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Image of Meriwether Lewis.
Meriwether Lewis seemingly was born to explore the wilderness. His upbringing prepared him well for the difficult expedition to the Northwest he would lead.

Thomas Jefferson had a firsthand view of Meriwether Lewis’s toughness when Lewis was just a child.

In a brief biography of Lewis written after Lewis’ death, Jefferson told of Lewis’ hunting in his barefeet with the winter snow still on the ground. It’s little wonder then that Jefferson, a neighbor of Lewis’ family, turned to Lewis for the great expedition west. The mental and physical endurance that Jefferson had seen up close in Lewis would be put to the test of his lifetime as he explored the uncharted West in search of the Northwest Passage.

The Early Days
Lewis was the second of three children born to Lucy Meriwether Lewis and William Lewis on Aug. 18, 1774, in Albemarle County, VA. Lewis got his thirst for exploration naturally—his Welsh forefathers were part of the western movement from the early years of the American colonies. Jefferson called Lewis’ family "one of the distinguished families" of Virginia and among the earliest to settle there. Lewis grew up on a 1,000-acre plantation about 10 miles from Jefferson’s Monticello.

Lewis was only five when his father died of pneumonia while serving in the Continental Army. Less than six months after the death, Lucy Lewis married Capt. John Marks. It was common in those days for Virginia widows to remarry as soon as possible. In fact, family history has it that Lucy was following the deathbed advice of her husband in marrying Marks.

Lewis’ mother was quite the character in her own right. She was known far and wide for the medicinal remedies she dispensed. She was well versed in the medicinal properties of many wild plants, and she took care to teach Meriwether much of what she had learned. This education proved invaluable to Lewis on the expedition. He became known as the "doctor" of the expedition.

From ages 13 to 18 Lewis attended various local schools taught by ministers. When he was 18, his stepfather died. Lewis returned home to run the family plantation. For a young man, Lewis had considerable wealth and responsibility. Under Virginia law he had inherited his father’s estate, which consisted of nearly 2,000 acres, 520 pounds in cash, and 24 slaves.

Still, Lewis sought adventure. And because he hated the British, the perfect solution was to follow in his father’s footsteps by joining the U.S. Army. He did that as a volunteer in 1794 in the troops called out to quell the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania. He entered regular service the next year. He served six years in the frontier army and rose to the rank of captain in 1800.

Public Service
In early 1801 newly elected President Jefferson hired Lewis as his personal secretary. Jefferson had renewed his bond with Lewis a few years before when Lewis was on army duty in Charlottesville, VA. Like Jefferson, Lewis was a firm Republican, so Jefferson’s appointment was certainly somewhat political. Later, Jefferson wrote, "Lewis was brave, prudent, habituated to the woods and familiar with Indian manners and character."

As Jefferson’s secretary and messenger in Washington, Lewis learned much about politics. He was an insider, privy to the president’s plans and ambitions. The elite of Washington and Philadelphia took note of him.

Lewis biographer Richard Dillon wrote that the president’s house "served as an ideal finishing school for Lewis." Lewis advanced his scientific education and expanded his knowledge of philosophy, literature, and history, reading extensively in Jefferson’s library. He took part in discussions on the geography of North America, the Indians of the United States. and the use of navigation instruments. He also heard experts on birds, animals, and plant life of the eastern United States and speculation on what lay beyond the Mississippi River.

A Natural Choice
In the early fall of 1802, Jefferson informed Lewis that Lewis would command an expedition to the Pacific Ocean. It’s also possible Lewis talked the president into giving him the command. He had tried earlier, but Jefferson had deemed him too young and inexperienced. According to noted historian, the late Stephen E. Ambrose, "The news that the British were threatening to set up shop in the Northwest galvanized Jefferson into manic activity and changed Meriwether Lewis’s life overnight." Later, when Jefferson was asked why he selected Lewis for this coveted command rather than choosing a qualified scientist, he remarked, "It was impossible to find a character who to a compleat science in botany, natural history, mineralogy & astronomy, joined the firmness of constitution & character, prudence, habits adapted to the woods, & a familiarity with the Indian manners & character, requisite for this undertaking. All the latter qualifications Capt. Lewis has."


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