Meriwether Lewis : Pioneering Spirit of American Wilderness

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Meriwether Lewis

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American explorer, who led the first official U. S. expedition to the Pacific. Meriwether Lewis has been saluted as America’s foremost explorer. The Lewis and Clark expedition is often called America’s national epic of exploration.

Early life of Meriwether Lewis

Meriwether Lewis was born of a planting family in Albemarle County, Virginia, on Aug. 18, 1774. His father became a Revolutionary War officer and died when he was five years old. He became the man of the family since his only brother was younger. He was educated by private tutors and prevented from attending college by family misfortunes. Ending his formal schooling at 18, he appeared destined for the life of a Virginia gentleman farmer.

 

When Pennsylvania insurgents brought on the Whiskey Rebellion, Meriwether Lewis answered President George Washington’s call for militia volunteers. In 1794 he joined the militia to fight against the Whiskey Rebellion under General “Mad Anthony” Wayne. The campaign was bloodless, he enjoyed himself. He wrote his mother, “I am quite delighted with a soldier’s life.” While on frontier duty, he met William Clark, who commanded the special company of sharpshooters to which Meriwether Lewis was transferred. The two men quickly became friends.

White House secretary

After service on the Mississippi River, Meriwether Lewis was asked by his old Virginia friend Thomas Jefferson now president of the United States to become his confidential White House secretary. In 1801, Lewis, a captain in the United States Army, became private secretary to U.S. President Thomas Jefferson. Also, He was chosen by a longtime friend and neighbor, to serve as an aide. Meriwether Lewis served in that capacity from 1801 until 1803.

President discussed with him his dream of sending an exploring expedition to the Pacific via the Missouri River drainage. It is likely that Jefferson already had selected Meriwether Lewis to lead an exploring party to the Pacific, a venture that the President had long contemplated and that was rendered more vital by the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.

When Jefferson offered expedition leadership, Lewis accepted, choosing Clark as his associate. Jefferson picked him to command, with Lieut. William Clark (q.v.), another old acquaintance, had an expedition that was to explore the vast territories recently acquired by the U. S. in the Louisiana Purchase and to make the first crossing of the North American continent north of Mexico.

Lewis took a “crash” course in science from scholars of the American Philosophical Society since he was to make scientific reports on the West.

Lewis and Clark Expedition

Under Jefferson’s direction, Meriwether Lewis made plans to explore a route west to the Pacific coast of North America. Lewis invited Clark to join the expedition, and the two men privately agreed to lead it jointly. With William Clark, he led the famous Lewis and Clark expedition, which explored the Louisiana Territory and the Oregon region from 1804 to 1806.

 

The Louisiana Territory lay between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada. The Oregon region included a large area between the Rockies and the Pacific coast. The expedition started up the Missouri River in May 1804 from a camp near St. Louis.

 

Leaving St. Louis in May 1804, together with William Clark, formerly Lewis’ superior officer, and a party of soldiers and French boatmen, Lewis ascended the Missouri River to the Mandan Indian villages in present North Dakota, wintered there, and journeyed on across the Rocky Mountains and down the Columbia River in 1805. There had been hostile Indians and some tense moments along the way but, thanks to Lewis’s diplomacy, there had been no battles.

 

The following spring, it continued along the Missouri and, in late summer, crossed the Rocky Mountains. The explorers then followed the Clearwater, Snake, and Columbia rivers to the Pacific coast, which they reached in November 1805. 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.

 

Sacajawea

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.

Lewis and Clark Expedition returned

On March 23, 1806, they began the homeward trek. Lewis split his party to explore more territory. He was nearly killed by hostile Blackfoot Indians and was accidentally shot by one of his men during a hunt. Nevertheless, he and Clark got all of their men safely back to St. Louis. After wintering on the Pacific Coast, the Lewis and Clark Expedition returned to St. Louis in September 1806, having mapped much new country, bolstered U. S. claims to large areas of the Northwest and brought back information about a variety of subjects, including Indians, plants, animals, and minerals.

 

 

Meriwether Lewis served as the party’s naturalist and, on the expedition, collected plant, animal, and mineral specimens. The party began the trip home in March 1806, reaching St. Louis in September 1806. He then crossed the Rocky Mountains and explored the Columbia River basin. He returned to Saint Louis in 1806 after a 4000-mile journey into virtually unknown territory without losing a single man of his expedition. The expedition’s success enabled the United States to claim the Oregon region, which included what are now the states of Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.

Departed for Washington, D. C

As a reward, Jefferson made Meriwether Lewis governor of the Upper Louisiana Territory (later, Missouri Territory). He 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. But the hectic political life of St. Louis ill-suited the talents of the quiet explorer. He was unsuccessful, even though he delayed for almost a year.

An ideal explorer

Meriwether 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 explorer. 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. Beset by personal and professional problems, he departed for Washington, D. C., in the late summer of 1809, carrying valuable records of his expedition.

Mysterious Death of Meriwether Lewis

Meriwether 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. Although many people believed that he was murdered, some historians of the period have concluded that he took his own life.

Conclusion

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 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.

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