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Meriwether Lewis
Meriwether Lewis

Meriwether Lewis was born in Albemarle County, Virginia, on August 18, 1774, the second child and first son of William and Lucy Meriwether Lewis. His father, who had served as a lieutenant in the Continental Army, died in November 1779 after his horse fell into an icy stream while he was homeward bound. His widowed mother married another Army officer, Captain John Marks, six months later. The two raised Meriwether and his two siblings while managing a 1,000-acre plantation about 10 miles from Monticello (Jefferson’s home). The young Lewis was said to have an eye for plants, which was encouraged by his mother Lucy, a noted herb doctor.

Lewis joined the U.S. Army in 1794, serving six years in the Frontier Army and rising to the rank of captain in 1800, then serving as paymaster of the First Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army. In early 1801, Lewis was appointed by President Jefferson to be his personal secretary. Lewis was a childhood protege of Jefferson’s, and they renewed their bond years later while Lewis was on army duty in Charlottesville, Virginia. There is no doubt that part of Jefferson’s reason for appointing Lewis to this position was political; like Jefferson, Lewis was a firm Republican. Later, Jefferson would write that “[Lewis] was brave, prudent, habituated to the woods & familiar with Indian manners and character.” At Jefferson’s direction, Lewis planned an exploration of a route west to the Pacific coast of North America, whose stated “aim would be to make friends and allies of the far Western Indians while at the same time diverting valuable pelts from the rugged northern routes used by another nation [Britain]. . . and bringing the harvest down the Missouri to the Mississippi and thence eastward by a variety of routes.” During the journey, the expedition would also gain much-valued knowledge of continental geography and wildlife. In early 1803, Congress approved the expedition, which would be the first in series of military explorations launched by the U.S. government.

Lewis possessed many intellectual and physical qualities, which were refined during additional training prior to the start of the expedition. Physically, he was in superb condition, over six feet tall with a lean frame. Given his army conditioning, he was fiercely loyal, disciplined, and flexible, yet was also prone to being moody, speculative, and melancholic. His keen sense of observation and knack for writing detailed naturalistic and ethnographic accounts would prove to be invaluable for a man who would lead this strategically important expedition. Lewis had an especially sharp eye for the details of flora and fauna, which is reflected in his journals. Immediately after Congress’ approval, Lewis began preparing himself and defining requirements in terms of supplies and men who would be recruited to accompany him. Lewis learned the theories and practices of navigation first from Jefferson, then later from trained astronomers and cartographers in Philadelphia. He took in all the data known about the Western frontier at the time, including distances, topography, and potential enemies, much of which his expedition would end up revising.

After the Louisiana Purchase was completed on April 30, 1803, it became more clear that the expedition was not simply charged with scientific inquiry, geographic mapping, and clearing the way for commerce. The mission was to be more diplomatic, in that it would require the explorers to communicate the transfer of sovereignty to every Indian tribe and foreign interest occupying the lands within the Missouri watershed. This increase in importance warranted a need for a second-in-command to be named to assist Lewis on the journey. Both Jefferson and Lewis thought of William Clark, under whom Lewis had served briefly during his army career. On June 19, Lewis penned a letter to Clark expressing his desire that Clark share the command of the expedition with him, and seeking Clark’s help in populating the expedition with able-bodied and qualified men. Lewis and the President offered him a permanent commission as captain (jumping him up a full rank), with equal rank to Lewis should he accept the command. This offer was made to eliminate any tension that would result from the fact that Clark had been Lewis’ commanding officer in the rifle company at Fort Greenville. Lewis asked that Clark respond to him in Pittsburgh, where he would be readying boats and supplies for the journey. On July 29, Lewis received Clark’s response: “My friend I assure you no man lives with whome I would perfur to undertake Such a Trip &c as your self.”

