Who Was Meriwether Lewis?
Born in 1774 in Virginia, Meriwether Lewis was asked by President Thomas Jefferson in 1801 to act as his private secretary. Jefferson soon made Lewis another offer — to lead an expedition into the lands west of the Mississippi, which he did after enlisting William Clark. With the help of Sacagawea, the team successfully reached the Pacific Ocean in November of 1805. Their journey was famously known as the Lewis and Clark Expedition.
Lewis was born on August 18, 1774, near Ivy, Virginia. His parents, Lt. William Lewis of Locust Hill and Lucy Meriwether, were of Welsh and English ancestry, respectively. After Lewis' father died from pneumonia, his mother and stepfather, Captain John Marks, moved him and his siblings to Georgia in what is now Oglethorpe County.
Lewis spent his childhood in Georgia building his hunting skills and spending most of his time outdoors. However, once he reached his early teens, he would be called back to Virginia under the guardianship of his father's brother, to be given a formal education through private tutors. He would go on to college, graduating from Liberty Hall (now Washington and Lee University) in 1793.
Lewis had five siblings: Reuben Lewis, Jane Lewis, Lucinda Lewis, and half-siblings John Hastings Marks and Mary Garland Marks, from his mother's second marriage.
Life Before the Lewis and Clark Expedition
As a member of the state militia, Lewis helped to quell the Whiskey Rebellion, a Pennsylvania uprising led by farmers against taxes, in 1794. The next year he served with William Clark, a man who would later help him on one of the greatest expeditions of all time. Lewis joined the regular army and achieved the rank of captain. In 1801, he was asked by President Jefferson to act as his private secretary.
Jefferson soon made Lewis another offer — to lead an expedition into the lands west of the Mississippi. Already eager to know more about these lands, Jefferson's interest in the area increased with the purchase of more than 800 thousand square miles of territory from France in 1803, an acquisition is known as the Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson asked Lewis to gather information about the plants, animals and Indigenous peoples of the region. Lewis jumped at the chance and selected his old Army friend Clark to join him as co-commander of the expedition.
Lewis and Clark Expedition
Lewis, Clark and the rest of their expedition began their journey near St. Louis, Missouri, in May 1804. This group — often called the Corps of Discovery by historians — faced nearly every obstacle and hardship imaginable on their trip. They braved dangerous waters and harsh weather and endured hunger, illness, injury and fatigue. Along the way, Lewis kept a detailed journal and collected samples of plants and animals he encountered.
Lewis and his expedition received assistance in their mission from many of the Indigenous peoples they met during their journey westward. The Mandans provided them with supplies during their first winter. It was during this time that expedition picked up two new members, Sacagawea and Toussaint Charbonneau. The two acted as interpreters for the expedition and Sacagawea — Charbonneau's wife and a Shoshone Indian — was able to help get horses for the group later in the journey.
The Corps of Discovery reached the Pacific Ocean in November of 1805. They built Fort Clatsop and spent the winter in present-day Oregon. On the way back in 1806, Lewis and Clark split up to explore more territory and look for faster routes home. Lewis and his men faced great danger when a group of Blackfeet Indians sought to steal from the corps in late July. Two Blackfeet were killed in the ensuing conflict.
The next month, Lewis was shot in the thigh by one of his own men during a hunt. Lewis and Clark and their two groups joined up again at the Missouri River and made the rest of the trek to St. Louis together. In total, the expedition traveled roughly 8,000 miles by boat, on foot and on horseback.
After the Journey
Traveling to Washington, Lewis and the other members of the expedition received a warm welcome from nearly every place they went. Many towns held special events to herald the explorers' return as they passed through. Once reaching the nation's capital, Lewis received payment for his courageous efforts. Along with his salary and 1,600 acres of land, he was named governor of the Louisiana Territory. Lewis also tried to publish the journals that he and Clark wrote during their great adventure. Always prone to dark moods, Lewis began to have a drinking problem and neglected his duties as governor.
Lewis died on October 11, 1809, at an inn near Nashville, Tennessee. He had been on his way to Washington, D.C., at the time. Most historians believe he committed suicide, while a few have contended that he was murdered. Lewis had no family of his own, never having found a wife or fathered children.
Despite his tragic end, Lewis helped change the face of the United States by exploring a vast unmapped territory — the American West. His work inspired many others to follow in his footsteps and created great interest in the region. Lewis also advanced scientific knowledge through his careful work detailing numerous plants and animals that were previously unknown to Europeans.
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