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Meriwether Lewis

of Lewis and Clark fame

Meriwether Lewis

Meriwether Lewis was born in Albemarle County, Virginia, on August 18, 1774. He grew up on a 1,000-acre plantation about ten miles from Monticello (the home of Thomas Jefferson).

In January of 1793, the American Philosophical Society accepted the proposal of Thomas Jefferson to send an overland expedition in search of the fabled Northwest Passage. Lewis eagerly volunteered to lead such an expedition, but his offer was rejected on account of his youth and inexperience; the expedition never actually took place anyway. In 1794, Lewis volunteered to help President George Washington put down the Whiskey Rebellion. He went on to serve six years in the Frontier Army, rising to the rank of Captain in 1800, then serving as Paymaster of the First Infantry Regiment. In 1801, Lewis was appointed by President Jefferson to be his personal secretary and aide.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition

In January of 1803, Congress appropriated $2,500 to mount an official military expedition into the newly-acquired Louisiana Territory, and President Jefferson chose Lewis as its commander due to his many intellectual and physical qualities. His army conditioning made him very physically fit, as well as very disciplined. He had a keen sense of observation and a knack for writing detailed naturalistic and ethographic accounts. And he had an especially sharp eye for the details of flora and fauna. To prepare himself further for the expedition, Lewis learned the theories and practices of navigation first from Jefferson, then from trained astronomers and cartographers in Philadelphia. He also read everything he could find about the Western frontier, including distances, topography, and potential enemies.

Since the expedition would also be charged with communicating the transfer of sovereignty to every Indian tribe and foreign interest occupying the lands within the Missouri River watershed, both Lewis and Jefferson decided that a second-in-command would be needed. They decided upon William Clark, under whom Lewis had served briefly during his army career. An offer was made to Clark, who accepted. In mid-October, the two men met in Clarksville, Indiana Territory, near the Falls of the Ohio, to make final preparations.

On May 14, 1804, the Expedition for North West Discovery (also known as The Corps of Discovery) embarked from its winter camp near St. Louis, bound for the Pacific Ocean at the mouth of the Columbia River. It arrived back at St. Louis two years, four months, and ten days later, on September 23, 1806.

Soon after his return, Lewis sent a series of letters to President Jefferson to inform him of the expedition's accomplishments. In one of them he 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 route which does exist across the continent by means of the navigable branches of the Missouri and Columbia rivers."

After the Expedition

Lewis returned home to Ivy Creek in Albemarle County, and spent Christmas with his mother. He then went to Washington to receive his rewards: double pay while on the expedition ($1,228), a warrant for 1,600 acres of land, and naming as Governor of the Territory of Upper Louisiana. The latter was put into effect in March 1807. He also went to Philadelphia to seek out editors and publishers for his and Clark's journals, but failed efforts by other expedition members to get their memoirs published discouraged him and he never followed through with the manuscript.

By the summer of 1807 Lewis had become an alcoholic and subject to severe bouts of melancholy. Relations with Jefferson had also become troublesome, due both to his drinking and to his having not yet taken up his post as Governor. By the time he finally made it St. Louis in March of 1808, Lewis found a city flooded with opportunists, land speculators, eager traders, and restless Native Americans. He tried to mediate between the Natives and commercial interests, but failed miserably. His drinking had by now become such a problem that people began calling for his removal from office.

His Death

In September of 1809, Lewis left for Washington to plead his case before the new administration. He attempted suicide twice while on the trip down the Missippi River. On October 11, 1809, while staying at Grinder's Stand, a lonely tavern on the Natchez Trace about seventy miles southwest of Nashville, Tennessee, he was found dead. He had been shot once in the forehead and once in the breast. Although it is likely that Lewis had committed suicide, such was never conclusively proven. He was buried next to the tavern. His grave was marked by a monument in 1846.


Discovering Lewis & Clark
Lewis and Clark: Inside the Corps
New Perspectives on The West

See Also

American Philosophical Society
Thomas Jefferson
Northwest Passage
President George Washington
William Clark

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This page was last updated on August 11, 2018.