Meriwether Lewis

views updated May 23 2018

Meriwether Lewis

Explorer and U.S. Army officer, Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) has been saluted as America's foremost explorer. The Lewis and Clark expedition is often called America's national epic of exploration.

Meriwether Lewis was born in Albemarle County, Va., on Aug. 18, 1774. His father became a Revolutionary War officer and died when Meriwether was 5. Meriwether became the man of the family, since his only brother was younger. Ending his formal schooling at the age of 18, he appeared destined for the life of a Virginia gentleman farmer. But in 1794, when Pennsylvania insurgents brought on the Whiskey Rebellion, Lewis answered President George Washington's call for militia volunteers. The campaign was bloodless, but Lewis enjoyed himself. He wrote his mother, "I am quite delighted with a soldier's life."

While on frontier duty, Lewis met William Clark, who was commanding the special company of sharpshooters to which Lewis was transferred. The two men quickly became friends. After service on the Mississippi River, Lewis was asked by his old Virginia friend Thomas Jefferson-now president of the United States-to become his confidential White House secretary. Lewis served in that capacity from 1801 until 1803, while the President discussed with him his dream of sending an exploring expedition to the Pacific via the Missouri River drainage. When Jefferson offered him leadership of the expedition, Lewis accepted, choosing Clark as his associate. Lewis took a "crash" course in science from scholars of the American Philosophical Society, since he was to make scientific reports on the West.

The Expedition

On May 14, 1804, Lewis had Clark lead their little flotilla of boats up the Missouri River to North Dakota, where they decided to winter, building Ft. Mandan (near modern Bismarck). There had been hostile Indians and some tense moments along the way but, thanks to Lewis's diplomacy, there had been no battles.

Lewis and his men pushed on again in April 1805. By August the Missouri River had dwindled to a series of shallow tributaries which Lewis's canoes could not negotiate. Luckily, Lewis had hired Toussaint Charbonneau as an interpreter-guide. Though Charbonneau was nearly worthless, his wife, Sacajawea, was the sister of the chief of the Shoshone Indians; thus Lewis got the horses he needed to cross the Rocky Mountains. Once across, the explorers drifted in new canoes down the Clearwater and Snake rivers and continued down the Columbia to the Pacific. Winter quarters were built at Ft. Clatsop, south of the mouth of the Columbia.

On March 23, 1806, they began the homeward trek. Lewis split his party in order to explore more territory. He was nearly killed by hostile Blackfoot Indians and was accidentally shot by one of his own men during a hunt. Nevertheless, he and Clark got all of their men safely back to St. Louis. From there to Washington, D.C., Lewis enjoyed a hero's welcome as his passage was celebrated by local citizens.

Last Years

As a reward, Jefferson made Lewis governor of Upper Louisiana Territory (later, Missouri Territory). Lewis resigned his Army commission, but before going to St. Louis to take office, he tried to finish editing his journals of the exploration for publication. He was unsuccessful, even though he delayed for almost a year.

Lewis found Missouri a lawless frontier, and although he threw himself into the work of administering the territory, the results were mixed. For one thing, Lewis was not cut out for a desk job. An ideal explorer, he was a mediocre administrator. Moreover, his second-in-command in St. Louis was hostile and jealous. In 1809 a State Department clerk delayed one of Governor Lewis's drafts for a mere $ 18.70 to pay for the translation of the laws of Missouri Territory into French for its many Gallic citizens. The money was not important, but Lewis feared that the government might begin to question all of his official bills. He decided to go to Washington to set matters straight.

Lewis started down the Mississippi by boat but soon went ashore, ill with fever and possibly delirious. He wrote President James Madison that he would continue by land. Still very ill, he hurried on with a companion and two servants, taking the Natchez Trace. On Oct. 11, 1809, while his companion looked for a strayed horse, Lewis rode to a lonely Tennessee inn to spend the night.

During the night the innkeeper's wife, according to her later story, was awakened by a shot and heard Lewis moaning. Frightened, she did nothing; at daybreak Lewis's servants found the governor near death from a bullet wound in his head. He died at sunup, his last words being, "I am no coward, but I am so strong; it is so hard to die." When Jefferson heard of Lewis's death, he accepted the theory of suicide that was suggested by those who found his body. But a strong minority, then and later, felt that Lewis had been murdered, for murders were common on the Natchez Trace at this time.

Incredibly, the nation that had cheered Lewis's great exploration of the Louisiana Territory, the Rockies, and Oregon only a few years before, now neglected him. His remains were not moved to Washington, D.C., or to Virginia. Not even a gravestone was erected. His friend Alexander Wilson, the ornithologist, made a personal pilgrimage to the inn and paid the innkeeper to fence the grave to keep out rooting hogs. Finally, in 1848 the state of Tennessee erected a handsome monument over Lewis's grave. Today his gravesite is a national monument.

