Meriwether Lewis (August 18, 1774 – October 11, 1809)
William Clark (August 1, 1770 – September 1, 1838)
✪ Meriwether Lewis was an American explorer, soldier, politician, and public administrator, best known for his role as the leader of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, also known as the Corps of Discovery along with William Clark. Their mission was to explore the territory of the Louisiana Purchase, establish trade with, and sovereignty over the natives near the Missouri River, and claim the Pacific Northwest and Oregon Country for the United States before European nations.
Meriwether Lewis was born August 18, 1774, on Locust Hill Plantation in Albemarle County, Colony of Virginia, in the present-day community of Ivy. He was the son of William Lewis, of Welsh ancestry, and Lucy Meriwether, of English ancestry. After his father died of pneumonia in November 1779, he moved with his mother and stepfather Captain John Marks to Georgia.
Lewis had no formal education until he was 13 years of age, but during his time in Georgia he enhanced his skills as a hunter and an outdoorsman. He would often venture out in the middle of the night in the dead of winter with only his dog to go hunting. Even at an early age, he was interested in natural history, which would develop into a lifelong passion.
It was in the Broad River Valley where Lewis first encountered & dealt with Native Americans. This was the traditional territory of the Cherokee, who resented encroachment by the colonists.
He joined the Virginia Militia, and in 1794 he was sent as part of a detachment that was involved in putting down the Whiskey Rebellion. In 1795, Lewis joined the United States Army, commissioned as an ensign—an army rank that was later abolished and was equivalent to a modern-day second lieutenant. By 1800 he rose to captain, and ended his service there in 1801. Among his commanding officers was William Clark, who would later become his companion in the Corps of Discovery.
On April 1, 1801, Lewis was appointed as Secretary to the President by President Thomas Jefferson, whom he knew through Virginia society in Albemarle County. Lewis resided in the presidential mansion, and frequently conversed with various prominent figures in politics, the arts and other circles.
When Jefferson began to plan for an expedition across the continent, he chose Lewis to lead the expedition. Meriwether Lewis recruited Clark, then aged 33, to share command of the expedition. After returning from the expedition, Lewis received a reward of 1,600 acres (6.5 km2) of land. He also initially made arrangements to publish the Corps of Discovery journals, but had difficulty completing his writing. In 1807, Jefferson appointed him governor of the Louisiana Territory and he settled in St. Louis.
Lewis’s record as an administrator is mixed. He published the first laws in the Upper Louisiana Territory, established roads and furthered Jefferson’s mission as a strong proponent of the fur trade. He negotiated peace among several quarreling Indian tribes. His duty to enforce Indian treaties was to protect the western Indian lands from encroachment, which was opposed by the rush of settlers looking to open new lands for settlements.
On September 3, 1809, Lewis set out for Washington, D.C. He hoped to resolve issues regarding the denied payment of drafts he had drawn against the War Department while serving as governor of the Upper Louisiana Territory, leaving him in potentially ruinous debt. He intended to travel to Washington by ship from New Orleans, but changed his plans while floating down the Mississippi River from St. Louis. He disembarked and decided instead to make an overland journey via the Natchez Trace and then east to Washington (the Natchez Trace was the old pioneer road between Natchez, Mississippi, and Nashville, Tennessee).
According to a lost letter from October 19, 1809, to Thomas Jefferson, Lewis stopped at an inn on the Natchez Trace called Grinder’s Stand, about 70 miles (110 km) southwest of Nashville on October 10. After dinner, he retired to his one-room cabin. In the predawn hours of October 11, the innkeeper’s wife (Priscilla Griner) heard gunshots. Servants found Lewis badly injured from multiple gunshot wounds, one each to the head and gut. He bled out on his buffalo hide robe and died shortly after sunrise.
While Lewis’s friend Thomas Jefferson and some modern historians have generally accepted Lewis’s death as a suicide, debate continues, as discussed below. No one reported seeing Lewis shoot himself. Lewis’s mother and relatives always contended it was murder. A coroner’s jury held an inquest immediately after Lewis’s death as provided by local law; however, they did not charge anyone with murdering Lewis.
