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Lewis, Meriwether

On Aug. 18, 1813, Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to Paul Allen, of Philadelphia, gave the following review of the life and work of this distinguished explorer:

Sir,—In compliance with the request conveyed in your letter of May 25, I have endeavored to obtain, from the relations and friends of the late Governor Lewis, information of such incidents of his life as might be not unacceptable to those who may read the narrative of his Western discoveries. The ordinary occurrences of a private life, and those, also, while acting in a subordinate sphere in the army in a time of peace, are not deemed sufficiently interesting to occupy the public attention; but a general account of his parentage, with such smaller incidents as marked his early character, are briefly noted, and to these are added, as being peculiarly within my own knowledge, whatever related to the public mission, of which an account is now to be published. The result of my inquiries and recollections shall now be offered, to be enlarged or abridged as you may think best, or otherwise to be used with the materials you may have collected from other sources.

Meriwether Lewis, late governor of Louisiana, was born on Aug. 18, 1774, near the town of Charlottesville, in the county of Albemarle, in Virginia, of one of the distinguished families of that State. John Lewis, one of his father's uncles, was a member of the King's council before the Revolution. Another of them, Fielding Lewis, married a sister of General Washington. His father, William Lewis, was the youngest of five sons of Col. Robert Lewis, of Albemarle, the fourth of whom, Charles, was one of the early patriots who stepped forward in the commencement of the Revolution, and commanded one of the regiments first raised in Virginia, and placed on Continental establishment. Happily situated at home, with a wife and young family, and a fortune placing him at ease, he left all to aid in the liberation of his country from foreign usurpations, then first unmasking their ultimate end and aim. His good sense, integrity, bravery, enterprise, and remarkable bodily powers marked him as an officer of great [362] promise; but he unfortunately died early in the Revolution. Nicholas Lewis, the second of his father's brothers, commanded a regiment of militia in the successful expedition of 1776 against the Cherokee Indians, who, seduced by the agents of the

Meriwether Lewis

British government to take up the hatchet against us, had committed great havoc on our Southern frontier by murdering and scalping helpless women and children, according to their cruel and cowardly principles of warfare. The chastisement they then received closed the history of their wars, and prepared them for receiving the elements of civilization, which, zealously inculcated by the present government of the United States, have rendered them an industrious, peaceable, and happy people. This member of the family of Lewises, whose bravery was so usefully proved on this occasion, was endeared to all who knew him by his inflexible probity, courteous disposition, benevolent heart, and engaging modesty and manners. He was the umpire of all the private differences of his county—selected always by both parties. He was also the guardian of Meriwether Lewis, of whom we are now to speak, and who had lost his father at an early age. He continued some years under the fostering care of a tender mother of the respectable family of Meriwethers, of the same county, and was remarkable even in infancy for enterprise, boldness, and discretion. When only eight years of age he habitually went out, in the dead of night, alone with his dogs, into the forest, to hunt the raccoon and opossum, which, seeking their food in the night, can then only be taken. In this exercise, no season or circumstance could obstruct his purpose—plunging through the winter's snows and frozen streams in pursuit of his object.

At thirteen he was put to the Latin school, and continued at that until eighteen, when he returned to his mother, and entered on the cares of his farm, having, as well as a younger brother, been left by his father with a competency for all the correct and comfortable purposes of temperate life. His talent for observation, which had led him to an accurate knowledge of the plants and animals of his own country, would have distinguished him as a farmer; but, at the age of twenty, yielding to the ardor of youth and a passion for more dazzling pursuits, he engaged as a volunteer in the body of militia which were called out by General Washington on occasion of the discontents produced by the excise taxes in the western parts of the United States, and from that situation he was removed to the regular service as a lieutenant in the line. At twenty-three he was promoted to a captaincy; and, always attracting the first attention where punctuality and fidelity were requisite, he was appointed paymaster to his regiment. About this time a circumstance occurred which, leading to the transaction which is the subject of this book, will justify a recurrence to its original idea. While I resided in Paris, John Ledyard, of Connecticut, arrived there, well known in the United States for energy of body and mind. He had accompanied Captain Cook on his voyage to the Pacific Ocean, and distinguished himself on that voyage by his intrepidity. Being of a roaming disposition, he was now panting for some new enterprise. His immediate object at Paris was to engage a mercantile company in the fur-trade of the western coast of America, in which, however, he failed. I then proposed to him to go by land to Kamchatka, cross in some of the Russian vessels to Nootka Sound, fall [363] down into the latitude of the Missouri, and penetrate to, and through, that to the United States. He eagerly seized the idea, and only asked to be assured of the permission of the Russian government. I interested in obtaining that M. de Simoulin, minister plenipotentiary of the Empress at Paris, but more especially the Baron de Grimm, minister plenipotentiary of Saxe-Gotha, her more special agent and correspondent there in matters not immediately diplomatic. Her permission was obtained, and an assurance of protection while the course of the voyage should be through her territories. Ledyard set out from Paris, and arrived at St. Petersburg after the Empress had left that place to pass the winter, I think, at Moscow.

