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 on Meriwether Lewis

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 Biography Sources

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