Lesson Plan

The Lewis and Clark Expedition: Documenting the Uncharted Northwest

Landscapes and natural resources on the Lewis and Clark Trail

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Grade Level:
Middle School: Sixth Grade through Eighth Grade
Literacy and Language Arts,Social Studies
Lesson Duration:
90 Minutes
Common Core Standards:
6-8.RH.2, 6-8.RH.3, 6-8.RH.4, 6-8.RH.5, 6-8.RH.6, 6-8.RH.7, 6-8.RH.8, 6-8.RH.9, 6-8.RH.10, 9-10.RH.1, 9-10.RH.2, 9-10.RH.3, 9-10.RH.4, 9-10.RH.5, 9-10.RH.6, 9-10.RH.7, 9-10.RH.8, 9-10.RH.9, 9-10.RH.10
Additional Standards:
US History Era 4 Standard 1A: The student understands the international context and consequences of the Louisiana Purchase, the War of 1812, and the Monroe Doctrine.
Curriculum Standards for Social Studies from the National Council for the Social Studies.
Thinking Skills:
Remembering: Recalling or recognizing information ideas, and principles. Understanding: Understand the main idea of material heard, viewed, or read. Interpret or summarize the ideas in own words. Applying: Apply an abstract idea in a concrete situation to solve a problem or relate it to a prior experience. Analyzing: Break down a concept or idea into parts and show the relationships among the parts. Creating: Bring together parts (elements, compounds) of knowledge to form a whole and build relationships for NEW situations. Evaluating: Make informed judgements about the value of ideas or materials. Use standards and criteria to support opinions and views.


1. To explain the historical effects of the Louisiana Purchase in relation to the growth of the newly created United States;
2. To describe the challenges and successes that the Corps of Discovery faced during its journey;
3. To compare the cultures of several Indian tribes the corps encountered based on journal entries and explain the Indians' contributions to the journey's success;
4. To list the accomplishments of the Corps of Discovery;
5. To create a scale map of their own community.


Time Period: Early 19th century
Topics: This lesson could be used in units on 19th-century westward expansion and U.S. and American Indian relations. 


All in health and readiness to set out. Boats and everything Complete, with the necessary stores of provisions & such articles of merchandize as we thought ourselves authorised to procure -- tho' not as much as I think nessy. for the multitude of Inds. thro which we must pass on our road across the Continent.
-  William Clark Sunday May the 13th 1804¹

Beginning their journey mid-May 1804, what became known as the Corps of Discovery, under the command of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, set out to investigate the newly acquired Louisiana Territory, locate a water route to the Pacific Ocean, and strengthen American claims to the northwest. With 55 expedition members, the corps set out to find the most practical water route from the headwaters of the Missouri River to the Columbia River and then on to the Pacific Ocean. Along the way, the expedition was forced to navigate a variety of terrains: from the powerful currents of the lower Missouri, to the treacherous peaks of the Rockies, to the wetlands of the Pacific Coast. And with each new environment came a unique and previously undocumented complement of plants, animals, and people. Carefully taking note of hardships, successes, and discoveries, Lewis and Clark's journals, as well as journals from other members of the expedition, provide a glimpse of what it must have been like to venture into the unknown on a two and a half year journey.

Discover the significance of Lemhi Pass and the hardships endured on the Lolo Trail, both near the present-day Montana/Idaho border. Also learn about the preparations made at the winter encampment called Fort Clatsop upon reaching their destination of the Pacific Ocean and the Oregon Country. In reading their words, examining their maps, and appreciating their detailed illustrations, one can follow their trail of discovery to the Pacific Northwest. Although the corps' findings destroyed the dream of a water route to the Pacific Ocean, their accomplishments had far reaching effects in expanding human knowledge and opening a new course for American history.

Lesson Hook/Preview

By the turn of the 19th century, over 5 million people resided in the United States of America, then confined to the area south of the Great Lakes and east of the Mississippi River. To the Northwest lay vast territory, inhabited by American Indians, controlled by the French and Spanish, and coveted by the British and Americans. In hopes of strengthening American claims to the northwestern Oregon Country and establishing profitable trade networks with the surrounding indigenous nations, President Thomas Jefferson saw the west as a land of opportunity and adventure. Adding to this optimistic vision of western expansion was the dream of President Jefferson to discover the storied Northwest Passage, a water route that was believed to connect the eastern half of the United States to the distant Pacific Ocean. Such a route would prove invaluable for commerce and trade. By 1803, a number of adventurous Americans would be given the chance to see if such a route existed; their leaders' names soon becoming synonymous with the trail they journeyed.

The purchase of the entire Louisiana Territory from the French, a surprise even to Jefferson who had authorized his agent to purchase the port city of New Orleans, provided the impetus Jefferson needed to get Congress to authorize an already planned exploratory expedition. On April 30, 1803, for 3 cents per acre, the Louisiana Purchase nearly doubled the size of America and changed its destiny forever. Two days after the public declaration of the purchase, Captain Meriwether Lewis, Jefferson's personal secretary noted for being "brave, prudent, habituated to the woods & familiar with Indian manners & character," departed from the city of Washington to organize the journey that lay ahead. Over the following months, he would recruit a number of volunteers, many of them from the United States Army. One such individual, William Clark--a military comrade of Captain Lewis--would take on the responsibility of co-leader.

The Corps of Discovery set off from Camp River DuBois, Indiana Territory, May 14, 1804 on a two and a half year journey. The crew would travel through many places such as Lemhi Pass and Lolo Trail in present-day Idaho and Montana, and Fort Clatsop in present-day Oregon to discover the answers to many of the questions plaguing the minds of some curious Americans: Who were the people that inhabited the West? Were they peaceful and interested in trade? What sorts of animals and plants flourished beyond the Mississippi? Is it possible to reach the Pacific Ocean? Did the fabled Northwest Passage exist?


