Meriwether Lewis: 'The Greatest Pathfinder'

In a description about a book on Meriwether Lewis, he was hailed as “undoubtedly the greatest pathfinder this country has ever had.”

Meriwether Lewis
U.S. Postal Service stamp from 2004.

This pathfinder made his permanent mark on American history as the official leader of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Thomas Jefferson assigned that task to Lewis in 1803, two years after he had been named the president’s personal secretary.

Lewis was born Aug. 18, 1774, near Charlottesville, Va.; he was a boyhood neighbor of Jefferson. Lewis’ father, William Lewis, died in 1779; his mother, Lucy Marks Lewis Marks, died 58 years later. Meriwether Lewis had five siblings.

For a while, Lewis lived with his family in Georgia, but he returned to his native Virginia as a teenager to manage the nearly 2,000-acre family plantation, Locust Hill, and receive a formal education. He enlisted in the Army in 1794 and left at the rank of captain.

After serving in the Army and as Jefferson’s personal secretary, Lewis assumed leadership of the expedition. “I could have no hesitation in confiding the enterprise to him,” Jefferson wrote of Lewis.

Lewis and his right-hand man, William Clark, set off May 14, 1804, from Wood River, Ill., on a nearly 8,000-mile journey to explore the newly acquired and largely unexplored Louisiana Territory, spanning more than 800,000 square miles. Along the way, they mapped the interior of the continent; gathered plant, mineral and animal specimens; and sought to make peace with American Indians.

Lewis and Clark concluded their expedition—officially called the Corps of Discovery—on Sept. 23, 1806, in St. Louis, Mo.

Following that voyage, Jefferson appointed Lewis as governor of the Louisiana Territory in 1806. Less than four years later, on his way to a meeting in Washington, D.C., Lewis died in October 1809 at Grinder’s Stand in Tennessee. Never married and never a father, Lewis was just 35 years old.

“Although unrealized during his lifetime,” according to the National Park Service, “Meriwether Lewis’ accomplishments were numerous, and they made an enormous impact on our country’s perceptions and knowledge of the West.”

Sources: PBS, Lewisandclark.net, Library of Congress, University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Oregon Public Broadcasting, National Park Service, Missouri Historical Society

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