Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) was an American explorer who became famous as the co-leader of the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-06, which explored the territory of the Louisiana Purchase after the United States acquired it from France in 1803, as well as the Pacific Northwest. It is generally reckoned as one of the most successful and significant expeditions of its kind in modern history, and Lewis has been almost universally praised for his leadership of the operation. After the expedition's return, he served as governor of the territory of Upper Louisiana before dying under mysterious circumstances in 1809.
Meriwether Lewis was born on August 18, 1774, at Locust Hill Plantation in Albemarle County, Virginia, just west of modern-day Charlottesville. Of Welsh descent, his parents were William and Lucy (Meriwether) Lewis, cousins and respected members of the Virginia landowning gentry (Thomas Jefferson being one of several friends of the family). William Lewis joined the Continental Army following the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War and served as an officer until his death in November 1779 from pneumonia; the following year, Meriwether's mother Lucy remarried, to Captain John Marks, also of Virginia. Around 1783, the family moved south to the Goosepond Community along the Broad River in what is now Oglethorpe County, Georgia.
As a child raised along the frontier, young Meriwether Lewis developed a love of hunting and exploring, and was said in later family accounts to have tremendous intelligence and presence of mind. According to one popular story, at the age of only eight or nine he calmly shot dead a bull charging toward him, and learned a great deal from his mother about the use of herbs and other wild plants for medicinal purposes. With his upbringing in the wilderness, he was not able to obtain a formal education during his childhood, and at the age of thirteen returned to Virginia, where he studied under a series of private teachers, mostly clergymen, until 1792. At that time, following his stepfather's death, he arranged the return of his mother and the rest of the family to Virginia, and established himself at Locust Hill Plantation as his father's heir.
In response to the outbreak of the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794, Lewis enlisted in a Virginia militia unit raised to defeat the uprising. He joined, in his own words, "to support the glorious cause of Liberty, and my Country," seeing the rebellion as a threat to break up the new nation; he may also have become bored with the life of a Virginia planter and been eager for adventure. That autumn, he was given a commission as an ensign (junior officer) in the militia, spending the winter on patrol in western Pennsylvania after the defeat of the rebellion, and in May 1795 entered the regular army at the same rank.
Lewis spent most of the next six years at a variety of army posts on the frontier, mostly in the Northwest Territory. He served under General Anthony Wayne during the conclusion of some of the campaigns against the Native American tribes in the Ohio Valley, and frequently traveled back and forth between Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and other frontier communities. During this time, Lewis gained a great deal of practical knowledge concerning journeying in the wilderness, navigating, using boats and other water craft, and record-keeping. He also learned a lot about Native Americans and their languages, and the usefulness of relying on them as guides. Equally important, he would spend several months in an elite rifle company commanded by his fellow Virginian, William Clark, and the two came to know each other intimately.
Thanks in part to his personal connections as a member of the Virginia planter class, but also because of his skill and integrity as an officer, Lewis was steadily promoted through the army officer corps. In March 1799, he received the rank of lieutenant and shortly thereafter became regimental paymaster; in December 1800, he was promoted again, to captain. It has been noted that, given Lewis' pronounced sympathy for the Democratic-Republican party, his advancement at a time when President John Adams was trying to pack the army with Federalist officers was itself a testament to his abilities.
Upon becoming President in 1801, Thomas Jefferson recruited Lewis, whom he knew as a fellow native of the Albemarle region and as a friend to the family, to be his private secretary. Jefferson's immediate goal was to have a reliably Republican assistant by his side in implementing certain policies, especially purging the army of Adams' recent Federalist appointees. As an officer of long service with thorough knowledge of the situation in the army, Lewis was able to compose a roster identifying the most anti-Jeffersonian elements in the army and recommending their removal (though in the end, Jefferson kept most of them).
Apart from his work in reducing Federalist influence in the army, Lewis spent most of the next two years engaged in the typical duties of a secretary to the President, drafting and copying official documents and correspondence, advising Jefferson on matters in which he was knowledgeable (chiefly military issues), and delivering the President's State of the Union speeches to Congress (Jefferson disliked making public speeches himself).
Origins of the Expedition
For much of his political career, one of Jefferson's long-term goals had been ensuring gradual westward expansion by the United States, in part by setting out an expedition that could gather scientific information about the territory west of the Mississippi River (then the western boundary of the U.S.) and establish an American claim to it. When Jefferson had proposed such an expedition in 1792, Lewis had been among the first volunteers, although his youth and inexperience disqualified him at the time. By 1802, British explorations in the Pacific Northwest, and news that the Spanish territory of Louisiana was to be ceded to France, made the President determined to launch such a mission at once. By this time, given his greater experience on the frontier, and the two of them having worked closely together, Lewis made a perfect candidate in Jefferson's eyes. At some point in the summer or autumn of that year, Jefferson made a final decision to launch the expedition, under Lewis' command, and the President soon set out a course of study that would equip him with the scientific skills needed for his journey, such as geography, botany, and astronomy.
Lewis selected William Clark, a fellow Virginian with whom he had served on the frontier in 1795, to serve a co-leader. They set out by keelboat (see right) in 1803 to Wood River, Illinois, at the confluence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. The next spring, they began their journey up the Missouri River and by October had reached the Mandan villages in present-day North Dakota, where they decided to stay for the winter. Relying completely upon the goodwill of Indian peoples for their success, Lewis and Clark received food, military protection, and valuable information about the path ahead. Their most valuable help came in the form of Touissant Charbonneau, a French Canadian whom they hired as an interpreter, and his Shoshone wife Sacagawea, who provided help as a guide and interpreter. Sacagawea's very presence helped insure good relations with Indian people. In April 1805 all thirty-three members of the expedition left the Mandan village and started up the Missouri again. A band of Shoshone led by Sacagawea's brother provided invaluable assistance, primarily horses, as the expedition began to ascend the Rocky Mountains. After crossing the Bitterroot Mountains, they arrived cold, wet, hungry and exhausted, the Nez Percé village were they were taken in. In November, they traveled down the Columbia River basin and reached the Pacific Ocean in November. They stayed the winter on the Pacific Coast and returned to the United States in 1806.
- Stephen E. Ambrose, Undaunted Courage (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1996), p. 19-29.
- Meriwether Lewis to Lucy Marks, October 13, 1794, Lewis Papers.
- Ambrose, Undaunted Courage, p. 43, 49-50.