NPS Logo

Historical Background

Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings

Suggested Reading


Lewis and Clark
Historical Background

Augur of exploration

Late on the night of March 5, 1801, a young Army captain named Meriwether Lewis, paymaster of the 1st Infantry Regiment, arrived back at his base in Pittsburgh following a trip on military business to Detroit. It was not unlike many others he had made to posts on the Ohio and Michigan frontier. He did not realize it would be his last.

Apparently the next morning his friend Tarleton Bates, a young Pittsburgh businessman, delivered to him a letter that contained exciting news. It was to change the course of his life radically—and that of his Nation. [11] Dated February 23 and sent by the newly elected and soon to be inaugurated President Jefferson, the communication offered Lewis a position as his secretary-aide. It said: "Your knolege of the Western country, of the army and of all it's interests & relations has rendered it desireable for public as well as private purposes that you should be engaged in that office."

Because of the reference to Lewis' knowledge of the "Western country," even at this early stage Jefferson may have already decided to send out another expedition to explore the West, as he had tried to do on various preceding occasions, and had tentatively decided on Lewis as its leader. Some 8 years earlier, the latter had sought Jefferson's permission to join one of the explorations. And others available for the secretary-aide position were as well as or better qualified.

Whatever Jefferson's aims, Lewis realized that the job offered opportunities and challenges that few 27-year-old Army officers ever enjoyed. He would be on detached duty from the Army, retain his rank, and receive room and board with the Jefferson family as well as a salary of $500, somewhat more than his remuneration as a captain. On March 10 he notified Jefferson of his acceptance.

THE two men were fellow Virginians. Jefferson had long known the Lewis family, who were neighbors at his Monticello estate. The well-bred Lewis, of Welsh and English descent, carried his mother's maiden name as his first name. [12] Like Jefferson, he had been raised in Albemarle County in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. He was born in 1774 at Locust Hill, a plantation of more than 1,000 acres along Ivy Creek, about 9 miles west of Monticello and 7 miles west of Charlottesville. The second child, he had an elder sister named Jane; and a younger brother, Reuben.

In 1779, when Meriwether was only about 5 years old, his father, William, a reasonably prosperous planter-slaveholder who was then serving as a lieutenant in the Continental Army, died while on leave. The very next year, his widow, Lucy, married another military man, Capt. John Marks, by whom she was to bear a son and daughter. Young Lewis loved to roam the surrounding hills, woods, and fields hunting with his dog. But, a student of books as well as the outdoors, he attended a common day school and learned reading, writing, and arithmetic.

Not long after the War for Independence, in 1784, the family moved to frontier Georgia, where Marks was lured by possible wealth in land. The lad stayed there only 3 years, however, and returned to Albemarle County to continue his education. Under the supervision of one of his uncles, who acted as his guardian, he studied with the local gentry at private Latin schools. In 1792, the year after Marks died, Lucy came back to Locust Hill with her other offspring and Lewis joined them.

Two years later, when Meriwether was 20 years of age, President George Washington called for 13,000 militiamen from Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania to help suppress the Whisky Rebellion, an insurrection in western Pennsylvania. The youth enlisted as a private in the Virginia militia under Gen. Daniel Morgan and served principally in the Pittsburgh area. In a matter of months, he rose to ensign, the equivalent of a modern second lieutenant.

Liking military life, in 1795 Lewis transferred to the 2d Sublegion of the Regular Army. Probably late that year or early the next, likely at Fort Greenville, Ohio, for a few months he served in a rifle company commanded by Lt. William Clark—who would one day join him in exploring the North American Continent and be a lifelong friend. In 1796 the 2d Sublegion became the 1st Infantry Regiment. Three years later, Lewis rose to first lieutenant, and the following year, at the age of 26, to captain. During this span of time, he saw little action but learned much about military life and discipline, the problems of command, Indian character, and frontier conditions—all of which would aid him as presidential secretary and as an explorer.

ON March 10, as soon as he had written Jefferson notifying him of his acceptance of the proffered position, Lewis made the necessary arrangements with his commanding officer and intensified preparations to leave Pittsburgh. Likely within a day or two, he set out for Washington with all his baggage packed on three horses. Because spring rains had turned the roads and trails into a sea of mud and one of his horses went lame, he did not reach Washington until April 1.

For 2 years, Lewis was to live with Jefferson at the White House and Monticello. In addition to the seasoning he gained in governmental and congressional affairs as presidential secretary, he met many prominent politicians, statesmen, and scientists who visited Jefferson. The two men also undoubtedly carried on innumerable conversations on the subject of western exploration. It was a subject dear to both of their hearts, but particularly to Jefferson, who had been immersed in it since boyhood.

Last Updated: 22-Feb-2004