A large share of the responsibility for the brilliance of the Lewis and Clark expedition must go to William Clark, but the genius of this corps of discovery was Lewis himself. He combined a talent for military leadership with an inquiring mind, which was perfect for the task at hand-exploring, mapping, and reporting upon the terra incognita, which in 1804 was the American Far West.

Further Reading

The most complete biography of Lewis is Richard Dillon, Meriwether Lewis (1965). Also useful is John E. Bakeless, Lewis and Clark, Partners in Discovery (1947). Calvin Tomkins retraced the explorers' route in The Lewis and Clark Trail (1965). Albert and Jane Salisbury's photo essay on the route of march, Two Captains West (1950), is informative. Donald Jackson, Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1962), is a model of scholarship, as is Reuben G. Thwaites, ed., Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1904-1905). An interesting one-volume summary of the explorers' journals is Bernard DeVoto, ed., The Journals of Lewis and Clark (1953).

Additional Sources

Ambrose, Stephen E., Undaunted courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the opening of the American West, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996. □

Lewis, Meriwether (1774-1809)

views updated May 17 2018

Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809)


Army officer and explorer

Distinguished Family. Meriwether Lewis was born in the Virginia piedmont on 18 August 1774 into one of the states earliest and most distinguished families. Meriwether Lewiss great-grandfather was a Welshman who served in the British army as an officer. He arrived in Virginia in 1635 with a grant from the king for 33, 333 1/3 acres of land. William Lewis, Meriwethers father, inherited 1, 896 acres of land, slaves, and a house when his father, Col. Robert Lewis, died. In 1769 William married his cousin Lucy Meriwether, the daughter of a land-rich Welsh family. (Between 1725 and 1774 there were eleven marriages between Lewises and Meriwethers.)

Young Boy. Meriwether Lewis was the second child of Lucy and William. In 1779, when Meriwether was five years old, his father died. He inherited £520 in cash, 147 gallons of whiskey, and a plantation of nearly two thousand acres and twenty-four slaves. It was managed by his uncle, Nicholas Meriwether, until young Meriwether became old enough to run it himself. In May 1780 Lucy married Capt. John Marks. When Meriwether was eight or nine, Marks and his new family moved to Georgia.

Frontier Life. The frontier was always a part of Meriwether Lewiss world. The Virginia piedmont was midway between the frontier and the settlements. It was a place where hunting was great and one could learn wilderness skills, but it was also a place where one could acquire the refinement of plantation society and learn about surveying, natural history, and geography. Lucy Meriwether Lewis was known far and wide for her medicinal remedies, made from herbs that she grew herself. She became a source of information for young Meriwether when he had questions about plants and animals. During the three or four years that he was in Georgia, Meriwether would often go into the forest at night with his dogs to hunt raccoons and opossums.

Education. In 1787, when he was about thirteen, Lewis returned to Virginia for an education. There were no public schools in the South at this time, and planters sons received their educations by boarding with preachers who instructed them in Latin, mathematics, natural science, and English grammar. Lewis studied until he was eighteen and then returned to Georgia to move his family to Virginia. By that time he had not learned enough Latin to use it, and his English writing skills were poor. He loved to read journals of exploration, particularly those of Capt. James Cook. His math was good, and he had a solid base in botany and natural history.

Professional Life. In 1794 Lewis enlisted as a private in the Virginia militia. He was able to travel over much of the West, both north and south of the Ohio River. He transferred to the First U.S. Infantry Regiment in 1796 and rose to the rank of captain in 1800. In early 1801, on the basis of a personal acquaintance with him, owing from his being of my neighborhood, Jefferson chose Lewis to be his private secretary. Jefferson also wrote to Gen. James Wilkinson, commanding general of the army, requesting that Lewis be released from active duty yet allowed to keep his commission. Jefferson wanted Lewis for this post because of his familiarity with the military, which Jefferson wanted to reduce in size, and for his familiarity and knowledge of the West, which Jefferson wanted to have explored.

Expedition. In January 1803 Jefferson requested funds for an expedition to explore the West, and Congress made the appropriation. Lewis was sent to Pennsylvania to prepare for the trip by studying with some of the nations leading scientists, including Andrew Willcot (astronomy and mathematics), Benjamin Rush (biology), Benjamin Smith Barton (botany), and Caspar Wistar (paleontology). By the time the expedition departed in the spring of 1804, Lewis was well prepared.

