Your Mission
In 1803, two men led an expedition across the United States. Your mission is to follow this exciting journey. During your travels you will:

  • get some background on the journey
  • make decisions on what to pack
  • discover and document objects along the trail
  • follow the events of the expedition
  • research more information about the trip
  • join student reporters on the trail today
  • write a newspaper article about the journey
  • publish your own journal online.
Are you ready to get started on your mission? Then start at the beginning.

Background

Imagine that one morning you woke up and discovered your house had grown twice as big. How would you feel and what would you do? Well, in 1803, Americans faced a very similar situation on a much larger scale. President Thomas Jefferson had purchased 820,000 square miles from France (known as the Louisiana Purchase) and suddenly doubled the size of the United States. Americans were very excited about this new territory but it was also a mystery. What did the land look like? How could you cross it? What kinds of animals and plants lived there? Would the Native Americans who lived there be welcoming? Very few white people had traveled to this western part of the country and the few maps that existed were patchy and unreliable. So President Jefferson decided to hire a group of men to explore this new America.

Jefferson's first choice to lead the expedition was his trusted secretary, Meriwether Lewis, who then asked his friend William Clark to share the command. Both men had been officers in the U.S. army and had some experience traveling through wild country, but no one had ever attempted a journey like this one. First, Jefferson asked Lewis and Clark to explore and map the unexplored territory, especially the Missouri River and its tributaries, streams that flow into a larger river. Jefferson had dreamed for a long time that there might be a river that ran from the Missouri all the way to the Pacific Ocean, which would make travel there much easier. Secondly, Jefferson asked Lewis and Clark to observe, record, and collect specimens of the local plant and animal life. The President wanted to know what natural resources existed for future American pioneers to live on. Finally, Jefferson asked Lewis and Clark to seek out the Native American tribes, study their languages and customs, and make friends with them if possible. Jefferson wanted the Native Americans to think of him as their new "father." Ironically, Lewis and Clark would be more like children, dependant on the help and kindness of the Native Americans. Ultimately, this expedition would require Lewis and Clark to act as explorers, mapmakers, scientists, and diplomats. It was a lot of responsibility but they were excited to try.

Today you can fly across the entire United States in about six hours, but in 1803, Lewis and Clark had to make their journey without planes, cars, motorized boats, or even roads. They spent about six months recruiting men, buying supplies and equipment, and learning as much about the region as possible. It was hard to prepare because Lewis and Clark had no idea what they would find or how long they would be gone. They had to have faith in themselves that they would figure things out and solve problems as they happened. Since this was an important government mission, the expedition needed an important name and so they called themselves the "Corps of Volunteers on an Expedition of North Western Discovery," but that name became tiring to say and they shortened it to the "Corps of Discovery." When the Corps of Discovery paddled away from Camp Wood Missouri, they did not know that they would be gone for two and a half years, that they would travel almost eight thousand miles, and that they would be participating in one of the greatest adventures in American history.


to Thomas Jefferson

 

In 1803, Louisiana was a wild place west of the Mississippi River.

Congratulations, you have found one of the objects for the specimen box. For more information on this activity, click here.

One of the animals Lewis and Clark encountered was a prairie dog. Click here to add the prairie dog to your specimen box or click here for a printable version.