Meriwether Lewis
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Meriwether Lewis (1774 - 1809)

Captain Meriwether Lewis
Born in Locust Hill, Ivy, Albemarle County, Colony of Virginiamap
Ancestors ancestors
Died at age 35 in Grinder's Stand, Lewis, Tennessee, United Statesmap
Profile last modified | Created 27 Nov 2011
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Meriwether Lewis was involved in the westward expansion of the USA.
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Preceded by
1st Territorial Governor
James Wilkinson
Meriwether Lewis
2nd Governor
of Louisiana Territory
State Seal of Missouri
Succeeded by
3rd Territorial Governor
Benjamin Howard



Notables Project
Meriwether Lewis is Notable.

Meriwether Lewis was a soldier, public administrator, and famed explorer as co-leader of the Corps of Discovery, commonly referred to as the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Early Life

Meriwether Lewis was born August 18, 1774 in Albemarle County, Virginia. He was the second child and first son of William Lewis (abt.1738-1779) and Lucy Meriwether (1752-1837).[2] Their other children included Jane Meriwether (Lewis) Anderson (1770-1845), Reuben Lewis, and Lucinda Lewis (1772-) (who died as an infant).[3]

Meriwether's father, who served in the Continental Army, died from pneumonia after his horse fell into an icy stream in 1779.[4] Six months later, his mother married another Army officer, Captain John Marks (abt.1750-1800), who managed a 1,000 acre plantation about 10 miles from Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home. Marks raised Meriwether and his two siblings along with his own two children with Lucy, John Hastings Marks and Mary Garland (Marks) Moore (1787-1864).[3]

The new family soon moved to Georgia and Meriwether spent his time learning outdoorsman skills. He also showed an interest in plant knowledge, and his mother, an herbalist, encouraged that interest. These combined skills would later be useful in his expeditions. About the age of 13 he returned to Virginia and to the household of his uncle Nicholas Lewis, his formal education beginning at this time. In 1793, Lewis graduated from Liberty Hall (now Washington and Lee University).[5]

Military Career

Lewis joined the Army in 1794 and spent six years in the militia, serving during the "Whiskey Rebellion". It was during this time in the Army that he met William Clark (1770-1838) for the first time. In April 1801, he was appointed personal secretary to President Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826). Jefferson had mentored Meriwether in his youth and was a friend, as well as appreciative of Meriwether's unique skills. His party affiliation didn't hurt, either.[6]

Corps of Discovery

It was at Jefferson's suggestion that the Corps of Discovery expedition was undertaken and the plan was approved by Congress in 1803. The mission of the Corps was to explore the territory of the Louisiana Purchase, establish trade and sovereignty over the natives near the Missouri River, and claim the Pacific Northwest and Oregon territory for the United States before European nations. The expedition also collected scientific data, and information on indigenous nations.[7]

At the time, Meriwether Lewis was described as a lean man of six feet in stature. He was considered fiercely loyal, disciplined, and flexible, while also prone to being moody, speculative, and melancholic. On balance, his characteristics and developed sense of observation coupled with his detailed written accounts of what he observed, would prove to be ideal as a leader of the important Corps of Discovery expedition.[7]

Lewis in Shoshone Dress

Meriwether needed someone else to help him lead the expedition. Both President Jefferson and Meriwether showed support in adding William Clark to the group, the president offering Lewis and Clark both a permanent rank of Captain as part of his proposal. Clark graciously accepted, having remembered his time spent with Meriwether during their previous Army service.[5]

Lewis also brought along a Newfoundland dog named Seaman. Purchased for $20 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Seaman accompanied Lewis during the expedition and afterward. A valuable member of the expedition party, his working dog attributes were essential to daily life along the route.

In addition to his role as naturalist, Meriwether also served to represent the new government, which had purchased the area, to the native peoples living there. The trip had many perilous moments for Meriwether; who managed to survive falls, gun shot wounds, and accidental poisoning. The group returned to St. Louis in 1806 to start reporting their findings and accomplishments.[7]

Post Corps

After returning from the expedition, Lewis's life had the potential to become that of a politician and stateman, and in 1807 President Jefferson appointed him as Governor of the Louisiana Territory.[8] However, his life degraded, as did his relationships. He attempted marriage but never followed through, and started drinking excessively, which negatively affected his relationship with Jefferson.

Conflicting information from sources indicate he was either rather ill (speculation runs from alcoholism to syphilis or possible psychological issues) or had trouble with hypochondria, and visited his mother in hopes of some care.[9] These maladies delayed his arrival in St. Louis to take his position as Governor until a year after being named as such. Lewis also had the responsibility for making arrangements to publish the Corps of Discovery journals, but had difficulty completing his writing.