In mid-October, the two met in Clarksville, Indiana Territory, near the Falls of the Ohio, to make final preparations for the journey and assemble what would later be named the Corps of Discovery. During this time, Lewis transferred some of his recently acquired knowledge about surveying to Clark, who immediately began conducting measurements of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. The two easily determined how their labors would initially be divided. Given Lewis’ more extensive social and political training under the President Jefferson, he would be in charge of finding men who could provide knowledge of the Upper Missouri, its Native Americans, and secure safe and expeditious routes for American commerce. Lewis would also serve as the party’s naturalist, collecting plant, animal, and mineral specimens to be taken back to Monticello and the East for examination and study. Their assignments were not fixed, though, and they would both be required to exchange places often during the journey to come.

As part of his diplomatic position, Lewis was often the leader in conducting speeches and granted “certificates” to the various Native American tribes. Even before leaving St. Louis, dozens of Native American representatives were visiting the town, hoping to discover more about the plans the white man had for the future. Stoddard, the military governor of Missouri, assisted Lewis in telling the natives, “You will be protected and sustained by your new father, the head chief of the United States” (meaning Jefferson). The speeches communicated that other European nations were no longer their “Great Father,” but that the leader of the 17 nations (the seventeen states) of America was now in that role. They were advised to live in peace and cooperate with the traders who would be traveling in their midst. If they did so, the natives would have access to goods brought into the interior by the White Man. In order to prove the value of their cooperation, Lewis invited the natives to come to the lodge of their Great Father in Washington to see for themselves the great cities and the sources of the gifts that they bore. By giving these speeches, Lewis was an effective agent of American imperialism, even as the Corps passed out of the recently-acquired Louisiana Territory into the Western lands of the Columbia River Basin.

As the Corps approached the headwaters of the Upper Missouri, Lewis and Clark decided that the keelboat would be difficult to transport and sent it downstream with specimens they had collected, maps, and detailed reports they had been working on since their departure. They organized the geographic materials into two documents. The first, drafted by Lewis, was a discourse entitled “A Summary View of Rivers of Creeks,” which described all the waterways that discharged into the Missouri, including “their length, navigability, sources, and the appearance of the lands through which they flowed.” The second, drafted by Clark, was a supplemental collection of four arithmetic tables entitled “A Summary View of Rivers, Creeks, and Remarkable Places [meaning deserted and occupied Indian villages],” which gave “the distances from one stream mouth to the next one upstream, an estimate of each tributary’s length, and a record of latitudes taken here and there by the captains during the upriver journey.”

Lewis' First Glimpse of the Rockies by Olaf Seltzer
"Lewis' First Glimpse of the Rockies"
by Olaf Seltzer

During the journey of the Corps of Discovery, Lewis was able to use the discipline and team leadership skills he developed while serving in the army. In February 1804, while Lewis was in St. Louis attending ceremonies that transferred Upper Louisiana to the United States, there had been some insubordination among the members of the Corps stationed for the winter back at Camp Dubois in the Illinois Territory. Colter, along with John Boley and John Robertson (both members of the Corps for a very short time), and Peter Wiser had defied orders given by Sergeant Ordway by visiting a local grog shop. Upon returning to Camp Dubois, Lewis confined Colter and the other offenders to the camp area for ten days, warning that “on such occasions the directives of duly appointed sergeants had the same authority as the captains.” Later, as the Corps reached the headwaters of the Missouri, decisions had to be made about which routes would correctly lead them furthest west towards the Continental Divide and the headwaters of the Columbia River. During many of these critical decisions, information obtained from Native Americans and previously-developed maps had to be combined with Lewis’ and Clark’s knowledge of natural history and geographic properties. Even though the captains were in positions of authority, they often considered the opinions of their enlisted men, many of whom had developed extensive knowledge and intuition about the wilderness. Once, at the end of the Great Portage around the Falls of the Missouri, Lewis became the cook of the Corps’ White Bear Islands Camp. After cutting his own wood and hauling water for the fire, he prepared a feast for the men of roasted buffalo meat, and even “made each man a large suet dumpling by way of a treat.”

