Name

Meriwether Lewis

Career

Explorer/Cartographer

Region

Pacific Ocean

Era

Maritime Republic (1751-1815)

Born

1774

Died

1809

Source

ANB

Text

Explorer and soldier´┐Ż

In February 1801, Thomas Jefferson, who had recently been elected president, asked Lewis to be his private secretary. Jefferson later said that the position was more that of aide-de-camp than secretary. He wrote to Lewis that he was being offered the position not simply to aid "in the private concerns of the household," but also because his knowledge of the western country and the army would be useful to the administration. Jefferson stated that although the pay was not great, Lewis would save the expense of subsistence and lodgings "as you would be one of my family." Jefferson also arranged that Lewis would remain on the active army list as a captain. Lewis arrived in Washington in April 1801, moved into the White House, helped in managing Jefferson's domestic arrangements, and acted as Jefferson's personal representative in talking to members of Congress and others in the city.

Jefferson had long hoped that an exploring expedition could cross the American continent, and he involved Lewis in planning for this ambitious undertaking. Jefferson was interested in the possibility of a water route to the Pacific and in trade with the Indians, but he also had a scientific interest in the trans-Mississippi West. He thought that Lewis, a trusted old Virginia neighbor, had the qualities of leadership and the experience necessary to lead the expedition. In January 1803, Jefferson gained the necessary approval from Congress and sent Lewis to Philadelphia and to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, for a quick tutoring in map-making and related skills.

Lewis chose William Clark to join him in leading the expedition. Early in July 1803 Lewis left Washington for the West and in the winter of 1803-1804 camped near St. Louis, across the Mississippi from the mouth of the Missouri. The exploring party of less than fifty men set off up the Missouri on 14 May 1804. Progress was slower than expected, and, after reaching the Mandan Indian villages, they spent the winter of 1804-1805 in temporary Fort Mandan, near the site of present Bismarck, North Dakota.

The expedition set out again in April 1805. Some men returned to St. Louis, but the Shoshoni Indian Sacagawea joined the party with her husband, a fur trader. After an arduous journey up the Missouri, across the Continental divide, and into the Rockies, the expedition followed the Clearwater River, the Snake, and the Columbia, reaching the Pacific in November. The winter of 1805-1806 was spent just north of present Astoria, near the mouth of the Columbia in hastily constructed Fort Clatsop.

Lewis started the return journey in March 1806. For a time the party split, with Lewis investigating the Marias River, a tributary of the Missouri, and Clark exploring the Yellowstone. Lewis's party skirmished briefly with the Piegan (Blackfeet) Indians; this proved to be the only fighting in which the expedition members engaged during their long journey through Indian country. Before the two parties rejoined at the junction of the Yellowstone and the Missouri, Lewis was accidentally shot in the leg by one of his own men and temporarily disabled. The expedition finally reached St. Louis on 23 September 1806.

Related Images

Date: 1807
Date: 1807