Tuesday, August 18, 2009
Per Scriptum E. Wesley -- Mackinac Center Intern
America has always been synonymous with exploration, discovery, and settlement. The American dream, as it was before the advent of modernity, was a vision for new lands, and a hope to cultivate natural resources to build a multi-generational home life in liberty. However, before land could become "home," and the wild safe for homesteading families, daring explorers had to scout out the new horizons. Meriwether Lewis would become one of these sorts of men in our history.
Meriwether Lewis was born on August 18, 1774 to William and Lucy Lewis at their Virginia estate named Locust Hill. The Lewis family was one of the first families to settle in the region, and consequently knew the Jeffersons quite well. Soon after Meriwether's father's death of pneumonia in 1779, Lucy remarried the retired officer Captain John Marks in 1780. Captain Marks moved the family to Broad River Valley, Georgia. It was here that Meriwether would develop his love for outdoor adventure. The little eight-year-old boy began sneaking out of his house by the light of the moon on the winter snow to go hunting in the middle of the night with only his dogs to keep him company. Natural history became a life long passion. Being an herbalist herself, Meriwether's mother taught him how to gather herbs for medical purposes. Learning about nature and meeting the Indians that lived near the Lewis home, proved useful for Meriwether's future endeavors.
Sometime between the age of twelve to fourteen, Meriwether returned to Virginia for his formal education. Meriwether was taught by William Douglas, Matthew Maury, and Rev. James Waddell (Douglas also had tutored Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe). In 1792, Meriwether considered attending the College of William and Mary, but decided to continue managing Locust Hill instead. Captain Marks died soon after, and Lucy herself returned to Locust Hill with the rest of the family.
In 1794, Meriwether became one of the 13,000 enlisted militia raised by President George Washington to quell the Whiskey Rebellion. After the Rebellion was suppressed, Meriwether decided to stay with the volunteer army. In August of 1795, he joined forces with "Mad" Anthony Wayne for the Battle of Fallen Timbers, which secured peace between the United States and several neighboring Indian tribes. During this time, Meriwether served alongside a fellow soldier by the name of William Clark. The two became very good friends. Meriwether was reassigned in late 1795 to the Chosen Rifle Company commanded by Clark. Clark resigned from the post due to health problems, and Meriwether was promoted to captain on December 5, 1800.
That coming February, Captain Lewis became the private secretary and assistant to his lifelong friend and newly elected president, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson began developing plans to explore the West, and discovering new species that would spark the interest of botanists and naturalists. Upon being informed of the plan, Lewis proposed to lead the expedition. Lewis, with Jefferson's blessing, began studying under prominent natural historians, botanists, and astronomers. He chose William Clark as his co-captain. After Congress approved it in January of 1803, the expedition started on May 14, 1804, and came back in late summer of 1806. Lewis returned as a hero, and in 1807 he came to Washington for many celebrations and recognitions for the expedition. He began publishing his field notes and journals, and submitting his plant and animal specimens and celestial observations to various scientists for further investigation.
Jefferson awarded him the governorship of the entire Louisiana Territory, which had been newly acquired in 1803 from France. In 1809 while traveling from New Orleans to Washington for a Presidential appraisal of the publication of his journals, Governor Lewis died suddenly. There is historical debate over whether he committed suicide or was murdered. On any account, he was found dead at Grinder's Inn in Natchez Trace, Tennessee, with several bullet wounds. His expedition with William Clark marks a change in American history. The eyes of the nation turned from their labors in the East (separation from Great Britain) to their Western horizons. Now, the gold rushes and homesteading days were on!
Image from britannica.com