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Featured GraphicFrom Sea to Shining Sea:
A Nation Moves Westward!


On May 14, 1804, Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and a small team of explorers left St. Louis, Missouri, in search of a route to the Pacific coast. On May 10, 1869, Governor Leland Stanford of California drove the final spike into the country's first transcontinental railroad. This week, Education World introduces you and your students to 65 years of history. Included: More than a dozen activities to help students take part in America's westward expansion.

On May 14, 1804, Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, and a small team of explorers left St. Louis, Missouri, in search of a trade route to the Pacific coast. On May 10, 1869, California's governor, Leland Stanford, drove the last spike into the country's first transcontinental railroad. The 65 years between those two events were part of the most significant, exciting, and dangerous decades in United States history. Use the activities below to introduce your students to the people, places, and events that joined two oceans and created a powerful nation.


On April 30, 1803, representatives from the United States and France signed The Louisiana Purchase Treaty. The treaty, which has been called the greatest real estate deal in history, gave the United States title to 828,000 square miles of land from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian border. The Louisiana Territory nearly doubled the size of the United States and created one of the largest nations in the world.

What a deal! -- math. In 1803, the United States paid France 60 million francs, or $11,250,000, for 828,000 square miles of land west of the Mississippi River. How much per acre, in both francs and dollars did the United States pay for the land? (about .11 franc, or $0.02, per acre) (Hint: 1 square mile = 640 acres) In addition, the United States agreed to pay off 20 million francs in debts owed to American citizens by France. What was the total cost of the Louisiana Purchase in dollars? ($15,000,000) Figures for the first quarter of 1998 indicate that, in the 48 contiguous states, the average price per acre for commercial land was $70,602. At that price, how much would the Louisiana Purchase have cost in 1998? ($37,413,411,840,000)

Who said that? -- history. Manifest Destiny, the belief that Americans were divinely destined to control the land between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, was a watchword of the Thomas Jefferson presidency. Provide students with a list of Presidents of the United States of America who held office between Jefferson and Andrew Johnson. Ask students to research those presidents and identify one important program or initiative from each administration.

Don't tread on me! -- social studies, speech. The belief in Manifest Destiny created the impetus that led to the westward expansion of the United States. It also provided the justification for destroying any group or nation that got in the way of that expansion. Arrange students into groups, and have each group research both sides of the issue and take a position for or against Manifest Destiny. Then stage a series of debates between groups with opposing viewpoints.


In 1803, Congress appropriated $2,500 to send an expedition, led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, to explore the area between the Mississippi River and the Pacific Ocean. The immediate purpose of the trip was to establish a transportation route for American fur traders. The expedition's explorers were also directed to create detailed reports about the geography, climate, plants, and animals of the region west of the Mississippi and to report on the customs and languages of the area's Indians.

Where are we? -- science. Challenge students to create a Simple Sextant to Find Latitude.

Create a board game -- social studies, language arts. Encourage students to Adventure Into the Unknown: A WebQuest on the Lewis and Clark Expedition and create a board game about the expedition.

Blaze your own trail -- language arts, geography, science, art. Have students participate in the interactive adventure Go West Across America With Lewis & Clark. Then ask each student to complete a journal describing his or her route home from school. Remind students to provide complete directions, including distances, directions, and landmarks. Encourage them to include descriptions and sketches of all plants, animals, and "natives" they see. Finally, have them create a map of the route.


Many of the first pioneers believed that their troubles would be over once they reached the end of their journey west. Life in the west was often more difficult than they imagined, however. The new settlers had to contend with wild animals, harsh weather, Indian raids, and land that was frequently either too dry or too rocky to farm. For many, however, the lure of adventure, acres of inexpensive or free land, and the chance for a new start were impossible to resist.

Home Activities
Home Connection!

Invite your students to complete the following activity with their families:

Meet the explorers.
Encourage students in middle and high school to read The Donner Party Logs or Across the Plains in '64, a story of a family's journey along the Oregon Trail. Then ask each student to interview older family members and write an account of his or her family history.

