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Images from the Louisiana Purchase and Lewis and Clark Primary Source set
Images from the Louisiana Purchase and Lewis and Clark Expedition Primary Source set

The Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition: A New Primary Source Set from the Library of Congress

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In 1803, the United States doubled in size at the stroke of a pen. A new Library of Congress primary source set, The Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark Expedition, is a gateway that allows students and educators to take a critical look at a set of events that changed life in North America forever.

The Louisiana Purchase Treaty, which was signed in April of 1803 and ratified by the Senate in October, transferred hundreds of millions of acres of land west of the Mississippi River from France to the U.S. for a few cents per acre. This acquisition began a period of dramatic transformation, both for the United States and for the indigenous communities already living in the Louisiana territory.

It also led to the launch of the Lewis and Clark expedition, which began in 1804 and lasted more than two years. Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery traveled from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean and back on a quest to connect the eastern U.S. with the west via a water passage, documenting the people, terrain, and resources that they encountered there.

Lewis and Clark map, with annotations in brown ink by Meriwether Lewis
Lewis and Clark map, with annotations in brown ink by Meriwether Lewis

This free resource for teachers spotlights a selection of primary sources that document the origins and impact of the Louisiana Purchase, including copies of the treaty and legislation that brought it into being, as well as documentation of Lewis and Clark’s journey. Highlights include handwritten instructions from Thomas Jefferson to Meriwether Lewis, a map with Lewis’s own annotations, and a cipher or code designed for secret communications related to the expedition. The set moves beyond the 19th century to look at the long-term impact of the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark expedition, as reflected in film, newspaper articles, school books, public memorials, and even a jigsaw puzzle.

The set includes historical background information and teaching ideas that support students as they analyze these unique primary sources. It also provides teachers with ideas to prompt further exploration of these epochal events in the history of North America.

We hope you’ll let us know which items in this set provoke discussion among your students.

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