Authors: Meriwether Lewis

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American explorer and memoirist

Author Works

Nonfiction:

History of the Expedition Under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark, 1814 (with William Clark)

The Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1904-1905 (with Clark; 8 volumes; Rubengold Thwaites, editor)

Biography

Meriwether Lewis, along with William Clark, led the expedition that opened the trans-Mississippi region to American settlement. The record of the journey, kept primarily by Lewis, was edited and published posthumously and provided a carefully wrought picture of the new American frontier. Descended from Welsh settlers on both sides, Lewis was the son of Lieutenant William Lewis and William’s cousin Lucy Meriwether, for whom he was named. He had a younger brother, Reuben, and a sister, Jane, and the family lived very comfortably among the Virginia planters, with men like Thomas Jefferson and William Randolph as near neighbors and social equals. William served in the militia and joined the Continental Army in July, 1775. He died of pneumonia after attempting a river crossing while on leave in November, 1779. His widow remarried six months later.{$I[AN]9810000532}{$I[A]Lewis, Meriwether}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Lewis, Meriwether}{$I[tim]1774;Lewis, Meriwether}

Meriwether Lewis

(Library of Congress)

Lucy and Captain John Marks had two children, and the whole family migrated to northern Georgia in 1783. There, on the frontier, Meriwether lived for three or four years, honing the skills that would serve him so well as a soldier and explorer. In about 1787, he traveled to Virginia for formal education under the best tutors of the Albemarle region. He chose not to pursue higher education, instead taking control of his two thousand-acre inheritance upon reaching age eighteen, in 1792. He reconstituted his family at Locust Hill, Virginia. Lewis quickly grew restless and joined the militia in 1794 as it set off to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion, beginning his own military career and carrying on the patriotic and military tradition of his father. By this time he had absorbed a great deal of practical botanical lore and knowledge, developed many useful survival skills, and read widely in popular travel literature and English classics like those of John Milton and William Shakespeare. He relished the military life and joined the regular army in mid-May, 1795.

He served under General Anthony Wayne but underwent a court-martial for conduct unbecoming of an officer. Though cleared of the charge, he was reassigned briefly to the Chosen Rifle Company, under Captain William Clark. Over the next five years or so he would serve as dispatch runner, recruiter, and paymaster, all of which positions kept him moving about the American frontier. He was promoted to captain in the First U.S. Infantry Regiment in December, 1800. Shortly after his inauguration in the spring of 1801, President Thomas Jefferson took on his old neighbor Lewis as personal secretary and adviser for military affairs. Lewis lived with the president, traveled much, copied official reports, and met many important people.

When Jefferson revived the idea of an expedition for the exploration of the trans-Mississippi region to the Pacific Ocean, in mid-1802, he immediately settled on Lewis to command it. In preparation, Jefferson himself taught Lewis much informally and opened his extensive library to him. While Jefferson prepared and received congressional approval for a budget, Lewis gathered provisions (including food and trinkets for trade) and equipment (including firearms and ammunition, surveying and navigation tools, and even a collapsible iron boat) and underwent further tutoring in Philadelphia under the likes of physician Benjamin Rush and naturalist Benjamin Smith Barton. By the time Lewis set out, he had acquired at least rudimentary training in botany, mineralogy, astronomy, geography, watercraft, map-making, surveying, and medicine. He also acquired the partnership of William Clark, who had retired from the Army in 1796. Their appointed tasks were quite specific in nature, focusing on the acquisition of knowledge of geography, native peoples, and opportunities for extending commerce. As historian Stephen Ambrose points out in Undaunted Courage (1996), they were not charged specifically with maintaining a journal, though, of course, they did. Ambrose characterized Lewis’s writing style as follows:

Though his sentences remained convoluted and cried out for punctuation, he managed to carry them off by retaining a flow of narrative interspersed with personal observations and reactions, all held together by using the right phrase at the precise moment in an arrangement of words that stands the ultimate test of being read aloud and making perfect sense while catching the sights and sounds and drama and emotion of the moment in a way that can be compared to the stream of consciousness of James Joyce or William Faulkner . . . only better, because he was not making anything up.

Fifty explorers set out, traveling up the Missouri River from St. Louis on May 14, 1804. After many adventures, and with help from the Shoshone woman Sacagawea and her French Canadian husband, the party traversed the Continental Divide and the Rocky Mountains and reached the Pacific Ocean via the Clearwater, Snake, and Columbia Rivers. They wintered in 1805-1806 near present-day Astoria, Oregon. On their return they separated in present-day Idaho, with Lewis exploring north along the Marias River and Clark somewhat south along the Yellowstone. They met again east of the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers in August, 1806, and returned to St. Louis on September 23.

On December 28, Lewis arrived in Washington, D.C., and was the toast of the town. He resigned his military commission on March 2, 1807, and was named governor of the Louisiana Territory. Aside from making some questionable arrangements for commercial exploitation of the fur trade, his main concern was preparation of the journals. Though plates were prepared, by Charles Wilson Peale, among others, Lewis would, oddly, never even begin organizing the text. With this in mind, however, he traveled to Philadelphia, Locust Hill, and Washington. Following an unsuccessful courtship, he established himself in St. Louis as territorial governor. Dogged by financial problems and political enemies, he left St. Louis for Washington in September, 1809, still in possession of the precious journal manuscripts. Psychologically, he was distraught and suicidal and was abusing alcohol and opiates. He landed at present-day Memphis and decided to travel eastward overland from there. Along the Natchez Trace, about seventy miles west of Nashville, he apparently killed himself and was buried nearby. The text of his journals was prepared for publication by Nicholas Biddle and appeared in 1814. Lewis’s sad end in no way detracts from his unique place in American history and the literature of American travel and exploration.

BibliographyAmbrose, Stephen. Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996. Ambrose’s highly readable biography provides a full picture of Lewis’s early life and a balanced treatment of his entire life.Dillon, Richard. Meriwether Lewis. Rev. ed. Santa Cruz: Western Tanager Press, 1988. A full-length biography.Lavender, David. The Way to the Western Sea: Lewis and Clark Across the Continent. 1988. Reprint. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001. Lavender’s study balances the two leaders but presents an almost novelistic text that is far more narrative than analytical.Lewis, Meriwether, and William Clark. Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, with Related Documents: 1783-1854, edited by Donald D. Jackson. 2d ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978. A carefully and thoroughly edited collection of letters and documents.Ronda, James P. Lewis and Clark Among the Indians. Rev. ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002. A specialist on Lewis and Clark, Ronda focuses on the positive relationships fostered by Lewis and the vital role the native peoples played in the expedition’s success.
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