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Lewis, Meriwetherfree

(18 August 1774–11 October 1809)
  • Reginald Horsman

Meriwether Lewis.

From an engraving by Charles Févret de Saint-Mémin, 1805.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZC4-2970).

Lewis, Meriwether (18 August 1774–11 October 1809), explorer and soldier, was born in Albemarle County, Virginia, the son of William Lewis, a planter, and Lucy Meriwether. The family was prominent in the area, and moved in circles that included Thomas Jefferson. William Lewis died when his son was five. His mother remarried, and Lewis spent part of his childhood in Georgia. He returned to Virginia in his early teens and attended a number of local schools. His formal education ended at the age of eighteen. From that time on, he was in charge of “Locust Hill,” the family plantation in Albemarle County.

In 1794, when President George Washington called out militia to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania, Lewis volunteered and served as private. He enjoyed army life and on 1 May 1795 entered the regular army as an ensign. In August 1795 he was present at Anthony Wayne’s Treaty of Greenville with the northwestern Indians. Three months later Lewis was court-martialled for insulting a lieutenant when drunk but was acquitted. For a time he was in a rifle company commanded by William Clark, who was also from Albemarle County and who later accompanied Lewis on his expedition to the Pacific coast.

From 1795 to 1801 Lewis continued to serve on the western frontier, gaining experience in Indian relations that he later used as an explorer. Most of his service was in the Old Northwest, but for a time in 1797 he was at Fort Pickering at Chickasaw Bluffs in Tennessee (the site of modern Memphis), and in 1798–1799 he was in Charlottesville engaged in recruiting. He was promoted to lieutenant in March 1799 and to captain in December 1800. In 1800 and early 1801 he was at Detroit.

In February 1801, Thomas Jefferson, who had recently been elected president, asked Lewis to be his private secretary. Jefferson later said that the position was more that of aide-de-camp than secretary. He wrote to Lewis that he was being offered the position not simply to aid “in the private concerns of the household,” but also because his knowledge of the western country and the army would be useful to the administration. Jefferson stated that although the pay was not great, Lewis would save the expense of subsistence and lodgings “as you would be one of my family.” Jefferson also arranged that Lewis would remain on the active army list as a captain. Lewis arrived in Washington in April 1801, moved into the White House, helped in managing Jefferson’s domestic arrangements, and acted as Jefferson’s personal representative in talking to members of Congress and others in the city.

Jefferson had long hoped that an exploring expedition could cross the American continent, and he involved Lewis in planning for this ambitious undertaking. Jefferson was interested in the possibility of a water route to the Pacific and in trade with the Indians, but he also had a scientific interest in the trans-Mississippi West. He thought that Lewis, a trusted old Virginia neighbor, had the qualities of leadership and the experience necessary to lead the expedition. In January 1803, Jefferson gained the necessary approval from Congress and sent Lewis to Philadelphia and to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, for a quick tutoring in map-making and related skills.

Lewis chose William Clark to join him in leading the expedition. Early in July 1803 Lewis left Washington for the West and in the winter of 1803–1804 camped near St. Louis, across the Mississippi from the mouth of the Missouri. The exploring party of less than fifty men set off up the Missouri on 14 May 1804. Progress was slower than expected, and, after reaching the Mandan Indian villages, they spent the winter of 1804–1805 in temporary Fort Mandan, near the site of present Bismarck, North Dakota.

The expedition set out again in April 1805. Some men returned to St. Louis, but the Shoshoni Indian Sacagawea joined the party with her husband, a fur trader. After an arduous journey up the Missouri, across the Continental divide, and into the Rockies, the expedition followed the Clearwater River, the Snake, and the Columbia, reaching the Pacific in November. The winter of 1805–1806 was spent just north of present Astoria, near the mouth of the Columbia in hastily constructed Fort Clatsop.

