An Expedition Out West

Contributor: Meghan Vestal. Lesson ID: 12257

Have you ever gone camping? Imagine camping out for about two years in places you've never seen, with no modern conveniences. This is what Lewis and Clark did, and the results were world-changing!


United States, United States

learning style
personality style
Lion, Beaver
Grade Level
Intermediate (3-5)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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When the Louisiana Territory was purchased from France, very little was known about it. Before people could settle there, it had to be scoped out.

  • Since there were no airplanes and satellites back then, who did Thomas Jefferson send to explore the newly purchased Louisiana Territory?

US acquisition map

Image, via Wikimedia Commons, was obtained from an edition of the "National Atlas of the United States" and, as such, is in the public domain.

In the previous Related Lesson in our The Louisiana Purchase series, found in the right-hand sidebar, you learned about the Louisiana Purchase.

Take a few minutes to review what you learned about the Louisiana Purchase by taking the following quiz.

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  • Were you able to answer all of the questions correctly?

If you struggled to answer the questions, you may want to go back to the previous lesson before moving forward since the information in this lesson will build on what you have already learned.

In this lesson, you will learn about what the United States did with the Louisiana Territory immediately following the Louisiana Purchase.

In 1803, Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory from France, doubling the size of the United States. 

  •  What do you think needed to be done with the land before large numbers of people began settling it?

Not even the French had ever taken the time to survey, or carefully examine, the massive amount of land. When the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory, they really had no idea what the land they had purchased looked like.

Thomas Jefferson decided to send a team to explore the newly acquired territory.

Jefferson selected Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to lead a team of about 30 people on the expedition. He gave the team three objectives: to build positive relationships with the Native-Americans, to document new animal and plant life discovered throughout the region, and to discover the Northwest Passage, which was believed to be an all-water route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.

The team left St. Louis, Missouri in May 1804. They traveled mostly by water, using the rivers to guide them through the territory. During the journey, they made frequent stops to explore the land and document what they saw.

The voyage was not an easy one for Lewis and Clark’s team. Since the territory had never been explored, there were no maps of the region. Therefore, they had no idea where they were going and were forced to rely on navigational tools that were not nearly as accurate as the tools we have to guide us today.

They also befriended a group of Native-Americans who helped guide them through part of the journey. You will learn about the natives who helped Lewis and Clark during the next Related Lesson. The exploration team also faced harsh, freezing conditions during the winter months, which led to sickness and injuries.

After about a year and a half, Lewis and Clark reached the Pacific Coast in November 1805. They built a fort in present-day Oregon and named the fort Clatsop.

In an effort to avoid a second Midwest winter, they camped at Clatsop through the winter months. During their return trip home, they continued to make stops and document the land. They finally returned to St. Louis in September 1806.

  • How many months did it take Lewis and Clark to complete their expedition?

When Lewis and Clark returned, they reported their findings to Thomas Jefferson. The team was never able to discover the Northwest Passage, but it did accomplish its other goals.

In addition to befriending some Native-American tribes, Lewis and Clark kept detailed journals of their journey. In their journals, they documented more than 100 new animal species and 170 new plant species. They also brought back about 140 maps they had created throughout the journey. These were the first maps created of the Louisiana Territory.

To reward Lewis and Clark for their work, Jefferson gave them each financial compensation and more than 1,000 acres of land in the Louisiana Territory.

  • Do you think this an adequate reward for spending more than two years away from their families and friends?

To learn more about Lewis and Clark’s expedition, watch Lewis and Clark A film by Ken Burns PBS America, from Remington VROOM Roscoe (below). As you watch the video, take notes about Lewis and Clark’s journey and their findings. You can pause the video at any time as you write.

When you have finished watching the video, write your responses to the following questions on a separate piece of paper:

  • Why was the Lewis and Clark expedition necessary?
  • Would you be willing to leave everything you know for two years to explore land that no one knows anything about?

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When you have finished writing your responses, discuss your writing with someone.

Then, journey on to the Got It? section to learn more about the discoveries made by Lewis and Clark.

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