His finances not permitting him to make unnecessary stay at St. Petersburg, he left it with a passport from one of the ministers, and at 200 miles from Kamchatka was obliged to take up his winter-quarters. He was preparing, in the spring, to resume his journey, when he was arrested by an officer of the Empress, who by this time had changed her mind, and forbidden his proceeding. He was put into a close carriage, and conveyed day and night, without ever stopping, till they reached Poland, where he was set down and left to himself. The fatigue of this journey broke down his constitution; and when he returned to Paris his bodily strength was much impaired. His mind, however, remained firm; and he after this undertook the journey to Egypt. I received a letter from him, full of sanguine hopes, dated at Cairo, Nov. 15, 1788, the day before he was to set out for the head of the Nile, on which day, however, he ended his career and life; and thus failed the first attempt to explore the western part of our northern continent.

In 1792 I proposed to the American Philosophical Society that we should set on foot a subscription to engage some competent person to explore that region in the opposite direction; that is, by ascending the Missouri, crossing the Stony Mountains, and descending the nearest river to the Pacific. Captain Lewis, being then stationed at Charlottesville, on the recruiting service, warmly solicited me to obtain for him the execution of that object. I told him it was proposed that the person engaged should be attended by a single companion only, to avoid exciting alarm among the Indians. This did not deter him; but Mr. Andre Michaux, a professed botanist, author of the Flora Boreali-Americana, and of the Histoire des Chesnes d'amerique, offering his services, they were accepted. He received his instructions; and, when he had reached Kentucky in the prosecution of his journey, he was overtaken by an order from the minister of France, then at Philadelphia, to relinquish the expedition. and to pursue elsewhere the botanical inquiries on which he was employed by that government; and thus failed the second attempt for exploring that region.

In 1803 the act for establishing trading-houses with the Indian tribes being about to expire, some modifications of it were recommended to Congress by a confidential message of Jan. 18, and an extension of its views to the Indians on the Missouri. In order to prepare the way, the message proposed the sending an exploring party to trace the Missouri to its source; to cross the highlands, and follow the best water communication which offered itself from thence to the Pacific Ocean. Congress approved the proposition, and voted a sum of money for carrying it into execution. Captain Lewis, who had then been nearly two years with me as private secretary, immediately renewed his solicitations to have the direction of the party. I had now had opportunities of knowing him intimately. Of courage undaunted; possessing a firmness and perseverance of purpose which nothing but impossibilities could divert from its direction; careful as a father of those committed to his charge, yet steady in the maintenance of order and discipline; intimate with the Indian character, customs, and principles; habituated to the hunting life; guarded, by exact observation of the vegetables and animals of his own country, against losing time in the description of objects already possessed; honest, disinterested, liberal, of sound understanding, and a fidelity to truth so scrupulous that whatever he should report would be as certain as if [364] seen by ourselves—with all these qualifications, as if selected and implanted by nature in one body for this express purpose, I could have no hesitation in confiding the enterprise to him. To fill up the measure desired, he wanted nothing but a greater familiarity with the technical language of the natural sciences and readiness in the astronomical observations necessary for the geography of his route. To acquire these he repaired immediately to Philadelphia, and placed himself under the tutorage of the distinguished professors of that place, who, with a zeal and emulation enkindled by an ardent devotion to science, communicated to him freely the information requisite for the purposes of the journey. While attending, too, at Lancaster, the fabrication of the arms with which he chose that his men should be provided, he had the benefit of daily communication with Mr. Andrew Ellicot, whose experience in astronomical observation, and practice of it in the woods, enabled him to apprise Captain Lewis of the wants and difficulties he would encounter, and of the substitutes and resources offered by a woodland and uninhabited country.

