Meriwether Lewis

Meriwether Lewis (August 18, 1774 – October 11, 1809)


Meriwether Lewis was born in Virginia, son of Lt. William Lewis and Lucy Meriwether. His father died when we was five years old. He moved with his mother and stepfather to Georgia.

During his time in Georgia, Lewis enhanced his skills as a hunter and outdoorsman. He would often venture out in the middle of the night in the dead of winter with only his dogs to go hunting. Even at his early age he was interested in natural history, which would develop into a lifelong passion. His mother taught him how to gather wild herbs for medicinal purposes. It was also in Georgia that Lewis first dealt with a native Indian group. Lewis seems to have been a champion for them amongst his own people.

At thirteen, he was sent back to Virginia for education by private tutors. In 1795, at age 21, he joined the U.S. Army, as a Lieutenant, where he served until 1801, at one point in the detachment of William Clark, who would later become his companion in the Corps of Discovery.

On April 1, 1801, he was appointed as an aide by President Thomas Jefferson, whom he knew personally through Virginia society. Lewis resided in the presidential mansion, and frequently conversed with various prominent figures in politics, the arts and other circles. When Jefferson began to formulate and to plan for an expedition across the continent, he chose Lewis to lead the expedition.

After returning from the expedition, Lewis received a reward of 1,600 acres of land. In 1807, Jefferson appointed him governor of the Louisiana Territory; he settled in St. Louis. He made arrangements to publish the Corps of Discovery journals but had difficulty completing his writing of the journals. He died in 1809 on his journey to deliver his journals to a Washington publisher.

While modern historians generally accept his death as a suicide, there is some debate. Mrs. Grinder, the tavern-keeper's wife, claimed Lewis acted strangely the night before his death. Mrs. Grinder's testimony is held as a point of contention from both sides of the murder-suicide debate.

When Clark and Jefferson were informed of Lewis' death, both accepted the conclusion of suicide. His mother and relatives contended it was murder. From 1993-2010, numerous contemporary Lewis descendants (of his sister Jane, as he had no children) sought to have the body exhumed for forensic analysis, to try to determine whether the death was a suicide. A Tennessee coroner's jury in 1996 recommended exhumation, but since Lewis is buried in a national park, the National Park Service must approve; they refused the request in 1998, citing possible disturbance to the bodies of more than 100 pioneers buried nearby. In 2008 the Department of Interior approved the exhumation, but that decision was rescinded in 2010 upon policy review, and the Department has stated the last decision is final.

For many years, Lewis' legacy was overlooked, inaccurately assessed, and somewhat tarnished by his alleged suicide. Yet his contributions to science, the exploration of the Western U.S., and the lore of great world explorers, are considered incalculable.

Four years after Lewis' death, Thomas Jefferson wrote:

Of courage undaunted, possessing a firmness and perseverance of purpose which nothing but impossibilities could divert from its direction, ... honest, disinterested, liberal, of sound understanding and a fidelity to truth so scrupulous that whatever he should report would be as certain as if seen by ourselves, with all these qualifications as if selected and implanted by nature in one body for this express purpose, I could have no hesitation in confiding the enterprise to him. Jefferson also stated that Lewis had a "luminous and discriminating intellect."


  1. Corps of Discovery > The Leaders > Meriwether Lewis, National park Service website,
  2. Ambrose, Stephen. Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West. Simon & Schuster: 15 February 1996. ISBN 0-684-81107-3.
  3. "THE WEST - Meriwether Lewis". PBS.
  4. John D. W. Guice, James J. Holmberg, and Jay H. Buckley, By His Own Hand? The Mysterious Death of Meriwether Lewis. University of Oklahoma Press, 2006.
  5. "Meriwether Lewis's Final Journey Remains a Mystery", Wall Street Journal, September 25, 2010
  6. Jefferson, Thomas, Paul Allen, 18 August 1813, in "Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with Related Documents: 1783–1854," edited by Donald Dean Jackson. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1962, pp. 589–590.

William Clark

William Clark (August 1, 1770 – September 1, 1838)


William Clark was born in Virginia, the ninth of the ten children of John and Ann Rogers Clark. His parents were of English and possibly Scottish ancestry. The Clarks were of the lesser Virginia gentry, owners of modest estates and a few slaves.

Clark did not have any formal education, but like many of his contemporaries he was tutored at home. In later years, he was somewhat self-conscious about his convoluted grammar and inconsistent spelling—he spelled "Sioux" 27 different ways in his journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition—and sought to have his journals corrected before publication. But the spelling of American English was not standardized in Clark's youth, and his vocabulary suggests that he was well read.

At age 15, William, his parents, his three sisters, and the Clark family's slaves arrived in Kentucky. This would be William Clark's primary home until 1803. In Kentucky, his older brother George Rogers Clark taught William wilderness survival skills.

Although the Revolutionary War was over, Kentuckians continued to fight the Northwest Indian War with American Indians north of the Ohio River. In 1789, nineteen year-old William Clark began his military career by joining a volunteer militia force. Clark kept a detailed journal of the expedition, the beginning of a lifelong practice.

William Clark resigned his commission on July 4, 1796 and retired due to poor health, although he was only 26 years old. He returned to his family plantation near Louisville, Kentucky. Prior to his resignation, Meriwether Lewis had been assigned to Clark's unit as an ensign under Clark's command, and they came to respect each other.

In 1803, Lewis recruited Clark, then age 33, to share command of the newly formed Corps of Discovery. Clark spent three years on the expedition to the Pacific Coast. Although technically subordinate to Lewis in rank, at Lewis' insistence, he exercised equal authority. Clark concentrated chiefly on the drawing of maps, the management of the expedition's supplies, and the leading of men in hunting.

After the expedition, he served as governor of the Missouri Territory. He also served as Superintendent of Indian Affairs from his office in St. Louis until his death in 1838.

In 2001, President Bill Clinton elevated Clark to a Captain in the US Army posthumously.


  1. Foley, William E. Wilderness Journey: The Life of William Clark. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2004. ISBN 0-8262-1533-5.
  2. Buckley, Jay H. William Clark: Indian Diplomat. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008.
  3. "President Clinton: Celebrating the Legacy of Lewis and Clark and Preserving America’s Natural Treasures". FirstGov. January 17, 2001.

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