Ken Burns Classroom

Meriwether Lewis

Ken Burns Film: Lewis & Clark

Collections: The New Nation (1750-1820s)

Subject: American History American West

Grade Level: 6-12

A portrait of Meriwether Lewis by Charles Willson Peale
A portrait of Meriwether Lewis by Charles Willson Peale. Source: Independence National Historical Park.

1774–1809

Meriwether Lewis was born in Albemarle County, Virginia, on August 18, 1774. Lewis joined the U.S. Army in 1794, serving six years in the Frontier Army and rising to the rank of captain in 1800, then serving as paymaster of the First Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army. In early 1801, Lewis was appointed by President Jefferson to be his personal secretary. At Jefferson’s direction, Lewis planned an exploration of a route west to the Pacific coast of North America in early 1803, Congress approved the expedition, which would be the first in series of military explorations launched by the U.S. government.

The mission was to be more diplomatic, in that it would require the explorers to communicate the transfer of sovereignty to every Indian tribe and foreign interest occupying the lands within the Missouri watershed. This increase in importance warranted a need for a second-in-command to be named to assist Lewis on the journey. Both Jefferson and Lewis thought of William Clark, under whom Lewis had served briefly during his army career. In mid-October of 1803, the two met in Clarksville, Indiana Territory, near the Falls of the Ohio, to make final preparations for the journey and assemble what would later be named the Corps of Discovery.

Upon arriving safely in St. Louis in September 1806, Lewis drafted the first few letters that served as a preliminary report to President Jefferson. He went on to describe the route as modified during his return over Lewis and Clark Pass (located in today’s Montana). First, they would travel by boat 2,575 miles up the Missouri past steep, eroding riverbanks and difficult snags to the rapids just below the Great Falls of the Missouri. Then, they would portage over 18 miles across land, then travel 200 more river miles, followed by 140 miles across the Bitterroots, “[T]remendous mountains which for 60 miles are covered with eternal snow.” Finally, travel downstream on the Snake, Clearwater, and Columbia Rivers for 640 boat miles to the Pacific Ocean.

Although Lewis’ letter described a more involved and difficult passage between the two rivers, it did assure Jefferson of how plentiful the game was, and therefore, how profitable the fur trade could be in the frontier. This fact, in addition to the knowledge that Lewis and Clark had gathered about foreign interests in the Western lands, spurred the U.S. toward further negotiations and claims of sovereignty over the territories bordering Louisiana.

In September 1809, after much difficulty in trying to mediate between the Natives and commercial interests, Lewis fled St. Louis for Washington to plead his case before the new administration. He caught a riverboat to Memphis, during which his feelings of melancholy were enhanced by his continued drinking, and he twice attempted to take his own life. Later, while staying in a roadhouse along the Natchez Trace, Lewis took his own life by shooting himself first in the forehead then in the breast. He was buried next to the tavern, and today the site is marked by a monument that was erected in his honor in 1846.

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