Getting Started Prompt
Map: Orients the students and encourages them to think about how place affects culture and society
Readings: Primary and secondary source readings provide content and spark critical analysis.
Visual Evidence: Students critique and analyze visual evidence to tackle questions and support their own theories about the subject.
Optional post-lesson activities: If time allows, these will deepen your students' engagement with the topics and themes introduced in the lesson, and to help them develop essential skills.


Louisiana Purchase

Additional Resources

Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail
The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail is a unit of the National Park System. Visit the park's web pages for a brief synopsis of the trail's history, maps of the expedition, a list of associated sites, and other related information.

Fort Clatsop National Memorial
The Fort Clatsop National Memorial is a unit of the National Park System. Visit the park's web pages for a detailed history of the journey to the Northwest Coast. This website not only provides information on the flora and fauna discovered in the area, but also offers descriptions of the expedition's day-to-day duties while wintering at Ft. Clatsop into the early months of 1806.

Nez Perce National Historic Park
The Nez Perce National Historic Park is a unit of the National Park System. Visit the park's web pages for information about the park's 38 sites scattered across the states of Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Montana. They commemorate the stories and history of the Nimiipuu (Nez Perce) and their interaction with explorers, fur traders, missionaries, soldiers, settlers, gold miners, and farmers who moved through or into the area, including Lewis and Clark.

Jefferson National Expansion Memorial
The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial is a unit of the National Park System. Comprised of the St. Louis Gateway Arch, St. Louis' Old Courthouse, and the Museum of Westward Expansion, this site offers a broad look at the significance of the St. Louis area on American history and the era of westward expansion. Visit the park's website for extensive materials on the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Lewis and Clark Expedition Travel Itinerary
The National Register of Historic Places' on-line travel itinerary on the Lewis and Clark Expedition provides information on 41 historic places listed in the National Register and associated with Lewis and Clark. Many of these places are also part of the National Park Service's Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.

American Presidents Travel Itinerary
The Discover Our Shared Heritage online travel itinerary on American Presidents provides information on places associated with the 3rd President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson: National Historic Landmarks Monticello and Poplar Forest and the National Park Service’s Thomas Jefferson Memorial.

Historic Places of America’s Diverse Culture
The National Register of Historic Places online itinerary Places Reflecting America’s Diverse Cultures highlights the historic places and stories of America’s diverse cultural heritage. This itinerary seeks to share the contributions various peoples have made in creating American culture and history.

Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site 
Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site is a unit of the National Park System. The park's web pages offer extensive information about the site. Students can learn the history of Knife River, take a tour of an earthlodge, learn about American Indian village life and culture, and view photos from the park's collection. Knife River is also the subject of a Teaching with Historic Places lesson plan titled, Knife River: Early Village Life on the Plains.

National Park Service - Museum Management Program
American West: Nez Perce NHP is an online exhibit exploring the story of the Nez Perce or Nimiipuu story through the objects they made and used over the last 10,000 years. These objects embody the spirituality, beliefs, and traditions of the Nimiipuu, and are a tangible link to a vibrant living culture. The Museum Management Program has eight lesson focusing on the Nez Perce National Historic Park in their Teaching with Museum Collections series: Fashion Detective - An Investigation of Continuity and Change in Nez Perce CountryNez Perce FlutesThe Seasonal Round: a strong influence on the Daily Pulse of the Nez Perce, Daily Life in the Ancient Times of the Nez PerceHistoric Nez Perce Clothing and AdornmentNez Perce Spirituality: an integrated arts, literature, visual art, music, and dance unitNative American Games: Nez Perce Stick Game (Lopmix game), and Trade and Transportation.

PBS: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery
Coinciding with the production of Ken Burns' film on the Corps of Discovery, this PBS website provides a wealth of information about the Lewis and Clark expedition. Replete with biographical information of the crewmembers, Native American group analyses, a complete listing of each member's journal entries, and much more.

National Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Council
The National Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Council is dedicated to the commemoration of the expedition and the acclamation of the native peoples for their extensions of goodwill. On this website, you can find a listing of sites along the westward trail, information about the tribes associated with the trail (including a tribal directory with present-day contact information), links to participating agencies and historical societies, and other related information.

Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation
The Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation website is dedicated to the promotion of Lewis and Clark cultural heritage. Offering views on the legacy of the Corps of Discovery and the importance of trail stewardship, this website focuses on the stimulation of public interest in the "research, development, and preservation of the Lewis and Clark experience".

Montana Historical Society
Encountering Montana: Lewis and Clark in Big Sky Country provides access to sources of information on the expedition and related themes from the collections of the Montana Historical Society.

Nez Perce Tribe
Visit the Nez Perce Tribe website for more information about the Nez Perce today, their Tribal code, their government, and their history and customs.

Three Affiliated Tribes
Visit the MHA Nation website for more information about the the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara people. Included on the website is an extensive history as well as content about the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara today.

Chinook Indian Tribe
Visit the Chinook Indian Tribe website for a wealth of information about the Chinook tribal government and Chinook culture.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Native American Affairs
This website for the Pacific Region provides links to many of the tribe's websites in this region, and it also provides information on present-day policy and historic treaties.

Lewis and Clark as Naturalists: Smithsonian
The Lewis and Clark as Naturalists website allows you to follow the Lewis and Clark trail, and discover the flora and fauna as they described it along the way.

Explore the history and culture of tribes along the trails followed by Lewis and Clark. Trailtribes.com is part of the Lifelong Learning Project from the University of Montana that works collaboratively with tribes to produce top quality, primary resource materials about American Indian culture and history. Visit this informative website.

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Last updated: October 12, 2018