Lewis seemingly was born to explore the wilderness. His upbringing
prepared him well for the difficult expedition to the Northwest
he would lead.
had a firsthand view of Meriwether Lewiss 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. Its
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 naturallyhis 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 Jeffersons 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
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 fathers 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 fathers 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 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 Jeffersons
appointment was certainly somewhat political. Later, Jefferson
wrote, "Lewis was brave, prudent, habituated to the woods
and familiar with Indian manners and character."
As Jeffersons secretary and messenger in
Washington, Lewis learned much about politics. He was an insider,
privy to the presidents plans and ambitions. The elite of
Washington and Philadelphia took note of him.
Lewis biographer Richard Dillon wrote
that the presidents 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 Jeffersons 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
A Natural Choice
In the early fall of 1802, Jefferson informed Lewis that Lewis
would command an expedition to the Pacific Ocean. Its 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 Lewiss 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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