Lewis and Clark: Profiling Meriwether Lewis
President Thomas Jefferson never appeared to waver in his decision to send Meriwether Lewis to lead the Corps of Discovery into the American West. Though he had turned Lewis down to lead a similar trip when Lewis was only 18 years old, he thought Lewis was ready the second time around. Jefferson had known Lewis nearly all of his life, and knew his roots. He wasn’t just trusting a young man who was in his acquaintance.
Thomas Jefferson called the Lewis family one of the most distinguished in Virginia. Two of Jefferson’s siblings had married into a line of the Lewis family, and Nicholas Lewis, Meriwether’s uncle, became a close friend who managed Jefferson’s affairs during the years that he was minister to France.
Meriwether Lewis’s grandfather, Robert, was the first Lewis to come to America in 1635. A British Army colonel, he was given 33,033 acres of land in Albemarle County, Virginia, in a grant from the king. He became a successful planter. When the colonel died, his fifth son, William, Lewis’s father, inherited a rustic plantation named Locust Hill near Jefferson’s home of Monticello. William Lewis married his second cousin, Lucy Meriwether, in 1769. The Meriwether and Lewis families were extremely close, full of cousins who kept choosing each other for mates. The families intermarried 11 times in the eighteenth century. (Intermarriage between families was pretty common at the time.)
Losing a father
William and Lucy Lewis had three children: Jane, Meriwether (born August 18, 1774), and Reuben. For the first years of Meriwether’s life, his father was away fighting in the Revolutionary War. Home in November on a brief leave from the Army, Lewis’s father attempted to cross the icy, swollen Rivanna River at flood stage, drowning his horse and nearly himself. Soaked and freezing, he walked back to Locust Hill and went to bed. Two days later, he was dead from pneumonia. Meriwether was only 5 years old.
Meriwether’s uncle Nicolas, Jefferson’s friend, became Meriwether’s guardian (a person, usually a relative, who looked after a minor’s inherited property until the minor came of age). Six months after his father died, Meriwether’s mother remarried a friend of the family, John Marks. Lucy and John Marks had two more children.
A doctoring mother
Lucy Lewis Marks lived to be almost 86 years old, an extremely old age in the nineteenth century. Meriwether’s letters to her show how fond of her he was. A remarkable woman on several accounts, she was a country doctor without a diploma, riding horseback to treat her sick neighbors, as well as doctoring her family and slaves. Because there were no hospitals or clinics and few trained doctors in Virginia or anywhere else in the United States at the time, lay healers or field doctors were common — for the lay doctor to be a woman, however, was uncommon.
Lucy Marks understood the medicinal properties of plants and grew medicinal herbs. She taught Meriwether what she knew, which later was helpful to him both while he was in the Army and as he led the expedition. People who knew the family said that Meriwether inherited many character traits, including energy and courage, from his mother. He also inherited a tendency toward depression from his father.
Becoming a rambling man
When he was 8 years old, Meriwether went with his stepfather and other Virginians on an expedition to colonize a piece of wilderness land in Georgia. Lewis stayed in Georgia three or four years and learned many of the skills necessary for survival on the frontier. There, he developed a love for rambling — walking alone for hours across the countryside, observing plants, animals, and the geography. It was a passion that would last his entire life.
Getting a little schooling
At 13, Lewis returned to Virginia to get more education and prepare to take over the operation of Locust Hill. Lewis was curious, adventurous, and a good student, learning to read and write without any formal schooling at all until he was 13. Because Albemarle County had no schools at that time, Lewis lived with various tutors in their homes, a common way to get a formal education in early America.
The tutoring, which lasted about four years, appears to have taught him basic math, botany, natural history, and geography, among other subjects. He improved his writing skill and probably read classic literature. He didn’t receive a great education by the standards of the time but it wasn’t a lousy one, either.
At age 18, Lewis took over Locust Hill, about 2,000 acres of tobacco plantation and food crops, 100 or so animals, and over 20 slaves. Management of a small plantation at the turn of the eighteenth century didn’t mean backbreaking labor — that was done by the slaves — but he would have needed to master farming, distilling, breeding, slaughtering, blacksmithing, bookkeeping, and a host of other skills.
Wanting out, signing up
Lewis excelled at farming but had no passion for it. Instead, he wanted to see the continent, to explore, to continue the rambling that he loved — and he knew that his mother was fully capable of running the plantation, which Lewis had inherited because of Virginia’s law of primogeniture (a father’s property passes to the first born son). When the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia began a subscription campaign at Thomas Jefferson’s urging to send an expedition to the Pacific Ocean in 1792, Lewis “warmly solicited” Jefferson to let Lewis lead the expedition. Jefferson thought the world of Lewis and his family, but he thought Lewis was too young to lead a dangerous expedition and lacked the skills of the botanist chosen for the trip, Andre Michaux.
So, Lewis, restless and unhappy with a sedentary life at Locust Hill, volunteered at age 20 for the Virginia militia called out in 1794 by President Washington to put down the Whiskey Rebellion. (Scottish and Irish settlers in Pennsylvania running whiskey stills had taken up arms against the government in protest of a whiskey tax. They threatened to shoot the officials coming to collect taxes.)
Lewis was so eager to be in the 12,000-strong militia sent to quell the disturbance that he was one of the first men to enlist. He was a private until the fall of 1794, when he was commissioned an ensign (the lowest rung of commissioned officers, just below a junior grade lieutenant). “I am quite delighted with a soldier’s life,” he wrote to his mother after volunteering to stay in Pennsylvania when the rebellion petered out and the rest of the Virginia militia headed home.
He also wrote to his mother that when his enlistment in the militia was up, he was going to Kentucky to speculate in land and take care of some family business, but when the time came, he was commissioned as an ensign in the regular Army, instead. He was sent down the Ohio River to join General “Mad Anthony” Wayne’s troops; he tried to explain his decision in a letter to his mother and signed it, “your ever sincere tho wandering Son.”
Fighting a court martial
Lewis apparently did his share of heavy drinking, a regular event among officers in the Army of his day. He also argued a lot about politics: The Army was full of a political party known as the Federalists, yet Lewis was a Democratic-Republican (the anti-federalist party that Jefferson founded and led) and at odds with Federalist philosophy. Apparently he didn’t get along, for political or other reasons, with his superior officer, and in November of 1795, when Lewis was 21 years old, he was brought before a court-martial on charges of getting drunk, insulting his superior officer, and disturbing the peace. He pled “not guilty” and after a full week of testimony, he was “acquitted with honor.”
Meeting Clark for the first time
The commanding officer, General Wayne, knew about the conflict between Lewis and his superior officer and figured the problem wouldn’t end with Lewis’s acquittal on the court-martial charges. So he had Lewis transferred to a company of elite sharpshooters, commanded by Captain William Clark. For six months, Lewis and Clark got to know each other and became great friends. Clark left the Army in 1796 to go home to his family plantation near today’s Louisville, Kentucky, to help his brother George Rogers Clark sort out some financial problems.
Finding an ideal job
In 1799, Lewis was promoted to lieutenant and posted to Charlottesville. A year later he was posted to Detroit and appointed regimental paymaster. That was a job Lewis really loved because he was able to travel by horseback to forts south of the Ohio River and travel up and down the river by keelboat (large, shallow freight boat) or pirogue (flat-bottomed boat like a canoe). In December 1800, Lewis was promoted to Captain.