Meriwether Lewis Biography


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Meriwether Lewis, along with William Clark, led the expedition that opened the trans-Mississippi region to American settlement. The record of the journey, kept primarily by Lewis, was edited and published posthumously and provided a carefully wrought picture of the new American frontier. Descended from Welsh settlers on both sides, Lewis was the son of Lieutenant William Lewis and William’s cousin Lucy Meriwether, for whom he was named. He had a younger brother, Reuben, and a sister, Jane, and the family lived very comfortably among the Virginia planters, with men like Thomas Jefferson and William Randolph as near neighbors and social equals. William served in the militia and joined the Continental Army in July, 1775. He died of pneumonia after attempting a river crossing while on leave in November, 1779. His widow remarried six months later.

Lucy and Captain John Marks had two children, and the whole family migrated to northern Georgia in 1783. There, on the frontier, Meriwether lived for three or four years, honing the skills that would serve him so well as a soldier and explorer. In about 1787, he traveled to Virginia for formal education under the best tutors of the Albemarle region. He chose not to pursue higher education, instead taking control of his two thousand-acre inheritance upon reaching age eighteen, in 1792. He reconstituted his family at Locust Hill, Virginia. Lewis quickly grew restless and joined the militia in 1794 as it set off to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion, beginning his own military career and carrying on the patriotic and military tradition of his father. By this time he had absorbed a great deal of practical botanical lore and knowledge, developed many useful survival skills, and read widely in popular travel literature and English classics like those of John Milton and William Shakespeare. He relished the military life and joined the regular army in mid-May, 1795.

He served under General Anthony Wayne but underwent a court-martial for conduct unbecoming of an officer. Though cleared of the charge, he was reassigned briefly to the Chosen Rifle Company, under Captain William Clark. Over the next five years or so he would serve as dispatch runner, recruiter, and paymaster, all of which positions kept him moving about the American frontier. He was promoted to captain in the First U.S. Infantry Regiment in December, 1800. Shortly after his inauguration in the spring of 1801, President Thomas Jefferson took on his old neighbor...

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Ambrose, Stephen. Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996. Ambrose’s highly readable biography provides a full picture of Lewis’s early life and a balanced treatment of his entire life.

Dillon, Richard. Meriwether Lewis. Rev. ed. Santa Cruz: Western Tanager Press, 1988. A full-length biography.

Lavender, David. The Way to the Western Sea: Lewis and Clark Across the Continent. 1988. Reprint. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001. Lavender’s study balances the two leaders but presents an almost novelistic text that is far more narrative than analytical.

Lewis, Meriwether, and William Clark. Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, with Related Documents: 1783-1854, edited by Donald D. Jackson. 2d ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978. A carefully and thoroughly edited collection of letters and documents.

Ronda, James P. Lewis and Clark Among the Indians. Rev. ed. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002. A specialist on Lewis and Clark, Ronda focuses on the positive relationships fostered by Lewis and the vital role the native peoples played in the expedition’s success.