Now in his new role, Governor Lewis was soon embroiled in quarrels with his territorial secretary Frederick Bates (1777-1825).[10] He also faced financial issues after a personal outlay for a trip that the War Department refused to reimburse. To resolve these issues, Lewis began a trip to Washington City to plead his case to the administration in person.[9]


Lewis's Monument

During the first half of the journey east, it is reported that on the riverboat he twice attempted to take his own life before becoming the victim of gunshot wounds, at a Natchez Trace inn, in what was either a murder or suicide. The exact details of his death have never been learned because the early morning events were not directly witnessed by anyone. The account given by the the innkeeper's wife was inconsistent, and with each telling becoming further muddled. Lewis died and was buried near the Grinder's Stand roadhouse (modern Hoenwald, Lewis Co., TN) on the Natchez Trace, October 11, 1809. A monument erected in 1848 now stands in his honor near the place the tavern occupied, and is under the care of the National Parks Service.[11]


  • Many geographic locations are named for Lewis, including counties in six U.S. states have been named in Meriwether Lewis's honor: Idaho, Kentucky, Missouri, Montana, Tennessee, and Washington.
  • Three U.S. Navy vessels
  • U.S. Postage in 1954 and 2004
  • Several academic institutions

Disputed Relationships

Meriwether Lewis was not known to have married (though he apparently considered it at one point). However, when a Yankton (or possibly Teton) Sioux man and his family presented themselves for baptism on June 18, 1872, Joseph DeSmet Lewis (abt.1805-abt.1889) age 68, gave as his place of birth Yankton Agency, his father's name as "Capt. Meriwether Lewis (of Lewis & Clark's Exp.)," and his mother's name as "Winona."[12] This claim and another by a Joseph DeSmet descendant, Martin Charger, are explored in some detail on the Joseph DeSmet Lewis documents WikiTree page.

Biographical Resources

Journals and Writings

  • University of Nebraska (Lincoln): Journals of the Lewis & Clark Expedition The site features the full text of the journals, and the index enables a user to search the journals using modern spellings of names and to be able to locate all instances of the word.

Biographical Works

  • Undaunted Courage by Stephen Ambrose, ISBN 0684811073; a 1996 biography of Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis and Clark Expedition
  • Lewis and Clark: Voyage of Discovery by Stephen Ambrose, ISBN 0792264738; Published to commemorate the 200th anniversary of America's most famous expedition, a magnificent volume brings to life the Lewis and Clark Trail through moving narrative, elegant commentary, personal selections from the explorers' journals, and lavish photographs that capture the natural beauty of the American West.
  • Miller, Robert J. (2006). Native America, Discovered and Conquered: Thomas Jefferson, Lewis & Clark, and Manifest Destiny. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 108. ISBN 978-0275990114.


  1. On June 4, 1812, the Territory of Louisiana was renamed to the Territory of Missouri to avoid confusion with the newly admitted state of Louisiana formed from the Territory of Orleans.
  2. Application of William Lewis's widow, 915 (pdf), transcribed by Will Graves and posted by Southern Campaign American Revolution Pension Statements & Rosters (accessed 23 April 2019).
  3. 3.0 3.1 Buckley, Jay H.. "Meriwether Lewis". Encyclopedia Britannica, 7 Oct. 2020, Accessed 12 February 2021.
  4. Daughters of the American Revolution, DAR Genealogical Research Databases, database online, ( : accessed 23 April 2019), "Record of Lieutenant William Lewis", Ancestor # A070178.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Seefeldt, Doug, et al. “Biography of Meriwether Lewis.” The Roots of Lewis and Clark, University of Virginia, 2003,
  6. Patrick, Bethanne Kelly. “Capt. Meriwether Lewis.”, 2021,
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 PBS Lewis & Clark - The Journey of the Corps of Discovery A Film by Ken Burns
  8. Missouri Secretary of State - IT. “Lewis and Clark.” Missouri State Seal, 2021,
  9. 9.0 9.1 Tucker, Abigail. “Meriwether Lewis' Mysterious Death.”, Smithsonian Institution, 8 Oct. 2009,
  10. Frick, Ruth. “Conflict: Frederick Bates and Meriwether Lewis.” We Proceeded On, Aug. 1993, pp. 20–24,
  11. National Parks Service: Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail Meriwether Lewis Death and Burial Site
  12. Harry F. Thompson, Meriwether Lewis and His Son: The Claim of Joseph DeSomet Lewis and the Problem of History, North Dakota History, 2000, pp. 24-37

See also:

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