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  Capt. James Cook
Robert Gray
Alexander Hamilton
Thomas Jefferson
Meriwether Lewis
Alexander MacKenzie
James Madison

Meriwether Lewis
Merwether Lewis accomplished much in his relatively short life. He will forever be linked to the exploration of the American Northwest. Image © 2002 www.clipart.com.

Thomas Jefferson had a firsthand view of Meriwether Lewis's toughness when Lewis was just a child.

In a brief biography of Lewis written after Lewis' death, Jefferson told of Lewis' hunting in his barefeet with the winter snow still on the ground. It's little wonder then that Jefferson, a neighbor of Lewis' family, turned to Lewis for the great expedition west. The mental and physical endurance that Jefferson had seen up close in Lewis would be put to the test of his lifetime as he explored the uncharted west in search of the Northwest Passage.

The Early Days
Lewis was the second of three children born to Lucy Meriwether Lewis and William Lewis on August 18, 1774, in Albemarle County, VA. Lewis got his thirst for exploration naturally—his Welsh forefathers were part of the western movement from the early years of the American colonies. Jefferson called Lewis' family "one of the distinguished families" of Virginia and among the earliest to settle there. Lewis grew up on a 1,000-acre plantation about 10 miles from Jefferson's Monticello.

Lewis was only five when his father died of pneumonia while serving in the Continental Army. Less than six months after the death, Lucy Lewis married Capt. John Marks. It was common in those days for Virginia widows to remarry as soon as possible. In fact, family history has it that Lucy was following the deathbed advice of her husband in marrying Marks.

Lewis' mother was quite the character in her own right. She was known far and wide for the medicinal remedies she dispensed. She was well versed in the medicinal properties of many wild plants, and she took care to teach Meriwether much of what she had learned. This education proved invaluable to Lewis on the expedition. He became known as the "doctor" of the Corps of Discovery.

From ages 13 to 18 Lewis attended various local schools taught by ministers. When he was 18, his stepfather died. Lewis returned home to run the family plantation. For a young man, Lewis had considerable wealth and responsibility. Under Virginia law he had inherited his father's estate, which consisted of nearly 2,000 acres, 520 pounds in cash, and 24 slaves.

Still, Lewis sought adventure. And because he hated the British, the perfect solution was to follow in his father's footsteps by joining the U.S. Army. He did that as a volunteer in 1794 in the troops called out to quell the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania. He entered regular service the next year. He served six years in the frontier army and rose to the rank of captain in 1800.

Public Service
In early 1801 new-President Jefferson hired Lewis as his personal secretary. Jefferson had renewed his bond with Lewis a few years before when Lewis was on army duty in Charlottesville, VA. Like Jefferson, Lewis was a firm Republican, so Jefferson's appointment was certainly somewhat political. Later, Jefferson wrote, "Lewis was brave, prudent, habituated to the woods and familiar with Indian manners and character."

As Jefferson's secretary and messenger in Washington, Lewis learned much about politics. He was an insider, privy to the president's plans and ambitions. The elite of Washington and Philadelphia took note of him.

Lewis biographer Richard Dillon wrote that the president's house "served as an ideal finishing school for Lewis." Lewis advanced his scientific education and expanded his knowledge of philosophy, literature, and history, reading extensively in Jefferson's library. He took part in discussions on the geography of North America, the Indians of the United States, and the use of navigation instruments. He also heard experts on birds, animals, and plant life of the eastern United States, and speculation on what lay beyond the Mississippi River.

A Natural Choice
In the early fall of 1802, Jefferson informed Lewis that Lewis would command an expedition to the Pacific Ocean. It's also possible Lewis talked the president into giving him the command. He had tried earlier, but Jefferson had deemed him too young and inexperienced. According to noted historian, the late Stephen E. Ambrose, "The news that the British were threatening to set up shop in the Northwest galvanized Jefferson into manic activity and changed Meriwether Lewis' life overnight." Later, when Jefferson was asked why he selected Lewis for this coveted command rather than a qualified scientist, he remarked, "It was impossible to find a character who to a compleat science in botany, natural history, mineralogy & astronomy, joined the firmness of constitution & character, prudence, habits adapted to the woods, & a familiarity with the Indian manners & character, requisite for this undertaking. All the latter qualifications Capt. Lewis has."

