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Lesson Plan

The Lewis and Clark Expedition by Teaching With Documents


Literacy in History/Social Studies (NYS 5-12 Common Core)

Grade Levels

Intermediate, Commencement, 5th Grade, 6th Grade, 7th Grade, 8th Grade, 9th Grade, 10th Grade, 11th Grade, 12th Grade

Historical Period

Expansion and Reform (1801-1868)


  1. Using books, encyclopedias (both electronic and print), and other resources, guide students in accessing basic information about the Louisiana Purchase, the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and Manifest Destiny. Ask them to compile their research into a chart listing the main players, significant events, and important dates.
  2. Divide the class into four groups. Distribute documents 1-3 to group A, documents 4 and 5 to group B, documents 6-8 to group C, and documents 9-13 to group D. Direct students to analyze the documents and photographs using the Written Document Analysis Worksheet and the Photograph Analysis Worksheet developed by the National Archives staff. Ask one representative from each group to describe his or her set of documents to the class and discuss what each document reveals about the Lewis and Clark Expedition and how it relates to Manifest Destiny. Add this information to the chart created in activity #1.
  3. Regroup the students, assigning one student from each of the four groups in activity #2 to each of the new groups. Then assign one of the questions below to each of the students. Allow students 5-10 minutes to free-write an answer. Then direct them to discuss their answers with their group. Suggested questions include the following: What do these documents tell us about the history of our country? What do they reveal about U.S. foreign policy at the opening of the 19th century? What value to the west did Jefferson see in the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition? How large was the commitment of the United States government to the Lewis and Clark Expedition? What attitude toward the Indians does Thomas Jefferson reveal in his writings to Congress? What is Manifest Destiny? How was it defined in the 1800s in the United States? How was this idea made evident during that time? What record do we have of it today? Are the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition consummate examples of Manifest Destiny? In what way is it evident in the landscape of the Lewis and Clark Trail today? How is it still operative in American society today?
  4. From William Least Heat Moon's Prairy Earth, ask students to read a selection on pages 12-13 that describes the tall grass as it exists today and how it existed in abundance during the time of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Then, from an edition of the journals of Lewis and Clark, direct students to read entries from June 7 to July 14, 1804; these entries describe the tall grass prairies along the Missouri River. Ask students to write a journal entry comparing their own experiences with open space to the experiences of Lewis and Clark. The following questions can serve as writing prompts: Is there any relatively virgin land nearby the town or city where you live? If so, what does it look like? When was there virgin land in this location? Did anyone describe it? What do these changes in the landscape reveal about American society? Instruct students who live near the trail to write a description of the area today and compare how the landscape looked as described by Lewis, Clark, and others.
  5. Ask student volunteers to share their journal entries from activity #5 with the class. Lead a class discussion about development. Ask students to research whether in their state any area of virgin wilderness has been kept in a pristine condition and protected from development. If so, ask students to list the steps that were taken and the people and organizations who worked to ensure this protection. If not, ask students to determine and list the steps that would be necessary for such protection.
  6. Direct students to do one of the following projects: 

    1. Read from Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West by Stephen Ambrose (Simon and Schuster, 1996)
    2. Read selections from one of the editions of the Lewis and Clark journals
    3. View the Ken Burns documentary on the Lewis and Clark Expedition
    4. View and read text, photographs, paintings, and archival material from two recently published books: Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery: An Illustrated History by Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns (Knopf, 1997) and Lewis & Clark: Voyage of Discovery by Stephen Ambrose with photographs by Sam Abell (National Geographic Society, 1998). 

When they have finished, ask them to convey the information they learned either by addressing one of the discussion questions listed in activity #3 in a 500-1000 word essay or by giving a 15-20 minute presentation to the class, using visuals and sharing specific entries from the Lewis and Clark journals.


Teaching with Documents contains teaching activities built upon primary documents from the holdings of the National Archives of the United States. This lesson relates to the power granted to the president and the Senate in Article II, Section 2, Clause 2, of the U.S. Constitution, the power to make treaties with foreign nations.

Primary Source Documents

The documents included in this project are available online through the Archival Research Catalog (ARC)Identifiers:


ARC replaces its prototype, the NARA Archival Information Locator (NAIL). You can still perform a keyword, digitized image and location search. ARC's advanced functionalities also allow you to search by organization, person, or topic.

ARC is a searchable database that contains information about a wide variety of NARA holdings across the country. You can use ARC to search record descriptions by keywords or topics and retrieve digital copies of selected textual documents, photographs, maps, and sound recordings related to thousands of topics.

Currently, about 20% of NARA's vast holdings have been described in ARC. 124,000 digital images can be searched in ARC. In keeping with NARA's Strategic Plan, the percentage of holdings described in ARC will grow continually.

Documents related to the Lewis and Clark Expedition are also featured in the online American Originals Exhibit.

This article was written by Douglas Perry, a teacher at Gig Harbor High School in Gig Harbor, WA.


The Lewis and Clark Expedition.Teaching with Documents initiative, http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/ accessed May 20, 2011

Used with written permission from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), 3rd Learning has aligned this document with New York State Learning Standards at the Performance Indicator Level. NARA granted full permission and written approval for use of this content within NYLearns.org including text, images, and links.


The Lewis and Clark Expedition

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