Two hundred years ago, President Thomas Jefferson commissioned his secretary Meriwether Lewis and a co-commander, William Clark, to set forth on a bold and dangerous journey of exploration. These two men and their party of 31, known as the Corps of Discovery, would cover 8000 miles from the mouth of the Missouri to the Pacific Ocean and back. Their lives would be threatened, their resources stretched, and their endurance tested.
The bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition offers homeschoolers a terrific opportunity to share in what many believe is the greatest example of American exploration. Teaching aids abound to promote this monumental occasion. Beginning in January 2003, events held along the trail will provide great hands-on learning experiences. Many groups are planning events during 2003-2006 to commemorate the amazing accomplishments of this team of explorers.
Opportunities for exploration|
On January 18, 2003—the 200th anniversary of Jefferson's secret letter to Congress requesting funds for the trip—Charlottesville, Virginia, will kick off a series of commemoration events across the nation.
The bicentennial of Lewis and Clark's expedition provides unlimited topics to explore and events to experience. Studying history sparks the imagination—here are a few suggestions to get you started:
- Recruiting the Corps of Discovery members.
- Building the keelboats and preparing supplies for the three-year trip.
- Meeting Sacagawea.
- Trading with the Shoshones, Nez Pierce, and Clatsop tribes.
- Scaling mountains and traversing passes.
- Navigating the Missouri, Ohio, Snake, and the mighty Columbia Rivers.
- Standing on the edge of the continent braced against the thundering waves of the Pacific.
All of these experiences are recorded in the men's voluminous journals.
Investigate Lewis and Clark's scientific discoveries, and get your kids excited about making their own journals. Spend an afternoon taking note of plants and animals around your home, drawing and describing the details for President Jefferson back in Washington.
Learn about Native American tribes Lewis and Clark met during their trip. Study the geography of the Great Plains states to the Pacific. Practice mapping.
Take advantage of the "creative" spelling and grammar of that era (pre-Noah Webster's 1828 dictionary, which standardized American English). Have your children correct the spelling and grammar in assigned short sections of the journals.
Backpack the Lolo Trail, along the border of Montana and Idaho, near Lehmi Pass, where Lewis crossed the Continental Divide.
Who knows, maybe your child has a future as a historian, scientist, or anthropologist! Don't miss this opportunity to enliven your homeschool program and take advantage of a unique moment in history.
In many ways, embarking on homeschooling is an expedition, requiring vision, preparation, and perseverance. Not only do homeschooling families have the unique academic flexibility to use the bicentennial as a springboard to learning, but we can uniquely identify with Lewis's and Clark's sense of leaving behind all that is familiar and setting out into uncharted territory. Like the Corp of Discovery, homeschooling parents have a mission that is bigger than the journey—they want to leave a legacy for their children's children.
Maybe that is why the Lewis and Clark Expedition Bicentennial is resonating with many homeschooling families. Think about the best character qualities and skills needed in your children's generation, or for that matter, in every generation—courage, loyalty, discipline, perseverance, vision, innovation, creativity, a spirit of exploration, organization, solving problems with limited resources, tackling challenges head on, following instructions, and inspiring followers. These are just a few of the lessons your children may find come alive in the story of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and their men.
In 1801, the map of our nation extended only to the Appalachian Mountain range, with territories west to the Mississippi River. We were a small, young nation. Not everyone agreed that expansion was prudent or even constitutional. When the Louisiana Territory was purchased in 1803, a Boston Federalist newspaper said, "We are to give too much money of which we have too little for land of which we already have too much."
Thankfully, visionary President Jefferson was not dissuaded. His foresight enabled our nation to stretch from sea to sea.
Skills learned early open doors of opportunity
Meriwether Lewis spent many of his early years just seven miles from Jefferson's Monticello, in between the two worlds of the frontier and the educated east. The two men spent many hours sharing their mutual fascination with the natural world and the western expanse.
Lewis's preparation for the trip west, overseen by Jefferson, was thorough. His medical knowledge, excellent skills in land surveying and mapping, and familiarity with botany, geography, and natural history served both the country and the scientific community. Many new plants and animals were cataloged. His keen powers of observation and vivid writing helped communicate the new discoveries to an eager president back in Washington.
