Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) – Diplomat, explorer, scientist, governor, soldier, and the official leader of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Meriwether Lewis has been called “undoubtedly the greatest pathfinder this country has ever known.”
Born near Charlottesville, Virginia to William and Lucy Meriwether Lewis, faced the world with opportunity and advantage. After William’s death in 1781, Lucy remarried and moved the family to Georgia when Meriwether was ten. At thirteen, he was sent back to Virginia for education by private tutors. He also began 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.
Later, he joined the Virginia militia and in 1794, participated in putting down the Whiskey Rebellion. The next year he joined the regular army, in which he continued to serve until 1801, reaching the rank of captain. During this time, he met and befriended one of his commanding officers, William Clark.
In 1801, shortly after his election, President Thomas Jefferson invited Lewis to serve as his personal secretary, where Lewis became immediately involved in the planning of the Corps of Discovery Expedition. Lewis served as secretary for less than two years before being reassigned as an intelligent officer who was “fit for the enterprise and willing to …explore…to the Western Ocean.”
Jefferson selected 28-year-Lewis to lead the expedition, afterwards known as the Corps of Discovery. Lewis, in turn, selected former Army comrade, 32-year-old William Clark, to be co-leader. Due to bureaucratic delays in the US Army, Clark officially only held the rank of Second Lieutenant at the time; but, Lewis concealed this from the men and shared the leadership of the expedition, always referring to Clark as “Captain.”
In 1803, while 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, cartography, and the study of fossils.
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.
After three years, the pair returned and President Thomas Jefferson then appointed Lewis governor of the Louisiana Territory in 1806. 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 from St. Louis, Missouri for Washington D.C. in September, 1809. Traveling with him was his servant, John Pernia, and Major James Neely.
Adding to the problems that Lewis was facing in his career, he was also experiencing personal problems. Meriwether Lewis had long suffered from periodic spells of what was then termed as “meloncholy.” Land speculation had drained his finances and he had begun to drink to much. Though his traveling companions worried for his safety and tried to talk him out of taking the trip, Lewis insisted, even though he was complaining of terrible headaches and a fever.
Just a little more than a month later, Lewis died mysteriously from gunshot wounds on October 11, 1809.
While traveling through Tennessee on October 10th, it began to rain heavily and two of the pack horses fled into the woods. Neelly advised Lewis to continue on while he rounded up the horses. Governor Lewis complied and secured lodging at a public roadhouse called Grinder’s Stand. His servant Pernia was given lodging in the barn. Mrs. Grinder would later say that Lewis spent time that evening in the common room pacing and mumbling in a strange manner and that she had heard the gunshots, but, was to afraid to investigate. The next morning, Lewis was found with a gunshot in the head and one in his chest, but, he was still alive for a while.
Major James Neelly, Lewis’s traveling companion, arrived at Grinder’s Stand within hours of Lewis’s death and buried his body nearby, where it remains today. He then took charge of Lewis’ papers and carried them the rest of the way to Washington. On October 18th, from Nashville, McNeelly wrote to Thomas Jefferson: “It is with extreme pain that I have to inform you of the death of His Excellency Meriwether Lewis, Governor of Upper Louisiana who died on the morning of the 11th Instant and I am sorry to say by Suicide.”
From the beginning, there were questions about whether Lewis committed suicide or was murdered. Career associates, including Thomas Jefferson, believed that he died at his own hand. However, some family members and others maintained that he was killed. Though most historians today accept the theory that Lewis took his own life, a conspiracy theory also continues to linger.