Jefferson was confident he had the man with determination to succeed. In 1803 Congress secretly approved the expedition, which was the first in a series of military explorations launched by the U.S. government. With the approval of the Louisiana Purchase a month later, the expedition then became a publicized scientific expedition of the United States' newest territory.

Lewis was a trained army officer in great physical condition with a keen sense of observation and a knack for writing detailed accounts. These skills would contribute to the ultimate success of the expedition. Still, there was a seamier side to the captain.

Lewis was allegedly a hard drinker and a very ambitious man of quick temper. Bred as a Virginia gentleman and having spent years as an aide to the president, Lewis placed high importance on rank, title, and position in society. A malaria ailment required him to take drugs to keep the illness in check, and he often abused the drugs. He was sometimes given to melancholy or depression. Jefferson spoke of a melancholy streak that ran in the Lewis family. Historians have written that in today's terms Lewis likely suffered from depression. He could fall into a deep depression and stay there for a long time. Yet during the expedition, Lewis had the willpower and energy sufficient to overcome those bouts.

According to historian Peter Bergantino, "Lewis may have been moody on the expedition because he would spend all his nights just thinking about all the contingency plans to get the next day's operation up and running." The only indication given during the expedition that Lewis might have been depressed were the occasions when the captain went sustained periods without making any journal entries. Regardless, most agree there is little to indicate that his depression took away from his effectiveness as the expedition's leader.

This Corps of Discovery is unique in the history of command. Lewis chose William Clark, whom he had served under in frontier battles a few years before, to co-lead this expedition. A divided or shared command is usually despised in the military. Howeve,r this one worked well. Lewis and Clark had complementary qualities and a friendship built on trust that allowed the co-command to work. Lewis had the skills of an exceptional company commander. He knew how to lead, to bring out the best in his men, to motivate them through the difficult times, and to get more out of them than they knew they had to give.

A testament to Lewis' skills is the loss of only one man under his command in the four years of this dangerous journey—and the death of Sgt. Charles Floyd is considered unpreventable.

After the Expedition
As Lewis' canoe descended the last miles to St. Louis in 1806, the captain, recovering from a bullet wound to his buttock caused by an errant shot from Pierre Cruzatte, drafted some letters. These were his preliminary report to Jefferson.

Lewis opened by announcing his safe arrival in St. Louis along with "our papers and baggage," assuring Jefferson that the journals, papers, maps, and scientific discoveries had survived. Publishing the maps and a corresponding narrative of the journey was of imminent importance to Lewis. Ironically, where he had great success leading the expedition, Lewis proved a failure in getting the journals published in a timely manner.

As compensation, Jefferson awarded Lewis the governorship of the Upper Louisiana Territory effective in early March 1807. Shortly after his appointment, Lewis traveled to Philadelphia to find editors and publishers for his and Clark's journals. At the same time, other efforts to publish the journal accounts written by Sgt. Patrick Gass and Pvt. Robert Frasier discouraged Lewis, and the captain never followed through with providing the publishers with his and Clark's manuscripts. It would be nearly a century later before the captains' journals were published.

It was March 1808, a full year since his appointment to governor, when Lewis finally arrived in St. Louis to take up his duties. The long delay in returning to St. Louis strained his relationship with Jefferson. However, Lewis' situation worsened when Jefferson left office in 1809. Jefferson's political opponents in Congress balked at paying the debts Lewis had accrued over additional explorations throughout the Louisiana Territory. Allegedly Lewis became liable for the debts, causing him much stress. His second in command at St. Louis also worked against Lewis. In addition, Lewis was drinking heavily again. On top of that, he was taking a mixture of opium and morphine on a regular basis for his malaria. Soon he was in a deep depression. There were many reports of strange, despondent behavior from Lewis.

In July 1809 Lewis left St. Louis for Washington to plead his case before the new administration of James Madison. Lewis stopped in Tennessee on the Natchez Trace just across the Mississippi border at a place called Grinder's Inn. That night he died of two gunshot wounds, allegedly at his own hand, though some historians still debate the account of his final hours. He was buried next to the tavern, and today the site is marked by a monument erected in his honor in 1846.

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