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Biography Resource Center
Meriwether Lewis was born on August 18, 1774 to William Lewis and Lucy Meriweather. He grew up in his family's estate in
, Albemarle County, Virginia. His father, a colonel in the
during the time of the Revolutionary War, was actually Lucy Meriweather's cousin. Growing up, he would spend his time listening to stories about his father and other
heroes. His mother was a skilled cook and herbalist, and it's likely that he learned many of his outdoorsman skills from her.
After his father died in 1779 due to
, his mother remarried Captain John Marks and they moved to Broad River Valley, Georgia. He spent his days fishing, roaming the forests, and hunting. He started hunting at around age 8. In Georgia, his mother gave birth to two children, John Hastings Marks and Mary Garland Marks. In his early teen years, he returned to Virginia to manage Locust Hill and receive an education.
By 1792, Meriwther was expanding the grounds of Locust Hill and observing all of the plant life that grew there. That same year, John Hastings Marks died and his family returned to Virginia and lived with him at the estate. In 1794, Meriwether was one of 13,000 people to fight against the
, and he rose to the rank of Captain in 1800.
The following year, he was asked by President Jefferson to be his private secretary. During his time, he planned an expedition to find a water route to the Pacific Ocean (otherwise known as the "
"). In 1803, the United States purchased the entire Louisiana territory from France for $15,000,000, approximately 3 cents an acre for 828,800 square miles. This transaction is known as the
. In order for this new territory to be settled in, it needed to be explored first.
On June 20, 1803, President Jefferson appointed Merriwether Lewis as the
leader of the expedition. He selected
to join him because of his military experience. Before the expedition, he also bought a Newfoundland dog named
On May 14, 1804, the crew (called the
Corps of Discovery
) began their
from Hartford, Illinois and met
in St. Charles, Missouri. They continued east on the Missouri River.
The first stop was made in the winter of 1804-1805 at the Mandan Village near present day Washburn, North Dakota. Here, Lewis hired
and her french fur trader husband
as interpreters on the journey. On February 11, 1805, Sacagawea gave birth to a son, whom she named
Jean Baptiste Charbonneau
They continued west on the Misosuri River and came accross 5 large waterfalls. They had to make makeshift trailers to carry thier supplies and
accross the land on foot. It took them a month to travel only 18 miles. While they were on their portage they came accross the constant threat of being attacked by Grizzly bears and having their moccasins punctured by prickly pear bushes. The crew stumbled upon plentiful herds of buffalo that they killed for both food and fur. Here, Sacagawea, her son, and Clark were almost swept away by a flash flood. Mosquitoes also carried illness which afflicted some of the crew, including Sacagawea. The portage that started on June 21 was completed on July 15 in 1805.
On August 13, 1805, Lewis and his men arrived at the
. Sacagawea recognized the chief to be her brother,
. After an emotional reunion, Cameahwait explained to the corps that there was not an all water route the Pacific Ocean (Northwest Passage). He told Lewis that he would have to travel over the dangerous
. He agreed to give them 29 horses, 1 mule, and a guide named "Old Toby." On the journey, Toby lost the path and 11 days later they emerged on the brink of starvation.
After leaving the mountains they returned to the Clearwater River which flowed into the Columbia River. This led them to the Pacific Ocean. On November 7, 1805, Clark wrote in his journal,
" Great joy in camp we are in View of the Ocian this great Pacific Ocean which we been so long anxious to see. And the roreing or noise made by the waves brakeing on the rockey shoes may be heard distictly."
The crew wintered in
in Oregon, and they began the journey back to St. Louis on March 23, 1806. The trip took almost a year.
Significance of the Expedition and Emerging Nationalism
Lewis and his crew were very important in discovering new plants, animals and more. They recorded and observed 178 plants and 122 species of animals. They succeeded in recording and gaining extensive knowledge of the geography by making maps of rivers and mountain ranges. They created good relations with most Indian tribes they encountered, and they gave to the Indians peace medals and American Flags. The expedition also drew the public's eye to the west and encouraged settlement there. It also helped the United States claim control over the Oregon Territory which at the time was disputed between Britian and the United States.
Lewis' death is mysterious. One night in September 1809, Lewis was called to Washington, D.C. to answer complaints concerning his governmental actions. He stopped to spend the night at a tavern called Grinder's Stand. The tavern-keepers wife heard multiple gunshots in the night. For some reason, she didn't investigate further until the morning when she sent for Lewis' servants. They discovered him dead. Historians generally agree that his death was a suicide, but his family argued that he was murdered. To this day, no one can tell for sure.
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