Deeming it necessary he should have some person with him of known competence to the direction of the enterprise, in the event of accident to himself, he proposed William Clarke, brother of Gen. George Rogers Clarke, who was approved, and, with that view, received a commission of captain.

In April, 1803, a draft of his instructions were sent to Captain Lewis, and on June 20 they were signed in the following form:

To Meriwether Lewis, Esq., captain of the 1st Regiment of Infantry of the United States of America:

Your situation as secretary of the President of the United States has made you acquainted with the objects of my confidential message of Jan. 18, 1803, to the legislature; you have seen the act they passed, which, though expressed in general terms, was meant to sanction those objects, and you are appointed to carry them into execution.

Instruments for ascertaining, by celestial observations, the geography of the country, through which you will pass have been already provided. Light articles for barter and presents among the Indians, arms for your attendants, say for from ten to twelve men, boats, tents, and other travelling apparatus, with ammunition, medicine, surgical instruments, and provisions, you will have prepared, with such aids as the Secretary at War can yield in his department; and from him also you will receive authority to engage among our troops, by voluntary agreement, the number of attendants above mentioned, over whom you, as their commanding officer, are invested with all the powers the laws give in such a case.

As your movements while within the limits of the United States will be better directed by occasional communications, adapted to circumstances as they rise, they will not be noticed here. What follows will respect your proceedings after your departure from the United States.

Your mission has been communicated to the ministers here from France, Spain, and Great Britain, and through them to their governments, and such assurances given them as to its objects as we trust will satisfy them. The country of Louisiana having been ceded by Spain to France. the passport you have from the minister of France, the representative of the present sovereign of the country, will be a protection with all its subjects; and that from the minister of England will entitle you to the friendly aid of any traders of that allegiance with whom you happen to meet.

The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri River, and such principal streams of it as, by its course and communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean, whether the Columbia, Oregon, Colorado, or any other river, may offer the most direct and practicable water communication across the continent for the purposes of commerce.

Beginning at the mouth of the Missouri, you will take observations of latitude and longitude at all remarkable points on the river, and especially at the mouths of rivers, at rapids, at islands, and other places and objects distinguished by such natural marks and characters, of a durable kind, as that they may with certainty be recognized hereafter. The courses of the river between these points [365] of observation may be supplied by the compass, the log-line, and by time, corrected by the observations themselves. The variations of the needle, too, in different places should be noticed.

The interesting points of the portage between the heads of the Missouri and of the water offering the best communication with the Pacific Ocean, should also be fixed by observation, and the course of that water to the ocean in the same manner as that of the Missouri.

Your observations are to be taken with great pains and accuracy; to be entered distinctly and intelligibly for others as well as yourself; to comprehend all the elements necessary, with the aid of the usual tables, to fix the latitude and longitude of the places at which they were taken; and are to be rendered to the War Office, for the purpose of having the calculations made concurrently by proper persons within the United States. Several copies of these, as well as of your other notes, should be made at leisure times, and put into the care of the most trustworthy of your attendants to guard, by multiplying them, against the accidental losses to which they will be exposed. A further guard would be that one of these copies be on the cuticular membranes of the paper-birch, as less liable to injury from damp than common paper.

The commerce which may be carried on with the people inhabiting the line you will pursue renders a knowledge of those people important. You will therefore endeavor to make yourself acquainted, as far as a diligent pursuit of your journey shall admit, with the names of the nations and their numbers;

The extent and limits of their possessions;

Their relations with other tribes or nations;

Their language, traditions, monuments;

Their ordinary occupations in agriculture, fishing, hunting, war, arts, and the implements for these;

Their food, clothing, and domestic accommodations;

The diseases prevalent among them, and the remedies they use;

Moral and physical circumstances which distinguish them from the tribes we know;

Peculiarities in their laws, customs, and dispositions;

And articles of commerce they may need or furnish, and to what extent.

