Meriwether Lewis: Biography of an American Explorer

Meriwether Lewis lived a life of adventure, cut short by tragedy

Meriwether Lewis
Portrait of Meriwether Lewis, c. 1800s. Fotosearch/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Meriwether Lewis, born August 18, 1774 in Virginia, is best known as the co-captain of the historic Lewis and Clark Expedition. But in addition to his role as a famed explorer, he was a young plantation owner, a committed military man, a controversial politician, and a confidant of President Jefferson. Lewis died in 1809 of gun shot wounds while en route to Washington, D.C., a trip he undertook with the intentions of clearing his muddled name.

Fast Facts: Meriwether Lewis

  • Occupation: Explorer, Governor of Louisiana Territory
  • Born: August 18, 1774, Albemarle County, VA
  • Died: October 11, 1809, near Nashville, TN
  • Legacy: The Lewis and Clark Expedition traversed the country through nearly 8,000 miles, helping consolidate America's claims to the West. The explorers produced over 140 maps, collected over 200 samples of new plant and animal species, and established peaceful relations with 70 Native American tribes along the way.
  • Famous Quote: "As we passed on, it seemed as if those scenes of visionary enchantment would never have an end."

Adolescent Planter

Meriwether Lewis was born at Locust Hill plantation in Albemarle County, Virginia, on August 18, 1774. He was the eldest of five children born to Lt. William Lewis and Lucy Meriwether Lewis. William Lewis died of pneumonia in 1779 when Meriwether was just five years old. Within six months, Lucy Lewis married Captain John Marks and the new family left Virginia for Georgia.

Life on what was then the frontier appealed to young Meriwether, who learned how to hunt and forage on long treks through the wilderness. When he was about 13 years old, he was sent back to Virginia for schooling and to learn the rudiments of running Locust Hill.

By 1791, his stepfather had died and Lewis moved his twice-widowed mother and siblings home to Albemarle, where he worked to build a financially stable home for his family and over two dozen slaves. As he grew to maturity, cousin Peachy Gilmer described the young plantation owner as “formal and almost without flexibility,” determined to the point of obstinacy and filled with “self-possession and undaunted courage.”

Captain Lewis

Lewis seemed destined for the life of an obscure Virginia planter when he found a new path. A year after joining the local militia in 1793, he was among the 13,000 militiamen called up by President George Washington to put down the Whiskey Rebellion, an uprising of farmers and distillers in Pennsylvania protesting high taxes.

Military life appealed to him, and in 1795 he joined the nascent U.S. Army as an ensign. Soon thereafter, he befriended another Virginia-born officer named William Clark

In 1801, Captain Lewis was appointed as an aide to incoming President Thomas Jefferson. A fellow Albemarle County planter, Jefferson had known Lewis all his life and admired the younger man’s skills and intellect. Lewis served in this post for the next three years.

Jefferson had long dreamt of seeing a major expedition across the American continent, and with the signing of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, he was able to win funding and support for an expedition to explore and map the new territory to find “the most direct and practicable water communication across this continent, for the purposes of commerce."

Meriwether Lewis was a logical choice to lead the expedition. “It was impossible to find a character who to a complete 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 and character, requisite for this undertaking,” Jefferson wrote. “All the latter qualifications Capt. Lewis has.”

Lewis chose William Clark as his co-captain and they recruited the best men they could find for what promised to be an arduous multi-year trek. Lewis and Clark and their 33-man Corps of Discovery left from Camp Dubois in present-day Illinois on May 14, 1804.

Map of the Lewis & Clark Expedition.
Map of the Northwestern United States depicts the route taken by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their first expedition from the Missouri River (near St. Louis, Missouri) to the mouth of the Columbia River (at the Pacific Ocean in Oregon), and their return trip, 1804-1806. (Photo by Stock Montage/Getty Images)

Over the next two years, four months, and 10 days, the Corps of Discovery covered nearly 8,000 miles to the Pacific coast and back, arriving in St. Louis in early September 1806. Altogether, the expedition created over 140 maps, collected over 200 samples of new plant and animal species, and made contact with over 70 Native American tribes.

Governor Lewis

Back home in Virginia, Lewis and Clark each received about $4,500 in pay (equivalent to about $90,000 today) and 1,500 acres of land in recognition of their accomplishment. In March 1807, Lewis was appointed governor of the Louisiana Territory and Clark was appointed general of the territorial militia and Agent for Indian Affairs. They arrived in St. Louis in early 1808.

In St. Louis, Lewis built a house big enough for himself, William Clark, and Clark’s new bride. As governor, he negotiated treaties with local tribes and tried to bring order to the region. However, his work was undermined by political enemies, who spread rumors that he was mismanaging the territory.

Lewis also found himself deeply in debt. In carrying out his duties as governor, he accrued nearly $9,000 in debts—equivalent to $180,000 today. His creditors began to call in his debts before Congress approved his reimbursements.

In early September 1809, Lewis set out for Washington, in the hopes of clearing his name and winning his money. Accompanied by his servant, John Pernier, Lewis planned to boat down the Mississippi to New Orleans and sail along the coast to Virginia.

Stopped by illness at Fort Pickering, near present-day Memphis, Tennessee, he decided to make the rest of the trip overland, following a wilderness path called the Natchez Trace. On October 11, 1809, Lewis died of gunshot wounds at an isolated tavern known as Grinder’s Stand, about 70 miles southwest of Nashville.   

Murder or Suicide?

Word quickly spread that the 35-year-old Lewis had committed suicide as the result of depression. Back in St. Louis, William Clark wrote to Jefferson: “I fear the weight of his mind has overcome him.” But there were lingering questions over what had occurred at Grinder’s Stand on the night of October 10 and 11, with rumors that Lewis had, in fact, been murdered.

Over 200 years later, researchers are still divided on how Lewis died. For decades, descendants of the explorer have sought to have his remains exhumed for examination by forensic experts to see if they can determine if his wounds were self-inflicted or not. To date, their requests have been denied.

Sources

  • Danisi, Thomas C. Meriwether Lewis. New York: Prometheus Books, 2009.
  • Guice, John D.W. & Jay H. Buckley. By His Own Hand?: The Mysterious Death of Meriwether Lewis. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2014.
  • Stroud, Patricia Tyson. Bitterroot: The Life and Death of Meriwether Lewis. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018.