Captain Meriwether Lewis

Meriwether Lewis explorer Virginia Lewis and Clark trailCaptain Meriwether Lewis was born August 18, 1774, at the Lewis family estate, Locust Hill, in Albemarle County, Va. His family had many decorated soldiers, including his father, William Lewis, who served in the Continental Army as a lieutenant. His mother, Lucy Meriwether was his father’s cousin. She was a well-known herb doctor whose skills were sought and given throughout the region. The Lewis and Meriwether families were among the first to settle in the region and had a long-standing connection to the Jefferson family. Thomas Jefferson knew Meriwether Lewis for his entire life. (1)

When Captain Meriwether Lewis was five years old, his father died of pneumonia. About six months later, his mother, Lucy, married Captain John Marks, a retired Army officer. In 1880, the family moved to Georgia where they settled in Wilkes County and managed a 1000-acre plantation.  Meriwether’s half-brother, John Hastings Marks, was born in 1785, and his half-sister, Mary Garland Marks, was born in 1788. During his years in Georgia, Lewis learned to deal with a native Indian group. The Cherokee Indians lived near white settlers and tended to be antagonistic at times. Lewis, however, seemed to be supportive of the tribe. Georgia’s Governor, George Gilmer, claimed that the young man had “…inherited the energy, courage, activity, and good understanding of his mother.” (2)

Meriwether did not have any formal education until he was thirteen years old. But, from a young age, he liked being outdoors and was interested in becoming a good hunter. He was inquisitive about natural history and learned from his mother how to collect “wild herbs of high medicinal qualities.” (3) In 1787, his mother and stepfather sent him back to Virginia to obtain a formal education and manage Locust Hill. His uncle, Nicholas Lewis, became his guardian while he attended school with instruction given by Matthew Maury and Parson William Douglas; and later, by Dr. Charles Everitt, a physician, and Rev. James Waddell. When he finished his education with Rev. Waddell, he briefly considered attending the College of William and Mary but decided instead to stay in Albemarle County to maintain the Locust Hill estate. He later did attend ‘Liberty Hall,’ now known as Washington and Lee University. During his early years of managing Locust Hill, he increased its size, and “carefully observed all the flora and fauna that grew on his land.” In 1792, John Marks died, and Lewis’ mother and half siblings returned to Virginia. (4)

Two years later, Meriwether enlisted as one of the militiamen from Virginia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland that President Washington had organized to quell the Whiskey Rebellion. In August 1795, he joined the forces of General “Mad” Anthony Wayne at Fallen Timbers. He arrived just in time for the Treaty at Greenville that brought peace between the United States and several Indian tribes which had been attacking settlers. At that time, he served along another soldier, William Clark, and later served under Clark’s command in the Chosen Rifle Company. Also serving in the same company was William Preston, Jr. (Billy) from Botetourt County, Virginia. A lifetime friendship was created among the threesome, and legend implies that more than likely, both Meriwether Lewis & William Clark visited the Preston family at Greenfield while on leave and became familiar with Botetourt County and the Town of Fincastle. (5)

On December 5, 1800, Lewis was promoted to Captain and a year later he became the personal Secretary of the newly elected President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. During this post-military time and before the Expedition, Lewis & Clark stayed in touch with each other. A year later he was chosen to lead the Expedition, a role in which he excelled. The purpose of the expedition was to explore the territory of the Louisiana Purchase and establish trade with and sovereignty over the natives thereby claiming the Oregon Country and Pacific Northwest for the U.S. Through the expedition, Thomas Jefferson wanted to gain valuable information about the geographic nature of the region by collecting scientific data, knowledge about natives, and obtaining flora and fauna specimens. (6)

When the Corps of Discovery returned, on September 23, 1806, Lewis wrote a letter to Jefferson advising him of their travel plans, saying the route he proposed to travel to D.C. would be via “Cahokia, Vincennes, Louisville, the Crab Orchard, Abbington, Fincastle, Staunton, and Charlottesville.” National Park Service maps of Lewis & Clark trail routes from November 10, 1806 – December 28, 1806, show that Lewis followed the route he had proposed to take. He reached his mother’s home in Ivy, outside of Charlottesville, on December 13th. (See Maps/Lewis & Clark Travel Routes)

Thomas Jefferson appointed Captain Meriwether Lewis as the Governor of Upper Louisiana. Lewis returned to Washington in 1807 to attend festivities to celebrate the successful journey of two years and four months. In November of that same year, the thirty-three-year-old Meriwether had other interests, and with the support and companionship of his younger brother, Reuben, ventured from their home in Ivy to Fincastle to hopefully have a visit with Miss Letitia Breckinridge. Perhaps contrived by William Clark and other Fincastle friends? If so, the meeting did not go well. In fact, on behalf of Meriwether, someone had not done their homework, as Letitia left two days later with her father for Richmond where she was favored by the Rev. Robert Gamble and to whom she soon became married. In a letter to his mother after the trip, Reuben described Letitia as “Approved highly of the comely, accomplished, and beautiful Letitia; she was one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen, both as to form and features. She is a very sweet looking girl and I should like to have her as a sister.” (7)

Soon after returning from the expedition, Lewis had planned to distribute his celestial observations, plant and animal specimens and other scientific data to various scientists for their further evaluation and preservation. He had also planned to start organizing his journal and field notes for publication. Sadly, that never occurred. In October 1809, Meriwether Lewis was found dead of several gunshot wounds in Natchez Trace, Tennessee. He had been traveling to Washington, D.C. to see President Jefferson to discuss publishing his journals. He was thirty-five years old. (8)

 

References for the Meriwether Lewis Narrative

  1. “Biography of Meriwether Lewis,” University of Virginia (www@vcdh.virginia.edu)
  2. Ibid.
  3. (www.thefamouspeople.com)
  4. “Biography of Meriwether Lewis,” University of Virginia (www@vcdh.virginia.edu)
  5. The Visits of Lewis & Clark to Fincastle, Virginia, pg. 14
  6. “Biography of Meriwether Lewis”, University of Virginia (www@vcdh.virginia.edu)
  7. The Visits of Lewis & Clark to Fincastle, Virginia, pg. 54
  8. “Biography of Meriwether Lewis,” University of Virginia (www@vcdh.virginia.edu)