Have you ever dreamed of being a pioneer or an explorer? Can you imagine being the first person to discover and create a map of a new area of the world? How would you respond if the president of the United States asked YOU to explore a new territory?

In 1803, U.S. President Thomas Jefferson negotiated the purchase of France’s claim to the Louisiana territory. The territory was more than 828,000 square miles of land that included all or part of 14 current U.S. states and two Canadian provinces. When the “Louisiana Purchase” was completed, Jefferson wanted to explore these new lands.

He chose Meriwether Lewis, his personal secretary and a skilled frontiersman, to lead an exploration of these new lands. Lewis chose William Clark to join him on the expedition. Together, Lewis and Clark recruited other men to join their Corps of Discovery and began to plan their trip.

One of Jefferson’s main goals was to find a direct route by water from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean — the so-called “Northwest Passage.” Jefferson hoped such a route would connect the new western lands to routes already used to buy and sell goods.

He also wanted Lewis and Clark to map the area and catalog its natural resources. Along the way, they would also claim control over the Native American tribes in the new lands.

These new lands to the west were so foreign that Jefferson believed the expedition might encounter woolly mammoths, erupting volcanoes and mountains made of salt. Although Lewis and Clark did not see any such fantastic sights, they did see many amazing things as they traveled more than 8,000 miles over the course of two years, four months and 10 days.

Even though they didn’t find the Northwest Passage Jefferson hoped for, Lewis and Clark’s team did reach the Pacific Ocean. They also mapped the area, documented more than 300 plants and animals that hadn’t been known about before, and established relationships and trade with more than two dozen Native American tribes.

Upon reaching the Pacific Ocean, Clark estimated that they had traveled 4,162 miles from the Missouri River. Would you believe his guess was within 40 miles of the actual distance?

Lewis and Clark did not succeed on their expedition without a lot of help from the native peoples they encountered along the way. One good example of such help was Sacagawea, a Native American woman who accompanied her husband, Toussaint Charbonneau, on the expedition.

Although little is known for certain about Sacagawea, scholars believe she helped Lewis and Clark navigate through some territory she was familiar with. She also served as an interpreter from time to time.

Perhaps most important, though, the presence of a native woman as part of the expedition probably reassured the tribes they encountered that the expedition was a peaceful mission.

On May 14, 1805 — one year after the expedition began — Sacagawea saved the journals and records of Lewis and Clark when they fell out of a capsized boat. Lewis and Clark praised her quick action and named the Sacagawea River in Montana in her honor on May 20.

 

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    • Hi, Emma Grace! We’re so happy you visited this Wonder today! How cool that you studied Lewis and Clark so you had some background knowledge about them before you explored this Wonder! :-)

    • Hi Ms. Palacio’s Class! Lewis and Clark initially set out to find the “Northwest Passage” which never really existed. They were the first pioneers to venture West and discovered parts of America that have never been seen before! They also mapped the area, documented more than 300 plants and animals that hadn’t been known about before, and established relationships and trade with more than two dozen Native American tribes. Thanks for WONDERing with us! :)

    • They actually followed rivers, Treylen! They helped discover much of Western America! Thanks for WONDERing with us! Have you ever been hiking or on an outdoor adventure? :)

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Have you ever wondered…

  • What was the Lewis and Clark Expedition?
  • Did Lewis and Clark find the Northwest Passage?
  • How did Sacagawea help Lewis and Clark on their expedition?

Wonder Gallery

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Try It Out

Want to learn more about what Lewis and Clark found during their expedition to the Pacific Northwest? Visit National Geographic to experience The Lewis and Clark Journey Log that follows the expedition via journal entries, historical photos and maps.

After taking a virtual tour of the Lewis and Clark expedition, prepare for a journey of discovery of your own. Is there an area of your backyard, neighborhood or town that you’ve never explored?

Pick a trusted companion to join you on your journey. Gather up a few supplies: water, a snack, paper, pens or markers, a camera and a backpack. Sketch out a simple plan for how to get where you want to go.

As you set out on your journey, use your pen and paper to create a map of your route. Is it easy to create an accurate map? How hard do you think it was for Lewis and Clark to create accurate maps for their long journey?

Stop every now and then to notice the plants and animals around you. Take pictures of what you see. Make a few journal entries about how your journey is going. Have you made any interesting discoveries?

When you return home, think about your trip and imagine what it must have been like for Lewis and Clark to set off into the great unknown to explore thousands of miles of unfamiliar terrain. If you want to share your thoughts with others, email or send us a copy of your travel journal or your map. We’d love to see it!

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Still Wondering

Explore the Lewis and Clark Expedition and learn more about choices and scarcity with this fun interactive activity from EconEdLink.

 

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