OTD Meriwether Lewis Was Born

August 12, 2022

August 18, 1774

On this day, American explorer Meriwether Lewis was born.
Lewis and his partner William Clark explored land no U.S. citizen had ever seen before.
Here's what to know about Lewis'
"short but brilliant life."

Meriwether Lewis

  • 1774: Born near Charlottesville, Virginia. He grew up exploring the woods near the home of then-future president Thomas Jefferson. Lewis and Jefferson were family friends, as they lived in the same “neighborhood.”
  • Lewis’ enjoyment of exploring the outdoors “led him to an accurate knowledge of the plants & animals of his own country,” Jefferson wrote after Lewis’ death.
  • At age 20, Lewis enlisted in the Virginia militia (to fight on behalf of the U.S. govt.) and later joined the Army.

Lewis & Clark

  • During Lewis’ time in the military, he befriended another soldier: William Clark.
  • 1801: Lewis served as Pres. Jefferson’s private secretary.
  • 1803: Pres. Jefferson asked Lewis to lead an expedition to the western land secured by the U.S. in the Louisiana Purchase.
  • Lewis began to prepare, studying astronomy, zoology, botany and medicine. The expedition, called the “Corps of Discovery,” began in 1804; Lewis chose Clark as his partner.

Corps of Discovery

  • Lewis & Clark travelled more than 8,000 miles by boat, horse and foot, mapping land that no U.S. citizen had ever seen before.
  • They also established contact with Native American nations.
  • Did you know? During their expedition, Lewis & Clark discovered many plant and animal species. Bitterroot, a pink flower and herb, is named Lewisia rediviva after Lewis.
  • Lewis also had a dog named Seaman, a Newfoundland who was his “constant companion” even in the Corps of Discovery!

"… the merit of having added to the world of science, and of liberty, a large portion of the immense unknown wilds of North America, is equally due to my dear and interesting friend capt. Clark, and to those who were the joint companions of our labours and difficulties in performing that task."

Lewis after his expedition. Along with Clark, several others served in the Corps of Discovery, incl. a Native American woman Sacagawea, and York — a man born into slavery to Clark’s family — who both contributed to the expedition’s success.

After Lewis and Clark’s journey of more than two years, Pres. Jefferson appointed Lewis as governor of Louisiana. For their contributions to the U.S., Lewis and Clark were also both awarded 1,600 acres of public land.

Three years after the expedition’s end, 35-year-old Lewis mysteriously died by gunshot. To this day, debate continues over whether his death was a suicide or a murder. Visit our source page to learn more.


Interesting Note about Lewis & Clark expedition:

The primary objective of Lewis and Clark with regard to Native peoples was to establish diplomatic relations on behalf of the new nation. This was a complex task, especially because of the cultural and linguistic differences between Euroamericans and tribal people. Some Indian leaders were adept politicians who had experience with Europeans; others had never met a non-Indian. All were enmeshed in complex trade and political networks. Some welcomed a potential alliance with the United States; others did not. Members of the Corps of Discovery understood few of the Native languages they encountered. To communicate, both the explorers and Indian people often relied on established rituals of frontier diplomacy, such as gift exchange, trading, and ceremonial pipe smoking. The pipe tomahawk that Lewis carried as an instrument of diplomacy was therefore as important as his compass and telescope. (Peabody Museum, Harvard)

Fun Fact: In School, Lewis was taught by the same person who tutored then future Presidents Madison, Jefferson and Monroe!

Also, Lewis was allowed to choose who he brought with him on the expedition of western America. “Lewis wrote Clark, informing him of the expedition and invited him to become his partner. Due to the inefficiency of the post at the time, Clark’s response was delayed. Lewis offered the position to another man, Moses Hooks, should Clark decline. A few days later, Clark’s elated acceptance of the offer arrived – Lewis rescinded the offer to Hooks. The expedition began on May 14, 1804, and returned in the late summer of 1806.”

“In 1809, as Lewis traveled form New Orleans to Washington to see Jefferson and apprise him of his progress on publishing the journals, Lewis died…”

Sources for Publishing:

Today in History — August 18 (Library of Congress)

Click HERE to read a letter from President Thomas Jefferson, the third U.S. president, in which he writes about Meriwether Lewis

Meriwether Lewis (Brittanica)

More on the Whiskey Rebellion (Mount Vernon)

Lewis and Clark: The Waterway to the West (Bureau of Reclamation)

Jefferson and Lewis (National Park Service)

by Jenna Lee,