Diplomat, explorer, scientist, governor, soldier, Virginia gentleman, student, secretary to the president: during his 36 years, Meriwether Lewis bore each of these titles. Born into a prominent Virginia family, Lewis faced the world with opportunity and advantage. By the time of his death in late 1809, he struggled with “melancholy,” financial troubles and alcohol. Complex and often contradictory, the incarnations of Meriwether Lewis provide insight into the man behind the titles.
Virginia gentleman: Born in 1774, in Albemarle County, Virginia, Meriwether Lewis was the first child of Lucy Meriwether and William Lewis. After William’s death in 1781, Lucy remarried and moved the family to Georgia. As a young teenager, Lewis returned by himself to Virginia to manage his family’s estate. Upon the death of his stepfather, Lewis, not yet out of his teens, became the head of a household that included his mother and four siblings.
Soldier: Enlisting in 1794, Meriwether Lewis served in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio. During this time, he met and befriended one of his commanding officers, William Clark. Army life suited Lewis and by 1800 he had been promoted to captain.
Secretary to the President: Shortly after his election, President Jefferson invited Lewis to serve as his personal secretary. Explaining the selection, Jefferson wrote that a “personal acquaintance with [Lewis], owing to his being of my neighborhood, has induced me to select him…” Lewis served as secretary for less than two years before being reassigned. Jefferson had selected Lewis to be the “intelligent officer…fit for the enterprise and willing to …explore…to the Western Ocean.”
Student: In 1803, preparing for his journey to the Pacific Ocean, Lewis spent a month in Philadelphia studying with the eminent scientists of the day. His education included intensive courses in medicine, preservation of plant and animal samples, the use of navigation instruments for determining latitude and longitude, and the study of fossils.
Explorer, Diplomat and Scientist: Between 1804 and 1806, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led the Corps of Discovery from Wood River, Illinois, to the Pacific Ocean. As they traveled, Clark mapped their route and Lewis recorded information about and collected samples of the unfamiliar plants and animals they encountered. The explorers met with the tribes of the Louisiana Purchase to tell them of the changes that would transpire under U.S. ownership. Lewis and Clark also tried to establish peace between tribes. Not understanding complex intertribal relations and tribal structures, few of these peace-making efforts met with enduring success.
Governor: In 1806, Jefferson appointed Lewis governor of the Louisiana Territory. Taking up his post nearly two years later, Lewis faced challenges almost immediately. Personality conflicts, political differences, and questions about the appropriation of government funds all contributed to his difficulties. Hoping to resolve the financial questions, Lewis set out for Washington D.C. in late 1809. The "melancholy" Lewis experienced throughout his life reappeared to such an extent that his traveling companions worried for Lewis's safety. On October 11, 1809, Meriwether Lewis died in his lodgings in Tennessee. Although questions remain, it is generally believed that he died at his own hand.
More information about Meriwether Lewis is available in the following books and web sites.
Last updated: July 21, 2021