As a leader of the Louisiana Purchase expedition, Meriwether Lewis wore many hats

"Did You Know That" columnist Curt Eriksmoen begins the story of Meriwether, Lewis, who was just 26 when President Thomas Jefferson tasked him with the journey through 8,000 miles of uncharted land.

An 1807 portrait of Meriwether Lewis by Charles Willson Peale.
Contributed / Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons
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FARGO — One of the most challenging, dangerous and significant multiyear expeditions ever assigned to a young man occurred in 1801. That happened when President Thomas Jefferson authorized Meriwether Lewis to lead an expedition of 45 people through 8,000 miles of uncharted land.

If things went reasonably well, the journey was expected to take close to three years to complete. Lewis was only 26 years old at that time, but he had already accomplished remarkable things for a person of such a young age. He became a skilled hunter at the age of 8, began managing a plantation while in his early teens and later served as a commissioned officer in the American militia, serving as a land surveyor and as quartermaster.

Not only did the leader of this expedition need to be exceptionally courageous, but he would also need to be knowledgeable about 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 subjects. As an added bonus, Lewis also had a history of communicating with Native Americans. On this expedition, Lewis would wear many hats.

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Meriwether Lewis was born Aug. 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 Capt. 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 area 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 white people in the area were fearful of the Cherokee people, but that was not the case with Lewis.


At about the age of 13, Lewis was sent back to Locust Hill to oversee the plantation and to get a proper education. When William Lewis died, his son inherited the plantation, but since he was very young at the time, “relatives held it in trust” until he was old enough to help its management.

While at Locust Hill, Lewis employed some of the best tutors in the area. One of his first was William Douglas, a Scottish pastor who earlier had taught Latin, Greek, and French to Jefferson, James Madison and James Monroe. Lewis also spent two years at the Albemarle Classical School where he was taught arithmetic, reading, writing, natural science and a little more Latin and Greek from Parson Matthew Maury, whose father had also been a tutor of Jefferson.

Lewis then received schooling for a short period of time from Dr. Charles Everitt, but when that proved unsatisfactory, he “transferred to receive tutoring from Reverend James Waddell in 1790.” Lewis planned to stay with Waddell for a couple of years, and then attend the College of William & Mary, but when John Marks, his stepfather, died in 1792, he requested that his mother and half-siblings return to Locust Hill and live with him. Lewis abandoned his plan to attend college and remained at Locust Hill to run the plantation.

Meanwhile, the new American republic was struggling to pay off the debt that occurred over 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 to mobilize to force a repeal of this tax, creating what has become known as the “Whiskey Rebellion.” Fearing that this movement could become a full-blown revolution, 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 enlisted with the 1st American Regiment.

Even though the potential revolt was quickly suppressed, Lewis remained with his regiment in Pennsylvania and, in August 1795, joined the forces of General "Mad" Anthony Wayne, who was put in charge of subduing the Native American tribes that “had been attacking settlers in the western outreaches of the country.”

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

One month earlier, Lewis’ friend Thomas Jefferson was elected president and would be sworn into office on March 1, 1801. In February, Jefferson invited Lewis to move to Washington and be his private secretary and assistant, and Lewis accepted. Jefferson soon developed a plan for exploring the western outreaches of the American continent. After Jefferson told Lewis about 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 there were some subjects in which he needed to enhance his expertise, so he provided Lewis with some tutors who were the most knowledgeable experts in their particular fields. “Jefferson sent Lewis to Philadelphia to study medicinal cures under Benjamin Rush, a noted physician who signed the Declaration of Independence along with Jefferson over 25 years earlier. “Rush taught Lewis about frontier illnesses and the performance of 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 tutorial assistance from American experts in astronomy, botany, natural history, mineralogy, zoology and paleontology.

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

After Jefferson purchased the territory of Louisiana on May 2, he formed the Corps of Discovery with Lewis as the leader. The goal of the corps, made up primarily of U.S. military personnel, was to explore the new territory, establish U.S. sovereignty over the Native American people along the Missouri River and eventually lay claim to the Pacific Northwest and Oregon Territory.

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

The boat went up the Ohio River on Oct. 26, 1803, and proceeded upstream to the Mississippi River. It stopped at St. Louis to pick up the rest of their supplies and the men attended the official ceremonies transferring Louisiana to the U.S.

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

We will continue the story of Meriwether Lewis next week.

Curt Eriksmoen has been writing a weekly history column for The Forum since 2004. He has taught at both the high school and college level and served as social studies coordinator for the North Dakota Department of Public Instruction for 13 years. He is the author of nine books and is know for inventing barroom team trivia in 1974. Reach him at or calling 701-793-8508.
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