Lewis started the return journey in March 1806. For a time the party split, with Lewis investigating the Marias River, a tributary of the Missouri, and Clark exploring the Yellowstone. Lewis’s party skirmished briefly with the Piegan (Blackfeet) Indians; this proved to be the only fighting in which the expedition members engaged during their long journey through Indian country. Before the two parties rejoined at the junction of the Yellowstone and the Missouri, Lewis was accidentally shot in the leg by one of his own men and temporarily disabled. The expedition finally reached St. Louis on 23 September 1806.

Meriwether Lewis.

In Indian garb. Engraving by Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin, published in The Analectic Magazine, 1816.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-11953).

Lewis’s leadership of the expedition was all that Jefferson could have desired. Although technically he outranked Clark, Lewis showed no hesitation in sharing his leadership with his companion. The expedition lost only one man (a death from natural causes) and generally maintained good relations with the numerous Indian tribes it encountered.

Jefferson’s careful instructions regarding the acquisition of scientific knowledge and the keeping of journals enhanced the importance of the expedition. Both Lewis and Clark kept daily journals, and they attempted to follow Jefferson’s instructions by entering all possible information on the geography of the areas through which they traveled, commenting on Indian life, the terrain, animals, plants, minerals, and climate. They also encouraged other members of the expedition to keep journals; four of these other journals survived and eventually were published. The leaders of the expedition also satisfied Jefferson’s instructions by bringing back a variety of botanical, zoological, and ethnological specimens, and they compiled Indian vocabularies of the tribes they encountered. Although full publication of the journals was delayed for a century, the expedition drew American attention to opportunities beyond the Mississippi. With the additional stimulus provided by the Louisiana Purchase, American interest in the trans-Mississippi West soared.

After the triumph of the Lewis and Clark expedition, the rest of Lewis’s career was anticlimactic. Although Lewis had sufficient ability to win the admiration of Thomas Jefferson, he apparently had a troubled personality. Jefferson later wrote that Lewis was a hypochondriac, and there are a number of indications that he was an excessive drinker. Also, although Lewis expressed admiration for several women, he never married.

Lewis returned to Washington in December 1806. Congress rewarded both Lewis and Clark with grants of 1,600 acres, and late in February 1807 Jefferson nominated Lewis as governor of the territory of Upper Louisiana. Although the appointment was confirmed by the Senate early in March, Lewis did not reach St. Louis to take up his new post until a year later, and his stay there was short and unhappy. He clashed frequently with the territorial secretary, Frederick Bates, and also experienced financial difficulties. These increased when Washington officials balked at reimbursing him for what he viewed as legitimate expenditures.

In September 1809 Lewis decided to return to Washington to resolve questions regarding the details of his administration. He intended to travel down the Mississippi to New Orleans, and by sea to the East Coast, but when he went ashore at Chickasaw Bluffs he was very ill and incoherent. It was later said that twice on the journey he had attempted suicide. Apparently recovered, he decided to continue his journey overland. On 10 October he stayed at Grinder’s Stand, some seventy miles from Nashville, again showing signs of agitation. During the night shots were heard, and in the early morning Lewis was found dying. It was assumed at the time, and for many years after, that he had committed suicide. In more recent years some writers have suggested that Lewis, traveling on the dangerous Natchez Trace, might have been murdered, but there is no solid evidence for this conclusion. There seem to be far stronger indications that Lewis committed suicide.

Lewis had one great triumph in what was generally an undistinguished career, but that triumph has given him a permanent place in American history.


Manuscript materials relating to Lewis are in the Missouri Historical Society in St. Louis and the American Philosophical Library in Philadelphia. Among the most useful published primary materials are Donald Jackson, ed., Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition: With Related Documents, 1783–1854 (1962), and Reuben G. Thwaites, Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1804–1806 (8 vols., 1904–1905). The two most useful biographies are Richard Dillon, Meriwether Lewis: A Biography (1965), and John Bakeless, Lewis and Clark: Partners in Discovery (1947). See also Stephen E. Ambrose, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West (1996).