Governor. The expedition reached the Pacific Ocean on 8 November 1805 and returned to Saint Louis on 23 September 1806, bringing with it great quantities of information on the flora and fauna, Native Americans, and the geography of the region. In recognition of his service Lewis was nominated by Jefferson on 28 February 1807 to be governor of the Louisiana Territory. The nomination was approved by Congress, and on 2 March, Lewis resigned his military commission. The next two years were difficult for him. He took his new position at a time when there was much interest and competition in the fur trade in the Louisiana Territory. British companies based in Montreal were actively involved in the trade on the upper Missouri River; independent hunters and trappers were flocking into the area; white settlers established homesteads; and the Lakota Indians, who controlled the area, were resisting the encroachment. At the same time Lewis was personally engaged in the fur trade and land speculation. Some of his charges to the government were being challenged, and his creditors were pressuring him for payment. Moreover, he was attempting to find a wife, but with little success.

Death . In September 1809 Lewis left for Washington to try and straighten out misunderstandings surrounding the bills he submitted. On 10 October, troubled and unsettled, he arrived at Grinders Inn, seventy-two miles outside of Nashville. During the early hours of the next day Lewis shot himself, but the bullet only grazed his head; he then shot himself in the chest. Lewis did not die immediately and asked his servants to kill him. They did not comply with his request, but by sunrise he was dead.


Stephen E. Ambrose, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West (New York: Touchstone, 1996).

Meriwether Lewis

views updated May 17 2018

Meriwether Lewis


American Explorer

One of the greatest explorers in United States history, Meriwether Lewis shared command of the United States Corps of Discovery that explored the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase for President Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826). Sharing command with William Clark (1770-1838), Lewis helped lead his men on a journey of exploration, scientific discovery, and diplomacy that met and exceeded all expectations.

Born into one of Virginia's leading families in 1774, Lewis led a childhood that mingled privilege with frontier hardships. His father, a plantation owner, served in the colonial army until his death from pneumonia when Lewis was five years old. Lewis's mother, a strong-willed woman, ran the plantation, sending Lewis away for schooling. Following his formal education, Lewis joined the army and was eventually assigned as secretary to President Jefferson, a family friend.

While serving Jefferson, Lewis was personally tutored by the president and stayed as a guest in Jefferson's home quite frequently. After consummating the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson assigned Lewis as commander of a Corps of Discovery whose mission it would be to explore the newly acquired lands, collect scientific specimens, make initial diplomatic contact with the Native American nations along their path, and try to determine the economic potential of the lands they were to traverse.

Although unusual, Lewis chose to share command with his friend, William Clark. Lewis and Clark selected a group of frontiersmen and soldiers to join their expedition and set out from St. Louis in May 1804. In general, Lewis proved himself a capable commander, an excellent explorer, and a fine observer of nature. He gathered thousands of scientific specimens and wrote up detailed descriptions equal to what any trained specialist would have written. However, Lewis was a mediocre diplomat who was often condescending and patronizing to both his Native American advisors and the tribal chiefs he met during his expedition.

It is worth noting that very little along the route matched the pre-expedition expectations. The Rocky Mountains were thought to resemble the Appalachians and a relatively easy crossing was anticipated. It was fully expected that an all-water route across the continent would be found or, at least, one that had only a short and easy portage. Jefferson warned Lewis to expect to find wooly mammoths, giant ground sloths, and other such animals along the way, as he believed them to exist in the continental interior. In fact, most of what was "known" about the continent turned out to be wrong. That Lewis and Clarke succeeded despite this lack of knowledge is even more impressive.

Lewis and Clark reached the Pacific in the autumn of 1805, wintered over, and returned to St. Louis in late September 1806 after an absence of nearly three years. From there Lewis returned to Washington where he was received with acclaim by both Jefferson and the academic world.

In the following few years, Lewis seemed to have difficulties adjusting to life away from the frontier. He repeatedly put off transcribing his journals for the scientific community, concentrating on publishing his memoirs instead. He was assigned several posts during this time, filling them adequately, but not with the same talent he had used to lead the Corps of Discovery. Under circumstance never fully understood, Lewis committed suicide in 1809, following a series of arguments and squabbles with several government officials. His later problems notwithstanding, he was remembered by Jefferson in 1813:

"Of courage undaunted, possessing a firmness & perseverance of purpose which nothing but impossibilities could divert from it's direction, careful as a father of those committed to his charge, yet steady in the maintenance of order & discipline, intimate with the Indian character, customs & principles, habituated to the hunting life, guarded by exact observation of the vegetables & animals of his own country, against losing time in the description of objects already possessed, honest, disinterested, liberal, of sound understanding and fidelity to truth so scrupulous that whatever he should report would be as certain as if seen by ourselves, with all these qualifications as if selected and implanted by nature in one body, for this express purpose, I could have no hesitation in confiding the enterprize to him."


Lewis, Meriwether

views updated May 23 2018

Lewis, Meriwether (1774–1809) US explorer. An army officer, he was secretary to Thomas Jefferson, who chose him to lead the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804). In 1808, he was appointed governor of Louisiana Territory.

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