American Portraits

Great Falls, Great Beauty, Great Difficulty: The Lewis and Clark Expedition and Diligence

Students will explore the difficulties faced by the Lewis and Clark expedition as they faced the challenges of portaging around the unexpectedly vast Great Falls of the Missouri River. They will read and discuss the narrative and ask questions about identity, purpose, and motivation.

Founding Principles

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Individual Responsibility

Individuals must take care of themselves and their families and be vigilant to preserve their liberty.

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Private Virtue

The idea that only a knowledgeable and virtuous citizenry can sustain liberty.

Narrative

Meriwether Lewis should have been tired, but he was not. Fourteen months earlier, he and his team had set out on this expedition on behalf of President Jefferson and, even after a hard winter, he still enjoyed exploring new terrain. While Lewis liked the company of his traveling companions, he also took pleasure in time spent away from them as he identified plants and wildlife he had never seen before, sketching and describing them in the journal he was required to keep as part of his responsibilities co-leading the expedition. Lewis’ cousin and schoolmate, Peachy Gilmer, once described him as having “perseverance and steadiness of purpose.” Lewis’s partner in this endeavor, William Clark, may have seemed the steadier and sturdier of the partnership. A lieutenant in the army, Clark had an excellent instinct for geography, was a tough fighter, and knew how to construct forts. He and Lewis’s complementary partnership was to serve the expedition well….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How did Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, in their shared diligence, influence the people in their expedition as they faced the challenges of portaging the Great Falls of the Missouri River?

Virtue Defined

Diligence is intrinsic energy for completing good work.

Lesson Overview

Students will explore the difficulties faced by the Lewis and Clark expedition as they faced the challenges of portaging around the unexpectedly vast Great Falls of the Missouri River. They will read and discuss the narrative and ask questions about identity, purpose, and motivation.

Objectives

  • Read a narrative about the Lewis and Clark expedition at the point at which they arrive at the Great Falls of the Missouri River and subsequently portage around them.
  • Identify the steps Lewis and Clark took to overcome this difficulty.
  • Discuss the specific ways that Lewis and Clark’s actions in planning and implementing the unexpected portage demonstrated diligence.
  • Analyze the influence of Lewis and Clark’s diligence on the other members of the expedition, and subsequently on the United States during this stage of its development as a nation.
  • Have students compare themselves and their individual circumstances to Lewis and Clark and the members of their expeditionary team.

Background

The Lewis and Clark expedition represented a pivotal moment in the development of the young and growing United States. In May of 1804, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark set out on what was to become a nearly 2½ year expedition and one of the grand undertakings in human history. 14 months into that journey, they came upon the Great Falls of the Missouri River. Lewis wrote that it was “the grandest sight” he had ever beheld. It was also to present one of the most arduous tests of their long journey. While they had anticipated the need to carry their canoes and supplies around the waterfalls, they were not prepared for the massive scale of the falls or the distance of the portage. Rather than the one mile they had anticipated, they would need to carry their canoes and supplies eighteen miles around five waterfalls and a rise of 500 feet— and find a way to do it. Those weeks at the Great Falls of the Missouri River were a test of their teamwork and their resolve, and it was their gritty diligence that carried them through this unexpected and massive undertaking.

Vocabulary

  • Portage
  • Lieutenant
  • Interspersed
  • Grandeur
  • Ordeal
  • Magnified

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

For more robust lesson treatment, check out our partners at the Character Formation Project

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Questions

Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • What were Lewis’s and Clark’s identities during this part of their voyage?
  • What were Lewis’s and Clark’s purposes during the journey?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

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