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Lesson 4
Analyzing the Lewis and Clark Journals

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Examine and interpret Corps of Discovery journal entries as primary documents/sources providing insight into the expedition’s journey.


This lesson correlates to the national McREL standards located online at

Historical Understanding
Standard 2. Understands the historical perspective


  • A copy of Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery (To order, visit Shop PBS
  • Computers with Internet access and word processing capabilities
  • A television and VCR or DVD player
  • Copies of or access to journal entries from this Web site’s Archive describing these events:
    --Corps first meeting with the Teton Sioux (September 24-28, 1804)
    --The portage around the Great Falls (June 4-July 4, 1805)
    --Corps crossing of the Rocky Mountains (September 1-22, 1805)
    --Help from the Nez Perce after crossing the Rockies (September 22-October 18, 1805)
  • Lesson 4 Student Activity Sheet (Downloadable via Adobe Acrobat)
  • Time Needed

    3 hours of class time

    Teaching Strategy

    1. Invite students to speculate on how a historian gathers information. What does he or she use to find out about the past? Explain that a historian’s job is to piece together the story of a given event or time period by examining artifacts, primary source documents, and other evidence from the past. When historians do not have enough information to tell a complete story, they make logical inferences based on existing evidence available. Tell students they will assume a historian’s role to report on events that occurred during the Lewis and Clark expedition.

    2. Have students watch the first section of Part 1 (00:01:00-00:17:15) of The Journey of the Corps of Discovery. Instruct them to pay special attention to the featured historians, particularly William Least Heat-Moon, John Logan Allen, and Dayton Duncan. Point out that these men have researched historical evidence from the Lewis and Clark expedition, but are now retelling what happened in their perspective, adding ideas about expedition members’ feelings and attitudes. Good examples of this are when Heat-Moon talks about Jefferson, when Allen speaks about Clark, and when Duncan talks about Lewis and Clark working together. Ask students to discuss on what basis the historians make these inferences.

    3. Students will find other historians’ perspectives on the expedition in the Living History section. Invite students to review the experts’ thoughts about specific expedition events, interactions, and stories. Again, ask students to consider what information and background the experts use to make conclusions.

    4. Assign students a journal entry listed in the lesson plan’s Materials section (if you have 30 students, for example, 7-8 will have the same entry). Distribute copies of the Student Activity Sheet. Tell students that, as mock historians, they will review journal entries, important primary documents that offer great insight into expedition, and document their findings and thoughts on the activity sheets. (Students may view online or printed versions of the journals.) Students should supplement their findings with other historic information about the times, events, and people highlighted in the journal entries.

    5. Tell students that they will present the information they have documented on the activity sheet in the form of written historical narratives. Arrange students in small groups representing the different journal entries. Each student should present his or her version of the journal entry’s contents to group members—it is likely that each will have a slightly different story to tell. Instruct the groups to discuss the various findings and interpretations. What are the implications of the variations for recording history? What are the implications for the reporting of the Lewis and Clark journey?

    6. Instruct groups to come to some consensus on the information provided in the journal entries and then present their perspective on the specific event to the class. Invite students to pose questions to each group for additional information and/or to clarify what they have presented.

    Online Resources


      History Detectives

      The West: Letters and Journals of Narcissa Whitman

      Netserf: Historical Journals

    Assessment Recommendations

    Students could be assessed based upon their satisfactory completion of the Student Activity Sheet and their oral presentation. A rubric could be designed to evaluate the oral presentation. An objective test could be developed to assess students on the information they researched as well as what was presented orally by historians.


    Students can:

    • recreate the events described in the journal entries through dramatic vignettes, individual monologues presented by the entry authors, or other creative formats

    • write journal entries in the voices of Native Americans who interacted with expedition members

    • assume the roles of expedition members who present their perspectives of expedition events in a roundtable discussion