Lewis’ strength, stamina, and overall health was put to the test on a number of occasions during the journey of the Corps of Discovery. Just after beginning the trek up the Missouri, Lewis and Clark stopped at a place called Tavern Cave, where sandstone cliffs three hundred feet high rose along the southern side of the river. While he and Clark were climbing to the top to engrave their names into a register inside the tremendous cavern, Lewis slipped and fell about twenty feet. “He saved himself by the assistance of his knife,” wrote Clark, presumably driving it into a crevice to break his fall. Later, just after the close of the Oto Council, Lewis accidentally poisoned himself while conducting some experimental tastes of ore found in a bluff. He was able to relieve his symptoms by purging himself with “salts,” which he used throughout the journey for the occasional intestinal flare-ups that resulted from extreme changes in diet and other factors. In August 1806, during an elk hunting trip, Pierre Cruzatte accidentally shot Lewis in the “thye,” an incident that caused Lewis to believe that Blackfeet were in their midst. Later, after the Corps found no evidence of the Indians’ presence, Cruzatte admitted his fault. Lewis graciously let the matter go, and got on with a very painful healing process.

Upon arriving safely in St. Louis in September 1806, Lewis drafted the first few letters which served as a preliminary report to President Jefferson. These letters were delivered by the dependable George Drouillard to the Cahokia postmaster, John Hay, who them saw them safely into the U.S. Mail. In one of these letters, Lewis wrote, “In obedience to your orders we have penetrated the continent of North America to the Pacific Ocean, and sufficiently explored the interior of the country to affirm with confidence that we have discovered the most practicable rout which does exist across the continent by means of the navigable branches of the Missouri and Columbia Rivers.”

He went on to describe the route as modified during his return over Lewis and Clark Pass (located in today’s Montana). First, they would travel by boat 2,575 miles up the Missouri past steep, eroding riverbanks and difficult snags to the rapids just below the Great Falls of the Missouri. Then, they would portage over 18 miles across land, then travel 200 more river miles, followed by 140 miles across the Bitterroots, “[T]remendous mountains which for 60 miles are covered with eternal snow.” Finally, travel downstream on the Snake, Clearwater, and Columbia Rivers for 640 boat miles to the Pacific Ocean. Although Lewis’ letter described a more involved and difficult passage between the two rivers, it did assure Jefferson of how plentiful the game was, and therefore, how profitable the fur trade could be in the frontier. This fact, in addition to the knowledge that Lewis and Clark had gathered about foreign interests in the Western lands, spurred the U.S. toward further negotiations and claims of sovereignty over the territories bordering Louisiana.

Months later, Lewis returned home to Ivy Creek in Albemarle County, Virginia, where he spent Christmas with his mother. Shortly thereafter, he went to Washington to receive his rewards for successfully completing the expedition: double pay while on service with the Corps (amounting to $1,228), a warrant for 1,600 acres of land, and a naming as Governor of the Territory of Upper Louisiana, which was put into effect in early March 1807. Shortly thereafter, Lewis traveled to Philadelphia to seek out editors and publishers for his and Clark’s journals. At the same time, other efforts to publish the accounts of Sergeant Gass and Private Frazer discouraged Lewis, and he never followed through with providing the publishers with the manuscript. The following summer, a couple of attempts at marrying were unsuccessful, and his alcohol consumption became more prevalent. His relationship with Jefferson became problematic, due to his drinking and his delay in returning to St. Louis to take up his duties as governor. It was March 1808 before Lewis made it to St. Louis, one full year after his appointment. By that time, the city was awash with opportunists, land speculators, eager traders, and Native Americans, who were becoming increasingly restless in anticipation of the changes that were to come.

In September 1809, after much difficulty in trying to mediate between the Natives and commercial interests, Lewis fled St. Louis for Washington to plead his case before the new administration. He caught a riverboat to Memphis, during which his feelings of melancholy were enhanced by his continued drinking, and he twice attempted to take his own life. Later, while staying in a roadhouse along the Natchez Trace, Lewis took his own life by shooting himself first in the forehead then in the breast. He was buried next to the tavern, and today the site is marked by a monument that was erected in his honor in 1846.