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Lewis & Clark: For Educators: Teaching Units & Lesson Plans Lewis & Clark: The National Bicentennial Exhibition Exhibition Locations
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Teaching Units & Lesson Plans

Using Primary Sources


Target Grade Level:
Elementary, Grades 4 - 6

This unit focuses on how plants are used for medicinal and curing purposes. Students will study the misconceptions of nineteenth-century Euro-American medicine, learn how Lewis and Clark and American Indians used plants to cure and heal, discover how many products we use today derive from plants, create simple herbal remedies, and participate in a culminating project that requires students to create a medicine box or bag from plants.

By the end of the unit, students will know that nineteenth century Euro-American and American Indian medical practices shared an appreciation for the value of plants as a source of cures. Students will also know that other nineteenth-century medical practices have long since been debunked, while the study of plants has survived the test of time. Finally, students will know how to pack an herbal medicine bag of their own and how to apply these herbs to common ailments. The unit uses readings, images, quotes, vocabulary, hands-on activities, and student research as teaching tools.

Ongoing assessments or tests include oral questions and worksheets. The culmination of the unit is the Performance Assessment Task, which requires students to apply their knowledge and skills regarding plants and curing. Students work both individually and in a group to develop their own survival kit or "medical box" for a hypothetical modern-day trek.

[For lessons about Lewis's methods of studying plants, see lessons 1 and 2 in the middle school unit.]

Explore Connections to Today for this unit.


All living things, including humans, depend on plants for their survival. Understanding this dependent relationship promotes sustainable and healthy living habits.


  • how do people use plants to cure and heal?
  • what were the Euro-American and American Indian approaches to curing illnesses?
  • how do we use plants today?


Students will:

  • identify some of the plants that Lewis and Clark saw on their expedition
  • know several types of plant cures for illnesses
  • understand that plants are used to cure and maintain health
  • describe the major medical beliefs practiced by Dr. Benjamin Rush, the medical advisor to the expedition
  • identify the Euro-American medical misconceptions of the nineteenth-century
  • identify plant cures that have withstood the test of time
  • describe the role of the medicine man in American Indian society
  • understand that many common household products have plant ingredients
  • recite several effective herbal cures


Students will:

  • analyze and interpret documents and visuals in primary and secondary sources
  • identify plants
  • research plant cures
  • compare and contrast American Indian and Euro-American approaches to medicine in the 1800s
  • read and draw inferences from two American Indians' views on the medicine man


Ongoing assessments include:

  • ask students to compare nineteenth-century Euro-American and American Indian medicinal practices
  • ask students to compare the medical box used by Euro-Americans to the medicine bag used by American Indians
  • look at illnesses and injuries that Lewis and Clark needed to anticipate before they went on their expedition
  • decide which plants to research for medicinal purposes
  • research medicinal uses of plants
  • prepare and present a group project


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