Meriwether Lewis is justly famous for leading the Corps of Discovery to the Pacific Ocean. But Lewis the man is harder to reach. He also had a mysterious death.
Meriwether Lewis is one of the most famous men in American history. He is best known for the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-1806, an extensive exploration of the far west that was ordered by President Thomas Jefferson. Lewis and his partner William Clark took scientific specimens, mapped rivers and mountains, and discovered new plant and animal species.
Lewis was well suited for these tasks, being intelligent, meticulous, and hard working. He faithfully recorded all that he saw, leaving a treasure trove of information for future historians of the American west.
Yet there was another side of Lewis that, until recently, was glossed over or dismissed. Meriwether Lewis was moody, introspective, and touchy. He may have suffered from clinical depression. Some members of the medical community feel he contracted syphilis from Native American women. Even in death, the famous icon conflicts with the real man. Some say he was murdered, but others insist he committed suicide.
Meriwether Lewis’s Early Life
Lewis was born in Albermarle County, Virginia on November 17, 1779. As a young boy he was fascinated by nature, and soon became an accomplished woodsman. He joined the U.S. Army in 1795 with the rank of lieutenant. At one stage of his military career he served with William Clark, and the two officers became fast friends.
The young soldier left the army behind to become an aide to President Thomas Jefferson in 1801. This was not a coincidence; Jefferson knew the Lewis family well. As time went on, the pair formed a kind of father-son relationship.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition
After the Louisiana Purchase, there was a need to find out more information on the vast new territory. Jefferson appointed Lewis as the head of an exploring expedition called the Corps of Discovery. Lewis suggested that his friend William Clark share the responsibilities as co-leader. President Jefferson agreed, and soon Clark “came aboard”.
The Lewis and Clark expedition was a major success. The Corps, numbering roughly forty men, eventually travelled to the Pacific coast and back, some 8,000 miles of raging rivers, vast plains, and towering mountains. On the outbound journey they went up the Missouri River, crossed the Bitteroot Mountains, then when down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean. They arrived safely back in the United States after an absence of over two years.
Lewis’s Personality and Health
Captain Lewis was often moody and introverted, easy to anger and ready to take offense. People didn’t take to him like they took to the genial and easy-going Clark. In Landon Y. Jones notes in his 2002 Time article that British trader Charles McKenzie had little taste for Lewis’s company. Mackenzie later wrote that Lewis “could not make himself agreeable to us.” Apparently Lewis made little attempt to hide his anti-British feelings.
He didn’t care for Native Americans, either. Lewis was aloof and dismissive about Sacagawea, wife of the French Canadian trapper who accompanied the expedition. The best he can muster in his journals is “the Indian woman.” Lewis’s occasional references to her are condescending. By contrast, Clark was friendly, called her “Janey,” and offered to educate her son at his own expense.
Lewis also seemed to be plagued by bad health, especially in the latter stages of the expedition. In fact, poor health would plague him for the rest of his short life. Some historians feel that there is circumstantial evidence to support that Lewis contracted syphilis.
Lewis’s Last Years
After his return from the great expedition Lewis was appointed Governor of Upper Louisiana Territory. He didn’t seem to find desk work congenial, and was constantly battling with Washington bureaucrats. In frustration he paid some government obligations out of his own pocket, but found Washington would not reimburse him.
His health was also on the decline. He grew sloppy of dress, and began to drink heavily. Governor Lewis finally decided to confront the bureaucrats in person. He also insisted to go via the Natchez Trace, a primitive track scarcely meriting the name of “road.” It was a foolish decision, given his poor health, but Lewis insisted
As the trip progressed, his behavior grew more erratic, more bizarre. According to some accounts there were two failed suicide attempts along the way. Finally, on October 11, 1809, Meriwether Lewis was found mortally wounded at an inn along the Trace. Witnesses told contradictory stories over the years, but one thing is certain: Lewis died of two gunshot wounds.
- Stephen Ambrose, Undoubted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West (Simon and Schuster, 1997)
- Landon Y. Jones, “Leading Men” Time Magazine, July 8, 2002