Lesson in History — Lewis and Clark Take On the West
October 27, 2014
There are moments in American history that are too improbable even for a Hollywood movie. The Lewis and Clark expedition, which explored the Louisiana territory and mapped a route to the Pacific, was full of them.
One especially dramatic moment occurred in August 1805, when Meriwether Lewis finally crossed the Continental Divide. Lewis was farther west than any American citizen had ever been, and he stood on the ridge of the highest mountains he’d ever seen.
On the other side, Lewis had expected to find the mythical Northwest Passage, a rumored water route to the Pacific Ocean. Instead, stretched before him as far as he could see were “immense ranges of high mountains still to the West of us with their tops partially covered in snow” — an awesome sight in late summer, but also a dispiriting one when he considered the journey ahead.
The next day brought a coincidence as amazing as any in American history. High in the Rocky Mountains, Lewis came upon a group of Shoshone Indians. He brought their chief to Sacagawea, a young Native American woman who acted as his interpreter.
Sacagawea had accompanied the men from their winter camp nearly 800 miles away. As soon as Sacagawea saw the chief, she became ecstatic and told Lewis that the man was her brother, whom she had not seen since she was kidnapped by a rival tribe five years earlier.
It was a particularly dramatic moment on a journey that did not lack for drama. At other points of the expedition, the explorers talked people out of killing them (more than once), staggered out of the Rockies nearly dead, and almost lost their priceless journals in a capsize on the Missouri River.
Stories like those of Lewis and Clark help us understand the courage, dedication, and sheer daring of those who have come before us. Yet somehow, we manage to teach kids in school that history is boring — that is, when we teach it at all.
It’s vitally important that our children learn American history. After all, if we do not teach our children about the past, they cannot possibly learn to understand the present. They cannot truly be proud to be American, either, since an honest study of America’s history teaches us a justified and lasting patriotism.
Unfortunately, we are beginning to see our nation’s memory of the past slip away, as schools too often teach revisionist or politically correct history. The results of the Department of Education’s recent National Assessment of Educational Progress suggest a serious challenge. Just 20 percent of fourth-graders, 17 percent of eighth-graders, and 12 percent of 12th-graders are at grade-level proficiency in American history.
According to Department of Education data, a majority of fourth graders don’t know the purpose of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Most fourth graders can’t say why the pioneers moved west. And two-thirds don’t understand that westward migration resulted in new states being added to the union.
We have to find ways to teach young people about American history. At a time when many Americans believe our nation is on the wrong track, it is even more important to introduce children to the people who have persevered before them.
In “From Sea to Shining Sea,” my new book for 4- to 8-year-olds, Ellis the Elephant joins the Lewis and Clark expedition as they venture west into unknown territory. Ellis helps children see that courage matters, having big dreams matters, and patriotism matters.
Indeed, the more you learn about the expedition, the more you are struck with those very lessons. The Corps of Discovery, as the group was known, rowed for 14 months up the Missouri against the current. They carried canoes on their backs for days at a time. And at one point they nearly starved to death. They did it not for personal glory but for their country.
It’s a staggering story that deserves to be told. Take the time to share it with the young Americans in your life.