William Clark also grew up in Virginia, but at age 14, moved with his family to settle in Kentucky. His older brother, Revolutionary War hero General George Rogers Clark, taught him wilderness skills and natural history. Clark joined the Kentucky militia at age 19, and later joined the regular army, earning the rank of captain. Meriwether Lewis served under him briefly during this time, and the two struck up a life-long friendship. Clark brought to the expedition strong military, navigational, nautical, and cartographic skills.
Journals bring history alive
Journals kept by Lewis and Clark provide marvelous insights into the tragedies and triumphs they met along their incredible journey. Many of the men who traveled with them, though poorly educated, also kept a written record of their experiences. Though their spelling and grammar may be flawed, the journals bring a clear snapshot of life on the trail. Here are a few excerpts:
In an entry from May 25, 1805, Lewis describes the first sighting of bighorn sheep:
I saw several gangs of the bighorned Anamals on the face of the steep bluffs and clifts . . . these anamals bound from rock to rock and stand apparently in the most careless manner on the sides of precipices of many hundred feet. they are very shye and are quick of both sent and sight.
On August 21, 1805, Clark describes the Shoshone Indians:
Those Indians are mild in their disposition, appear Sincere in their friendship, punctial, and decided. kind with what they have, to spare. They are excessive pore, . . . The women are held more sacred among them than any nation we have seen and appear to have an equal Shere in all conversation, which is not the Case in any other nation I have seen. their boys & girls are also admited to speak except in Councels.
Studying Native American cultures
The Lewis and Clark Expedition offers students a great opportunity to study Native American cultures. Sacagawea, the Shoshone Indian wife of the French-Canadian interpreter, Toussaint Charbonneau, provided invaluable assistance to the Lewis and Clark team as guide and interpreter. Around age 11, Sacagawea had been captured by the Hidatsa tribe and taken from her home at the headwaters of the Missouri River, to the Knife River village near Fort Mandan, where the Lewis and Clark team spent the winter of 1804.
Providentially, as the group searched for the Shoshones that spring, hoping to acquire horses to make the passage over the Rockies, they came upon Sacagawea's own brother—now chief of the Shoshones.
Lewis and Clark met 47 different Indian tribes along their route. Strict instructions were given by Jefferson that all their interactions with the natives must be friendly and conciliatory, showing the United States' wish to be neighborly and peaceful.
Exploring the West with Lewis & Clark
When the Corps crossed the Continental Divide at Lemhi Pass, they left behind the lands of the Louisiana Purchase and entered uncharted territory. The plains had given way to "dry and parched sandy desert in which no food at this season for either man or horse, and in which we must suffer if not perish for the want of water" (Lewis, August 20, 1805). Before them lay the Rocky Mountains. Beyond those snowcapped peaks, they knew not what awaited them.
After 11 days and 160 grueling miles, braving mountain passes clogged with snow, cold, wet, and without adequate food, the team left the Rockies behind. Now the waterways were open to them once again. They built canoes and were underway—first the Clearwater to the Snake and then the Columbia River, described by the men as "agitated gut swelling, boiling and whorling" waters. In November, they reached the Pacific.
It had taken them 18 months to travel over 4,000 miles. But they had reached their goal, "the grandest and most pleasing prospect which my eyes ever surveyed," exulted Clark.
The legacy of Lewis & Clark
Lewis and Clark were human, with flaws and failures, but they also demonstrated incredible character, courage, and commitment. They understood the importance of their mission, embraced duty and danger wholeheartedly, and inspired their team members to commit their lives to the cause.
Although they failed to find the much-hoped for "Northwest Passage" to the Pacific by water, they left a legacy for future generations. They made a United States presence known on the west coast (territory already being eyed by several European nations), established diplomatic ties with numerous Native American nations, and documented the vast resources of the land beyond the Mississippi. Lewis and Clark's courageous journey laid the foundation for further exploration and settlement, and for what we today know as the United States of America—a unified nation stretching from the shores of the Atlantic to the rocky Pacific coast.
Contributing writers: Jeanne Domenech & Grace Matte.