewis and Clark's arrival is the subject of Not 'Indians,' Many Tribes: Native American Diversity, an EDSITEment lesson plan designed for grades 3-5. A lesson plan on encounters between Native Americans and the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Lewis and Clark: Same Place, Different Directions, is one of eight lessons on Lewis and Clark available from the EDSITEment resource Xpeditions.

Read more about the historical impact of this extraordinary journey in an online article from the NEH's Humanities magazine: Caroline Kim's essay, "West by Northwest." See also "On the Trail With Lewis and Clark," an interview with historian Gary Moulton by former NEH Chairman, Bruce Cole.

For additional information on the history of Lewis and Clark's expedition, visit PBS-produced Lewis and Clark, a comprehensive site that tracks their extraordinary journey and provides access to a searchable database of journal entries as well as maps from the Expedition. Another important research is the digitized version of the 1814 publication ordered by the U.S. Government, History of the expedition under the command of Captains Lewis and Clark…, available from the EDSITEment resource, American Memory. Other EDSITEment-reviewed sites that will help your students understand the expedition and its importance are New Perspectives on the West and Oregon Trail.

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