From 1993 to 2010, about 200 of Lewis’s kin (through his sister Jane, as he had no children) sought to have the body exhumed for forensic analysis, to try to determine whether his death was a suicide or murder. A Tennessee coroner’s jury in 1996 recommended exhumation. However, since Lewis’s gravesite is in a national monument, the National Park Service refused the request in 1998, citing the possible disturbance of more than 100 pioneers buried nearby.
✪ William Clark was an American explorer, soldier, Indian agent, and territorial governor. A native of Virginia, he grew up in pre-statehood Kentucky before later settling in what later became the state of Missouri. Along with Meriwether Lewis, Clark led the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804–1806 across the Louisiana Purchase to the Pacific Ocean: the first major effort to explore and map much of what is now the Western United States and to assert American claims to the Pacific Northwest.
William Clark was born in Caroline County, Virginia, on August 1, 1770, the ninth of ten children of John and Ann Rogers Clark. His parents were natives of King and Queen County, and were of English and possibly Scots ancestry. The Clarks were planters in Virginia and owned several modest estates and a few slaves. They were members of the Anglican Church.
Clark did not have any formal education; like many of his contemporaries, he was tutored at home. In later years, he was self-conscious about his convoluted grammar and inconsistent spelling—he spelled “Sioux” 27 different ways in his journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition—and sought to have his journals corrected before publication. The spelling of American English was not standardized in Clark’s youth, but his vocabulary suggests he was well read.
Clark’s five older brothers fought in Virginia units during the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783), but William was too young. After the war, the two oldest Clark brothers made arrangements for their parents and family to relocate to Kentucky. In March 1785, William, his parents, three sisters and the Clark family’s slaves arrived in Kentucky. This would be William Clark’s primary home until 1803.
In 1790, Clark was commissioned by General Arthur St. Clair, governor of the Northwest Territory, as a captain in the Clarksville, Indiana militia. One older source says he was sent on a mission to the Creek and Cherokee, whom the US hoped to keep out of the Northwest Indian War in the Southeast. His responsibilities are historically unclear. It is believed he may have travelled & visited New Orleans at that time; preventing him from participating in General Josiah Harmar’s disastrous campaign into the Northwest Territory during that year. Clark also served as an adjutant and quartermaster while in the militia. William Clark resigned his commission on July 4, 1796, and retired due to poor health, although he was only 26 years old.
In 1803, Meriwether Lewis recruited Clark, then age 33, to share command of the newly formed Corps of Discovery, whose mission was to explore the territory of the Louisiana Purchase, establish trade with Native Americans, and consolidate the sovereignty of the US. They were to find a waterway from the US to the Pacific Ocean and claim the Oregon territory for the United States before European nations did. Clark concentrated chiefly on the drawing of maps, the management of the expedition’s supplies, and leading hunting expeditions for game.
After returning from his cross-country expedition, Clark married Julia Hancock on January 5, 1808, at Fincastle, Virginia. They had five children. After Julia’s death in 1820, William Clark married Julia’s first cousin, Harriet Kennerly Radford. They had three children together.
During the War of 1812, Clark led several campaigns, among them in 1814, one along the Mississippi River, up to the Prairie du Chien area. On July 6, 1813, William Clark appeared before Supreme Court Judge John B.C. Lucas in St. Louis to take the oath of office as governor of the Missouri Territory.
In 1822, Clark was appointed Superintendent of Indian Affairs by President James Monroe, a new position created by Congress. Clark served in that position until his death.
William Clark died in St. Louis on September 1, 1838, at age 68. Clark was originally buried at his nephew John O’Fallon’s property, in 1838. That area is now known as O’Fallon Park. The funeral procession stretched for more than a mile and cannons fired a military salute. The entire city of St. Louis mourned his passing. Clark and six of his family members were later interred at Bellefontaine Cemetery on October 23, 1860. The monument that marks their graves, a 35-foot (11 m) gray granite obelisk, was dedicated in 1904 on the centennial anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase.
