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Lewis and Clark

Lesson 1
Lewis and Clark Expedition 

    In 1804, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark began an exciting adventure. They led a group of American explorers on a long trip. There were no cars or airplanes. The men used boats and horses. They went through land in which only Indian tribes lived. They left from the mouth of the Missouri River. They went all the way to the Pacific Ocean and back. They were called the Corps of Discovery. Their journey was almost 8,000 miles long. It took them two years to make. Part of the trip was along the Missouri River in what is now South Dakota.

   The  explorers  wanted  to see if they could get to the Pacific Ocean by river. They also wanted to make friends with the Indians. They hoped to trade with them in the future. On the trip, the explorers kept journals. Every day they wrote about the things they saw. They wrote about things so that scientists and settlers could read about them. Many tribes of Indians lived along the way. Interesting animals did too.

A picture of Lewis and Clark's journal page.


The Louisiana Purchase

The story of Lewis and Clark starts with Thomas Jefferson. He was president of the United States. It was 1803. At that time, the country ended at the Mississippi River. Most Americans lived near the Atlantic Ocean. The land that would one day be South Dakota lay between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. This whole area was known as Louisiana. Many American Indians lived there. A few fur traders did, too. Most white people had never been there. To them, it was the "Great Unknown."

  Thomas Jefferson had a dream. He dreamed that one day the United States would stretch from ocean to ocean. Trains and cars did not yet exist. Few people thought that so much land could be united into one country.

    President Jefferson thought it could be. He wanted to know if the Missouri River ran all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Or did it connect with other rivers that did? Could these rivers be used as a highway?


A picture of a map of the United States.
United States, 1804

A picture of William Clark.
William Clark

  The president asked the United States Congress to authorize an expedition. It would go across Louisiana. From there, it would go into the Pacific Northwest. Congress said yes. Jefferson chose Meriwether Lewis to lead the expedition. Lewis asked a friend to share the job. His friendís name was William Clark. The two men were the captains.

    At the same time, the president negotiated with France to buy Louisiana. The United States paid three cents an acre for the land. It was called the Louisiana Purchase. It made the United States twice as big as it was.

     The purchase of Louisiana was good news for Lewis and Clark. Now the men would explore part of their own country. Then they would move into the Pacific Northwest. This area was also called the Oregon country. England, Russia, Spain, and the United States claimed this land. Lewis and Clark would give the United States a stronger claim. They would explore it for the government.

      On May 14, 1804, the Corps of Discovery started up the Missouri River. They left from near Saint Louis, Missouri. There were nearly fifty men. One was a black man named York. The men moved upstream in a big boat and two canoes. The river was not easy to navigate. In eleven days, they went only sixty miles. Not until August did they get as far as present-day Elk Point, South Dakota.

A picture of Meriwether Lewis.
Meriwether Lewis


authorize (v.), to give power or money to

expedition (n.), a trip or journey with goals

explorers (n.), people who travel to new places to learn

fur traders (n.), people who buy and sell animal furs for a living

journals (n.), books that people write ideas or experiences in; a diary

navigate (v.), to travel in and control the path of a boat or plane

negotiated (v.), made a deal with others