||Meriwether Lewis was involved in the westward expansion of the USA.|
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1st Territorial Governor
of Louisiana Territory
3rd Territorial Governor
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.
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). Their other children included Jane Meriwether (Lewis) Anderson (1770-1845), Reuben Lewis, and Lucinda Lewis (1772-) (who died as an infant).
Meriwether's father, who served in the Continental Army, died from pneumonia after his horse fell into an icy stream in 1779. 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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
|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.
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.
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. 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. 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). 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.
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.
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." This claim and another by a Joseph DeSmet descendant, Martin Charger, are explored in some detail on the Joseph DeSmet Lewis documents WikiTree page.
Journals and Writings
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