The Lewis & Clark Expedition
✪ The Lewis & Clark Expedition, also known as The Corps Of Discovery (May 14, 1804 – September 23, 1806) began in 1804, when President Thomas Jefferson appointed Meriwether Lewis to explore all the lands west of the Mississippi River that comprised the Louisiana Purchase. Lewis chose William Clark as his co-leader for the mission. The excursion lasted over two years (1228 days) and along the way encountered & confronted harsh weather conditions, unforgiving terrain, treacherous waters, injuries, starvation, disease and both friendly and hostile Native Americans. Nevertheless, the approximately 8,000-mile journey was deemed a huge success and provided new geographic, ecological and cultural information about previously uncharted areas of North America.
In 1803, Jefferson commissioned the Corps of Discovery and named Army Captain Meriwether Lewis its leader, who then invited William Clark to co-lead the expedition with him. Lewis demonstrated remarkable skills and potential as a frontiersman, and Jefferson made efforts to prepare him for the long journey ahead as the expedition was gaining approval and funding. Jefferson explained his choice of Lewis:
“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. All the latter qualifications Capt. Lewis has.”
Jefferson also wanted to establish a US claim of “discovery” to the Pacific Northwest and Oregon Territory by documenting an American presence there before European nations could claim the land.
However, his main objectives were centered around finding an all-water route to the Pacific coast and commerce. His instructions to the expedition stated:
“The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri River, & such principle stream of it, as, by its course and communication with the waters of the Pacific ocean, whether the Columbia, Oregon, Colorado or any other river may offer the most direct & practicable water communication across this continent for the purpose of commerce.”
He also placed special importance on declaring US sovereignty over the land occupied by the many different Native American tribes along the Missouri River and getting an accurate sense of the resources available in the recently completed Louisiana Purchase.
The campaign’s secondary objectives were scientific and economic: to study the area’s plants, animal life, and geography, and to establish trade with local Native American tribes. The expedition returned to St. Louis to report its findings to Jefferson, with maps, sketches, and journals in hand.
Clark and 30 members set out from Camp Dubois (Camp Wood), Illinois, on May 14, 1804, met Lewis and ten other members of the group in St. Charles, Missouri, then went up the Missouri River. The expedition crossed the Continental Divide of the Americas near the Lemhi Pass, eventually coming to the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean in 1805. The return voyage began on March 23, 1806, at Fort Clatsop, Oregon, and ended on September 23 of the same year.
During the 19th century, references to Lewis and Clark “scarcely appeared” in history books, even during the United States Centennial in 1876, and the expedition was largely forgotten. Lewis and Clark only began to gain attention around the start of the 20th century. Both the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis and the 1905 Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition in Portland, Oregon, showcased them as American pioneers. However, by 1984, no other historical US exploration party was more famous; and, no American expedition leaders are currently more recognizable by name.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition established relations with more than two dozen Native American nations, without whose help the expedition would have risked starvation during the harsh winters or become hopelessly lost in the vast ranges of the Rocky Mountains.
The expedition sighted the Pacific Ocean for the first time on November 7, 1805. On the south side of the Columbia River, 2 miles (3 km) upstream on the west side of the Netul River (now Lewis and Clark River) where they constructed Fort Clatsop. They did this not just for shelter and protection, but also to officially establish the American presence there, with the American flag flying over the fort.
On March 23, 1806, the journey home began. The Corps began their journey homeward using canoes to ascend the Columbia River, and later by trekking over land.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition gained an understanding of the geography of the Northwest and produced the first accurate maps of the area. During the journey, Lewis and Clark drew about 140 maps. Historian Stephen Ambrose says the expedition “filled in the main outlines” of the area.
The Corps met their objective of reaching the Pacific, mapping and establishing their presence for a legal claim to the land; establishing diplomatic relations and trade with at numerous indigenous nations. They did not find a continuous waterway to the Pacific Ocean, but did locate a Native American trail that led from the upper end of the Missouri River to the Columbia River which ran to the Pacific Ocean. They gained information about the natural habitat, flora and fauna, bringing back various plant, seed and mineral specimens. They mapped the topography of the land, designating the location of mountain ranges, rivers and the many Native American tribes during the course of their journey. They also learned and recorded much about the language and customs of the Native American tribes they encountered, and brought back many of their artifacts, including bows, clothing and ceremonial robes.
Since the expedition, Lewis and Clark have been commemorated and honored over the years on various coins, currency, and commemorative postage stamps, as well as in a number of other capacities. ✪