11 Science: Lewis and Clark Mapmaking

Part I

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Discuss with the students Lewis and Clark’s journey from Missouri to the Pacific Ocean.  Ask your students to draw a map in their book that looks like a Lewis and Clark map.  This should take less than 5 minutes.  You can read the excerpt below while your students draw.

Lewis, Clark, and the rest of their expedition began their journey near St. Louis, Missouri, in May 1804. This group – often called the Corps of Discovery by historians – faced nearly every obstacle and hardship imaginable on their trip. They braved dangerous waters and harsh weather and endured hunger, illness, injury, and fatigue. Along the way, Lewis kept a detailed journal and collected samples of plants and animals he encountered. Lewis and his expedition received assistance in their mission from many of the native peoples they met during their journey westward. The Mandans provided them with supplies during their first winter. It was during this time that expedition picked up two new members, Sacagawea and Touissant Charbonneau. The two acted as interpreters for the expedition and Sacagawea, Charbonneau’s wife and a Shoshone Indian, was able to help get horses for the group later in the journey.

Reaching the Pacific

The Corps of Discovery reached the Pacific Ocean in November of 1805. They built Fort Clatsop and spent the winter in present-day Oregon. On the way back in 1806, Lewis and Clark split up to explore more territory and look for faster route home. Lewis and his men faced great danger when a group of Blackfeet Indians sought to steal from the corps in late July. Two Blackfeet were killed in the ensuing conflict. The next month, Lewis was shot in the thigh by one of his own men during a hunt. Lewis and Clark and their two groups joined up again at the Missouri River and made the rest of the trek to St. Louis together. In total, the expedition traveled roughly 8,000 miles by boat, on foot, and on horseback.

Part II

  • Divide students into small groups, having them look at the Lewis and Clark maps:
  • Explain to students that the Lewis and Clark expedition used several instruments to map out the places they visited. William Clark observed and recorded the landmarks they passed, relying largely on his keen sense of observation, as well as the information that he gained from navigational tools.
  • Ask students if they know what a compass is. If yes, ask whether they have ever used one. Show students a compass, explaining and demonstrating how it functions and for what it is typically used. Explain that the compass was perhaps the primary navigational tool Clark used to map locations it visited..

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  • Allow students to experiment with the compass to locate a direction and then discuss the experience. Was the compass helpful? What did they need to know in order to use the compass? Is a compass always accurate?  The compasses they receive might not all work or work well.  The reviews on Amazon said that they worked great and we thought these would be a fun gift for the students.  Most mobile phones have a compass app, a mom can use that or students can guess. Keep in mind that every aspect of each science experiment does not have to work perfectly for children to learn.  
  • Pass out one piece of paper to each student, explaining that they will have a chance to create a map. Have them label the top of the page North and then label the seven other directions (NE, E, SE, S, SW, W, NW) along the perimeter of the page. Explain that the map’s scale will be one square = 10 feet. In other words, if a line is 10 feet long on the ground, it will be centimeter on their paper. Ask them to draw an “X” in the middle of the page.
  • Tell students to mark on their maps directions you will give them, starting at the X. For example, ask them to move 20 feet to the north of the X or thirty feet to the southeast, reminding them of the map’s scale. Provide sufficient directions for students to create a detailed map. (Students may work in pairs.)
  • Have students discuss this mapmaking activity. What did they learn? How do navigational tools, such as a compass, aid in the actual creation of maps? What would they do if they wanted to create a map of a place where they had never been, giving thought to Clark’s challenge to do just that and the activities they just completed (using a compass, creating a directional map). What would they need to learn about the area? What would they record on the map to make it easy for someone else to follow the same route and find the same places later? Have them brainstorm responses to these questions.

Part III

  1. Tell students that they will embark on a mini expedition in their immediate surroundings during which they will map out a route based on landmarks and pre-determined travel directions.
  2. Pair the students so they can help each other.
  3. With compasses and paper, start in one place in your house, church, yard, or playgroupnd.
  4. Instruct students to use their compasses and the landmarks (they can choose so some may say a certain tree and others may choose a chair…) write the compass reading and beside it a small drawing of the landmark.
  5. Slowly walk about ten feet.  Stop and ask the students to draw based on their compass readings and a new landmark.
  6. Repeat this for about ten minutes.
  7. Reconvene in the classroom and ask the students to compare their maps.

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