Originally printed in the Aug. 21, 2002 edition of the Illinois Valley News
On the day of Aug. 18, 1802 Meriwether Lewis observed his 28th birthday. At the time he was serving as the private secretary for Thomas Jefferson, President of the United States. My sources don’t say if he took the day off or had a party on this occasion. He was living in the White House and using what is today known as the East Room for his quarters. He and the president were the only residents of the building other than a few servants and slaves. The two men spent much time together talking and working. There were also many dinners when various influential people were invited for discussions and debates. Lewis also had complete access to Jefferson’s large and valuable library.
One of the books that both of them read that year was the report by Alexander Mackenzie on his overland trip to the Pacific Ocean through the Canadian Rockies. This gave added impetus to Jefferson’s desire to send an exploring party up the Missouri River and then down the Columbia River to the ocean. Once the plan was put in motion, Lewis was selected as a leader by Jefferson without searching or consulting anyone else. What were Lewis’ qualifications which led to this important assignment?
Meriwether Lewis was born on a plantation near to Jefferson’s home in Virginia.The home, called Locust Hill, had many slaves and hundreds of acres of land. It was located in the forested, hilly area which marks the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. He was the first born son of William Lewis, an army officer who was away most of the time due to the Revolutionary War which began two years after Meriwether’s birth. William died in 1779 from pneumonia when Meriwether was five. His Uncle Nicholas became the overseer of the plantation until Meriwether turned 18 and Locust Hill became legally his property. Lucy Meriwether, his mother and source of his first name, was known throughout the region for her herbal medicines. Meriwether gained an appreciation for botany and knowledge of medicines from her.
From age 18 to 20 Lewis ran the plantation and learned a lot about managing people and animals and also the operation of a business which supplied the family and their slaves with all their needs. In 1794 the Whiskey Rebellion began and Lewis volunteered to join the state militia. For the rest of his life Lewis never lived more than a few months in the same location. His mother took over the operation of the plantation and Lewis became an officer in the army at the end of the rebellion. He spent the next six years in the wilderness areas west of the Appalachians. There he learned about weapons, military rules and tactics, how to deal with soldiers and Indians. He also learned skills of canoeing and river travel because his duties as paymaster required him to travel throughout the Ohio river region. It was during this period when he became close friends with William Clark who later joined him on the trip to the West. In 1801 Thomas Jefferson became President and requested Lewis to become his secretary. There he learned writing, speaking, politics and dealing with government leaders. Jefferson also made sure Lewis received training in astronomy, navigation, medicine, botany, zoology and geology by the best scientific minds of the country.
On Aug. 18, 1803 Meriwether Lewis was in Pittsburgh, PA arranging for men, supplies, and a boat to transport the expedition to St. Louis. He had just received a letter from Clark indicating his willingness to join and other experienced men he would bring with him. By Lewis’s birthday in 1806 the expedition was in North Dakota on the way back to St. Louis after reaching the Pacific Ocean.