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Lewis and Clark and the Language of Discovery
Introduction - Sight Unseen - Land Made Real - Journey and Journals - Following the Trail - Timeline


Language Arts
Visual Arts

Lewis and Clark were the first United States officials to venture into United States land west of St. Louis. When they moved west of what is now North Dakota, the thirty-one men of the party became the first non-Natives to set eyes on the high plains along the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains beyond.

There are many ways to approach the story. The object of the expedition, as stated by President Thomas Jefferson in his official instructions, was to find "the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent, for the purposes of commerce." But along the way they were to "notice" the land and the people who lived on it. They were to learn of the "language, traditions, monuments" of the Indian tribes; to study the "animals of the country generally" and "mineral productions of every kind"; to determine longitude and latitude by making "celestial observations."

What a tall order! They were to satisfy the curiosity of the eminently curious Thomas Jefferson about a land almost entirely unknown. The two young army officers had to do the work of botanists, geologists, and zoologists; astronomers and cartographers; linguists and ethnographers. Above all, they had to be good writers. The only way to bring back a clear, detailed picture of what they found-indeed, the only way to gain any sort of possession over it-was to set it down in words.

In this issue of Smithsonian in Your Classroom, we concentrate on this most important task of the expedition. The lesson plans are by Evelyn Porreca Vuko, a language-arts teacher and education columnist for the Washington Post. Ms. Vuko often uses the analogy of a journey when helping students order their thoughts into sequential writing. Here she presents a lesson plan in which the class maps a trail around the school and then follows some of Jefferson's instructions for writing detailed reports. In a lesson for younger grades, students make drawings based on William Clark's report of the sage grouse, a bird that was new to science. Each student then writes a description of an animal after reading Meriwether Lewis's report of the black woodpecker, another "new" creature.

Painting of Meriwether Lewis

Meriwether Lewis, by Charles Willson Peale, ca.1807 Independence National Historical Park

Painting of William Clark

William Clark,by Charles Willson Peale, ca. 1807-8. Independence National Historical Park
Painting of a Prairie

Detail from Madame Ferrebault's Prairie, above Prairie du Chien by George Catlin, 1835-1836.

Smithsonian American Art Museum; gift of Mrs. Joseph Harrison, Jr.

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