Go west ... please! -- art. Ask students to read The Homestead Act. Explain that in the 19th century, the government offered inexpensive (and later free) land to encourage Americans to move west. Arrange students into pairs, have each pair explore some of the other reasons families wanted to move west, and then ask them to create a poster encouraging westward expansion.

Discover diversity -- social studies. Encourage students to explore Judgment Day, about slavery in the early West, and Ghosts of the Past, about the treatment of Native Americans during westward expansion. Have students compare the experiences of Native Americans and slaves in the West. Then ask them to write a letter to the editor protesting the treatment of one or both groups.


In January 1848, gold was discovered at a sawmill being built in Coloma, California, by John Sutter. The discovery opened the floodgates of westward expansion, as thousands of men, women, and children rushed to California to cash in on the sudden prosperity the discovery promised.

Rush for gold -- social studies, math. Invite students to read about The Gold Rush and try some of the Classroom Activities provided at the site.

Is it gold? -- geology, classification. Encourage students to explore Minerals A-Z. Ask them to experiment with the different ways in which minerals can be classified. Then arrange students into pairs or small groups, and have each group choose a letter at Minerals A to Z. Ask students to create a chart classifying the minerals beginning with that letter according to size, color, and country of origin.

Ask a geologist -- geology. Encourage students to Ask-a-Geologist a question about the rocks and minerals they discover at the Mineral and Gemstone Kingdom.

Myths and legends? -- language arts. Encourage students to read the legend of The Tommyknockers or Stories in El Dorado County's History. Then ask them to write a modern legend about the reasons behind such common events as a computer crash, radio static, or a car alarm beep.


On May 10, 1869, in a ceremony held at Promontory Summit, Utah, a golden spike joined the rails of the Union Pacific and Central Railroad Companies, completing the first transcontinental railroad in the United States.

Travel the transcontinental railroad -- language arts. Invite students to explore the Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum. Have students use a railroad map to plan a train trip across the country. Ask them to select a map and decide the route they will take, the number of miles they will travel, and how long the trip will take. Encourage each student to keep a log of his or her trip, describing the scenery, weather, and landmarks for each stage of the journey.

Create a timeline -- history. Provide students with a list of events and dates, such as the completion of the transcontinental railroad (1869), the beginning of the Lewis and Clark expedition (1804), the great migration along the Oregon Trail (1843), the discovery of gold at Sutter's Mill (1848), the Pony Express (1860), the Donner expedition (1846), and the Louisiana Purchase (1803). Ask students to match each event to the correct date and then create a timeline of the most important events of westward expansion.

Take a quiz -- language arts, geography, social studies. Invite students to complete one of the following quizzes: Who's Who in the West?, Where in the West?, or the AP U.S. History Quiz Westward Expansion & Manifest Destiny.


New Perspectives on the West
The online version of the Ken Burns and Stephen Ives eight-part documentary journey through the American West offers a number of interactive resources on the West, including a timeline, maps, biographies, and quizzes.

Westward Expansion
Mike Jenkins offers links about the American West for high school and college students.

The American West
This site offers a searchable database of links about the American West that includes people, places, events, and images.

Westward Expansion
Kennesaw State University in Georgia provides a list of links to informational resources, lessons, and activities about westward expansion for students in grades 3 through 5.

Westward Expansion
The Jericho public school system in New York provides this list of links on the people, places, and events of the American West.

The Overland Trail
This site provides a thorough look at the Overland Trail, a mail and passenger route specifically intended to avoid the Native American uprisings that occurred on the Oregon Trail.

Clip Art Parlour
This site contains lots of images of the early West that should come in handy for illustrating work sheets and reports on the topic.

Related Articles from Education World

  • Don't miss more great lessons about the explorers in Education World's Discoverer's Day archive.

Linda Starr
Education World®
Copyright © 2008 Education World

Originally published 05/15/2000
Links last updated 08/22/2008