As leader of the Louisiana Purchase Expedition, Meriwether Lewis wore many hats – InForum

FARGO — One of the toughest, most dangerous, and most important multi-year expeditions ever given to a young man occurred in 1801. It happened when President Thomas Jefferson authorized Meriwether Lewis to lead an expedition of 45 people across 8,000 miles of uncharted land.

If things go reasonably well, the journey should take nearly three years. Lewis was only 26 at the time, but he had already achieved remarkable things for someone at such a young age. He became a skilled hunter at age 8, began managing a plantation in his early teens, and later served as a commissioned officer in the United States Militia, serving as a land surveyor and as a quartermaster.

Not only did the leader of this expedition have to be exceptionally brave, but he also had to know many different subjects. These included: medicine, astronomy, botany, natural history, mineralogy, zoology and paleontology. Prior to the expedition, Lewis received intensive tutoring on many of these topics. As a bonus, Lewis also had a history of communicating with Native Americans. On this expedition, Lewis will wear many hats.

Meriwether Lewis was born on August 18, 1774, to William and Lucy (Meriwether) Lewis, on the Locust Hill Plantation in Albemarle County, located in the Piedmont region of Virginia. William and Lucy were cousins ​​and friends of Thomas Jefferson. In 1779 William died of pneumonia, and in 1780 Lucy married Captain John Marks, a retired military officer who was also one of Jefferson’s friends.

Marks brought his new family to a heavily forested area in the Broad River Valley region of Georgia. Here Meriwether spent much of his time going out into the forest where he hunted and became acquainted with some of the Cherokee Indians who also hunted there. Many local whites were afraid of the Cherokee people, but Lewis was not.

Around the age of 13, Lewis was sent back to Locust Hill to oversee the plantation and receive a proper education. On the death of William Lewis, his son inherited the plantation, but as he was very young at the time, “relatives held it in trust” until he was old enough to help in its management.

While at Locust Hill, Lewis employed some of the best tutors in the area. One of its first was William Douglas, a Scottish clergyman who had previously taught Latin, Greek, and French to Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe. Lewis also spent two years at Albemarle Classical School where he learned arithmetic, reading, writing, natural science and some more Latin and Greek from Reverend Matthew Maury, whose father had also served as Jefferson’s tutor.

Lewis was then schooled for a short time by Dr Charles Everitt, but when this proved unsatisfactory he “was transferred to receive tutoring from the Reverend James Waddell in 1790”. Lewis planned to stay with Waddell for a few years and then attend the College of William & Mary, but when John Marks, his stepfather, died in 1792, he asked his mother and half-siblings to return to Locust Hill and live with it. Lewis dropped his plans to go to college and stayed on at Locust Hill to run the plantation.

Meanwhile, the new American republic was struggling to repay debt incurred during the American Revolution, and Congress imposed a tax on whiskey to help pay off that debt. Farmers and distillers in western Pennsylvania protested this tax and began mobilizing to force the repeal of this tax, creating what became known as the “Whiskey Rebellion”. Fearing that this movement might become a revolution in its own right, President George Washington in August 1794 mobilized 13,000 militiamen from Virginia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland to suppress any violent action, and Lewis was among those who enlist in the 1st American Regiment. .

Although the potential revolt was quickly put down, Lewis remained with his regiment in Pennsylvania, and in August 1795 joined the forces of General “Mad” Anthony Wayne, who was tasked with subduing Native American tribes who “had attacked the settlers”. in the western reaches of the country.

One of the other officers serving under Wayne was William Clark, who was the commander of a rifle company, and Lewis and Clark became close friends. On December 5, 1800, Lewis was promoted to captain.

A month earlier, Lewis’ friend Thomas Jefferson had been elected president and would be sworn in on March 1, 1801. In February Jefferson invited Lewis to move to Washington and be his private secretary and assistant, and Lewis agreed. . Jefferson quickly hatched a plan to explore the western reaches of the American continent. After Jefferson informed Lewis of his plan, the President’s secretary “promptly volunteered to lead the proposed expedition”.

An 1807 portrait of Meriwether Lewis by Charles Willson Peale.

Contributed / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Jefferson believed that Lewis would be the ideal person to lead this expedition, but also realized that there were certain subjects in which he needed to improve his expertise, so he provided Lewis with tutors who were the most knowledgeable experts. in their particular fields. “Jefferson sent Lewis to Philadelphia to study medicinal remedies under Benjamin Rush, a renowned physician who signed the Declaration of Independence with Jefferson more than 25 years earlier. “Rush taught Lewis about border diseases and the performance of the bloodletting.” He also provided Lewis with a medical kit that included opium, emetics to induce vomiting, medicinal wine, and mercury laxative pills.

President Jefferson also provided Lewis with the assistance of American experts in astronomy, botany, natural history, mineralogy, zoology, and paleontology.

Lewis contacted Clark and informed him of the expedition and “invited him to be his partner”. Clark was delighted with the offer and accepted the invitation. Jefferson proposed the expedition to Congress in January 1803, and they approved funding.

After Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory on May 2, he formed the Corps of Discovery with Lewis as its leader. The purpose of the corps, composed mostly of American servicemen, was to explore the new territory, establish American sovereignty over the Native American people along the Missouri River, and eventually claim the Pacific Northwest and territory of the ‘Oregon.

Lewis obtained the necessary supplies, and Clark recruited and trained the men who would accompany them on the expedition. After the keelboat was completed in Pittsburgh on August 31, the boat was “immediately loaded with equipment and some of the provisions”.

The boat ascended the Ohio River on October 26, 1803 and proceeded upstream to the Mississippi River. He stopped in St. Louis to pick up the rest of their supplies, and the men attended the official ceremonies transferring Louisiana to the United States.

The expedition officially began on May 14, 1804, when Lewis, Clark, and the rest of the Corps of Discovery headed up the Missouri River.

We will continue the story of Meriwether Lewis next week.

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