Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) was an American explorer, was born near Charlottesville, Virginia, on the 18th of August 1774. In 1794 he volunteered with the Virginia troops called out to suppress the"Whisky Insurrection,"was commissioned as ensign in the regular United States army in 1795, served with distinction under General Anthony Wayne in the campaigns against the Indians, and attained the rank of captain in 1797. From 1801 to 1803 he was the private secretary of President Jefferson. On the 18th of January 1803 Jefferson sent a confidential message to Congress urging the development of trade with the Indians of the Missouri Valley and recommending that an exploring party be sent into this region, notwithstanding the fact that it was then held by Spain and owned by France.
Congress appropriated funds for the expedition, and the president instructed Lewis to proceed to the head-waters of the Missouri river and thence across the mountains to the Pacific Ocean. With Jefferson's consent Lewis chose as a companion Lieut. William Clark, an old friend and army comrade. The preparations were made under the orders of the War Department, and, until the news arrived that France had sold Louisiana to the United States, they were conducted in secrecy. Lewis spent some time in Philadelphia, gaining additional knowledge of the natural sciences and learning the use of instruments for determining positions; and late in 1803 he and Clark, with twenty-nine men from the army, went into winter quarters near St Louis, where the men were subjected to rigid training.
On the 14th of May 1804 the party, with sixteen additional members, who, however, were to go only a part of the way, started up the Missouri river in three boats, and by the 2nd of November had made the difficult ascent of the stream as far as 47° 21' N. lat., near the site of the present Bismarck, North Dakota, where, among the Mandan Indians, they passed the second winter. Early in April 1805 the ascent of the Missouri was continued as far as the three forks of the river, which were named the Jefferson, the Gallatin and the Madison. The Jefferson was then followed to its source in the south-western part of what is now the state of Montana. Procuring a guide and horses from the Shoshone Indians, the party pushed westward through the Rocky Mountains in September, and on the 7th of October embarked in canoes on a tributary of the Columbia river, the mouth of which they reached on the 15th of November.
They had travelled upwards of 4000 m. from their starting-point, had encountered various Indian tribes never before seen by whites, had made valuable scientific collections and observations, and were the first explorers to reach the Pacific by crossing the continent north of Mexico. After spending the winter on the Pacific coast they started on the 23rd of March 1806 on their return journey, and, after crossing the divide, Lewis with one party explored Maria's river, and Clark with another the Yellowstone. On the 12th of August the two explorers reunited near the junction of the Yellowstone and the Missouri, and on the 23rd of September reached St Louis. In spite of exposure, hardship and peril only one member of the party died, and only one deserted.
No later feat of exploration, perhaps, in any quarter of the globe has exceeded this in romantic interest. The expedition was commemorated by the Lewis and Clark Centennial Exposition at Portland, Oregon, in 1905. The leaders and men of the exploring party were rewarded with liberal grants of land from the public domain, Lewis receiving 1500 acres; and in March 1807 Lewis was made governor of the northern part of the territory obtained from France in 1803, which had been organized as the Louisiana Territory. He performed the duties of this office with great efficiency, but it is said that in the unwonted quiet of his new duties, his mind, always subject to melancholy, became unbalanced, and that while on his way to Washington he committed suicide about 60 m. south-west of Nashville, Tennessee, on the 11th of October 1809. It is not definitely known, however, whether he actually committed suicide or was murdered.
Bibliography. — Jefferson's Message from the President of the United States, Communicating Discoveries made in Exploring the Missouri, Red River and Washita by Captains Lewis and Clark, Dr Sibley and Mr Dunbar (Washington, 1806, and subsequent editions) is the earliest account, containing the reports sent back by the ex- plorers in the winter of 1804-1805. Patrick Gass's Journal of the Voyages and Travels of a Corps of Discovery under the Command of Capt. Lewis and Capt. Clark (Pittsburg, 1807) is the account of a sergeant in the party. Biddle and Allen's History of the Expedition under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark (2 vols., Philadelphia, 1814) is a condensation of the original journals. There are numerous reprints of this work, the best being that of Elliott Coues (4 vols., New York, 1893), which contains additions from the original manuscripts and a new chapter, in the style of Biddle, inserted as though a part of the original text. As a final authority consult R. G. Thwaites (ed.), The Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (8 vols., New York, 1904-1905), containing all the known literary records of the expedition. For popular accounts see W. R. Lighton, Lewis and Clark (Boston, 1901); O. D. Wheeler, The Trail of Lewis and Clark (2 vols., New York, 1904); and Noah Brooks (ed.), First across the Continent: Expedition of Lewis and Clark (New York, 1901).
1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 16
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