Lewis and Clark Background Information for Teachers and Parents

This page contains information to support educators and families in teaching K-3 students about Lewis and Clark. The information is designed to complement the BrainPOP Jr. movie Lewis and Clark Expedition. It explains the type of content covered in the movie, provides ideas for how teachers and parents can develop related understandings, and suggests how other BrainPOP Jr. resources can be used to scaffold and extend student learning.

Help children understand the leaders that helped shape the United States of America in its early history. This movie will explore the Lewis and Clark expedition and describe their journey from Missouri to the Pacific Ocean and the obstacles they faced along the way. We recommend looking at maps while watching the movie to follow Lewis and Clark’s path across the West. There are many historical maps of the United States in the early 1800s which might serve as useful references as you watch the movie together.

Remind children that after the United States separated from Great Britain, the Thirteen Colonies became the first thirteen states of the union. At the time, there were large territories claimed by other countries, including France and Spain. Help children understand that different groups of native people were already living in these areas, and many were distrustful of the European settlers taking over the land they had lived in for hundreds of years. The United States eventually acquired territories, which later became states, including Kentucky and Tennessee. In 1803, President Jefferson signed the Louisiana Purchase. With this agreement, the United States bought France’s claim to the Louisiana Territory for $15 million dollars, which is about $219 million in today’s dollars. The Louisiana Territory was about 828,800 square miles (2,147,000 square kilometers), and its acquisition effectively doubled the size of the United States.

Not much was known about the new land, so President Jefferson assigned Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to lead an expedition to explore the area. Review with children that an expedition is a journey with a specific goal. The goal of Lewis and Clark’s expedition was to find a path to the Pacific Ocean and make contact with the native people along the way to establish trade and sovereignty.

Lewis and Clark organized a group of explorers called the Corps of Discovery. There were 33 members in all, most of them experienced soldiers. Together they planned an expedition to travel across the Louisiana Territory. Clark’s main job was to make maps of the area and navigate, or direct their path. Lewis’ main job was to gather information about the land, plants, and animals. We know much about their journey because Lewis and Clark kept journals throughout their expedition. They noted the sights and sounds of their travels, along with their encounters with different native people.

In the spring of 1804, the Corps of Discovery left St. Louis and set out on the Missouri River in three boats. The journey up the river was difficult. The river was rough in some places, and they often had to row against the currents. The explorers made contact with different Native Americans, including the Oto and the Missouri people. As a sign of friendship and peace, Lewis and Clark gave the leaders medals and other gifts. Some native people, such as the Teton Sioux (or Lakota) did not trust the explorers and there were several threats of attack. The explorers did not speak the same language so there were often many misunderstandings and frustrations. In October of 1804, the explorers built Fort Mandan in an area that is now part of North Dakota. Nearby they met a French-Canadian fur trapper named Toussaint Charbonneau and his wife Sacagawea. Sacagawea was a member of the Lemhi Shoshone people, but members of the Hidatsa people kidnapped her when she was twelve years old. Different reports show that Charbonneau had purchased Sacagawea from the Hidatsa, or had possibly won her while gambling. Both Charbonneau and Sacagawea were familiar with the land and spoke different languages of the area’s native people. Lewis and Clark asked them to join the expedition and be their interpreters. Remind children that an interpreter is someone who translates one language into a different one. Sacagawea also played an important role in a different way. War tribes never brought women along, so as Sacagawea traveled with the Corps of Discovery, she helped the corps communicate a message of peace and goodwill.

The expedition carried on and months later, the explorers came across what is now known as the Great Falls in Montana. They had to hike with all their heavy supplies and boats to go around the falls. They used makeshift wagons and pulled boats along the path. This leg of the expedition was arduous and they encountered several new species of plants and animals along the way. Some of the animals, such as the grizzly bears, posed threats to the explorers. .

The trek through the Rocky Mountains was also difficult. The explorers got caught in a violent storm and some of the men almost drowned. At one point the boat capsized, but Sacagawea saved Lewis and Clarks’ journals and other valuables. Then they had to hike through steep and snowy mountains. The crew ran low on supplies and were forced to eat candle tallow. Sacagawea helped the explorers find roots for food. The men were sick and tired and had worn through their shoes.

Finally, the explorers reached what is now the Columbia River in Washington State. They followed its path and it led them to their goal. In November of 1805, the explorers reached the Pacific Ocean. They landed a few miles from what is now Seaview, Washington, and built Fort Clatsop, in what is now Astoria, Oregon. The Corps of Discovery had traveled over 4,000 miles to reach the Pacific.

A few months later, they made the long, difficult trip back to St. Louis. Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery finally returned in September of 1806. Their expedition took almost two and a half years, and they had traveled over 8,000 miles. Many people thought the expedition had failed after the Corps of Discovery hadn’t returned after a year. But, Lewis and Clark arrived back home as heroes. Later that year, Lewis was appointed by President Jefferson as governor of Upper Louisiana and Clark became governor of the Missouri Territory. Clark went on to serve as the Superintendant of Indian Affairs from 1822 to 1838.

Lewis and Clark shared many things they had learned, discovered, and collected on the expedition. The men had recorded over a hundred species of plants and animals they had never seen before, and noted different landforms and weather patterns. They also learned about different Native American cultures and started peaceful relationships with many tribes. Clark had drawn about 140 maps during the journey, and other explorers used them for their expeditions to the West. Help children understand that after Lewis and Clark found a passage to the Pacific, and people soon began moving west and staking claims on the land. It was the journey of Lewis and Clark that inspired many to move to the West in search of a new life.

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