Meriwether Lewis

Virginian Was Chosen By President Thomas Jefferson to Explore the West

Meriwether Lewis was selected by President Thomas Jefferson to lead an expedition from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. Along with William Clark, Lewis led the Corps of Discovery during a legendary two-year voyage of discovery.

Before leaving on the famed journey, Lewis, at Jefferson’s direction, received fast instruction in various scientific disciplines from some of early America’s most

educated men. And while traveling to the Pacific and back, Lewis collected plant and animal specimens and kept a detailed journey.

After the end of the expedition in 1806, Lewis was rewarded by being named governor of the Louisiana Territory. He seemed destined for a great career of government service, but his life ended just three years after his return to civilization.

The death of Lewis, at a remote inn while traveling to Washington, D.C., has been the subject of speculation for two centuries. It was widely believed that he had become depressed and took his own life, though some have contended that he was murdered.

Early Life

Meriwether Lewis was born August 18, 1774, in Albemarle County, Virginia. His family was established in the local aristocracy, and his father and uncles served as officers in local militia companies. Lewis was educated to the age of 18, and seemed destined for life as a Virginia planter.

When President George Washington called for volunteers to put down the Whiskey

Rebellion in 1794, Lewis enlisted. He enjoyed his military service, during which he befriended William Clark, who was commanding a frontier unit to which Lewis was assigned.

Jefferson’s Secretary

Through family and Virginia connections, Lewis was asked by President Thomas Jefferson to serve as his personal secretary. The two men got along well, sharing mutual interests in scientific subjects.

For years Jefferson had entertained the notion of sending an expedition to explore the West, and he realized Lewis would be the ideal person to lead it. Lewis, in turn, recruited his friend from the Army, William Clark.

Expedition Leader

In 1803 Lewis received his official orders to lead a group of volunteers recruited from the U.S. Army on a great voyage of discovery. To prepare, Jefferson arranged for him to travel to Philadelphia where he could be tutored by prominent men of science.

In 1804 the expedition left St. Louis and headed up the Missouri River and into unknown territory. For the next two years, Lewis and Clark and the Corps of Discovery would travel to the Pacific Northwest and back. 

Tragic Death

After returning to St. Louis in 1806, Lewis was appointed governor of the Louisiana Territory. Based in St. Louis, and dealing with administrative matters, Lewis was unhappy and frustrated.

In 1809, hoping to heal relations with his superiors in the federal government, Lewis set out on a trip to Washington, D.C. On October 11, 1809, while staying at a rural inn in Tennessee, Lewis died under strange circumstances.

The innkeeper’s wife reported hearing a gunshot followed by Lewis moaning. He was later discovered with a pistol shot to the head, which proved fatal. As he was known to be unhappy in his work, it was accepted that he had killed himself. But many believed he had been murdered.

Lewis’s partner in exploration, William Clark, outlived him by nearly three decades, and enjoyed a more successful career serving in government posts. 

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