And, considering the interest which every nation has in extending and strengthening the authority of reason and justice among the people around them, it will be useful to acquire what knowledge you can of the state of morality, religion, and information among them, as it may better enable those who may endeavor to civilize and instruct them to adapt their measures to the existing notions and practices of those on whom they are to operate.

Other objects worthy of notice will be—

The soil and face of the country, its growth and vegetable productions, especially those not of the United States;

The animals of the country generally, and especially those not known in the United States;

The remains and accounts of any which may be deemed rare or extinct; The mineral productions of every kind, but more particularly metals, limestone, pit-coal, and saltpetre, salines and mineral waters, noting the temperature of the last, and such circumstances as may indicate their character;

Volcanic appearances;

Climate as characterized by the thermometer, by the proportion of rainy, cloudy, and clear days; by lightning, hail, snow, ice; by the access and recess of frost; by the winds prevailing at different seasons; the dates at which particular plants put forth or lose their flower or leaf; times of appearance of particular birds, reptiles, or insects.

Although your route will be along the channel of the Missouri, yet you will endeavor to inform yourself, by inquiry, of the character and extent of the country watered by its branches, and especially on its southern side. The North River, or Rio Bravo, which runs into the Gulf of Mexico, and the North River, or Rio Colorado, which runs into the Gulf of California, are understood to be the principal streams heading opposite to the waters of the Missouri, and running southwardly. [366] Whether the dividing-grounds between the Missouri and them are mountains or flat lands, what are their distance from the Missouri, the character of the intermediate country, and the people inhabiting it, are worthy of particular inquiry. The northern waters of the Missouri are less to be inquired after, because they have been ascertained to a considerable degree, and are still in a course of ascertainment by English traders and travellers; but, if you can learn anything certain of the most northern source of the Mississippi, and of its position relatively to the Lake of the Woods, it will be interesting to us. Some account, too, of the path of the Canadian traders from the Mississippi, at the mouth of the Ouisconsing to where it strikes the Missouri, and of the soil and rivers in its course, is desirable.

In all your intercourse with the natives, treat them in the most friendly and conciliatory manner which their own conduct will admit; allay all jealousies as to the object of your journey; satisfy them of its innocence; make them acquainted with the position, extent, character, peaceable and commercial dispositions of the United States, of our wish to be neighborly, friendly, and useful to them, and of our disposition to a commercial intercourse with them; confer with them on the points most convenient as mutual emporiums and the articles of most desirable interchange for them and us. If a few of their influential chiefs, within practicable distance, wish to visit us, arrange such a visit with them, and furnish them with authority to call on our officers on their entering the United States, to have them conveyed to this place at the public expense. If any of them should wish to have some of their young people brought up with us, and taught such arts as may be useful to them, we will receive, instruct, and take care of them. Such a mission, whether of influential chiefs or of young people, would give some security to your own party. Carry with you some matter of the kine-pox, inform those of them with whom you may be of its efficacy as a preservative from the small-pox, and instruct and encourage them in the use of it. This may be especially done wherever you winter.

As it is impossible for us to foresee in what manner you will be received by those people, whether with hospitality or hostility, so is it impossible to prescribe the exact degree of perseverance with which you are to pursue your journey. We value too much the lives of citizens to offer them to probable destruction. Your numbers will be sufficient to secure you against the unauthorized opposition of individuals or of small parties; but, if a superior force, authorized or not authorized by a nation, should be arrayed against your further passage, and inflexibly determined to arrest it, you must decline its further pursuit and return. In the loss of yourselves we should lose also the information you will have acquired. By returning safely with that, you may enable us to renew the essay with bettercalculated means. To your own discretion, therefore, must be left the degree of danger you may risk and the point at which you should decline, only saying, we wish you to err on the side of your safety, and to bring back your party safe. even if it be with less information.

As far up the Missouri as the white settlements extend, an intercourse will probably be found to exist between them and the Spanish posts of St. Louis opposite Cahokia, or St. Genevieve opposite Kaskaskia. From still farther up the river the traders may furnish a conveyance for letters. Beyond that you may perhaps be able to engage Indians to bring letters for the government to Cahokia or Kaskaskia, on promising that they shall there receive such special compensation as you shall have stipulated with them. Avail yourself of these means to communicate to us, at seasonable intervals, a copy of your journal, notes, and observations of every kind, putting into cipher whatever might do injury if betrayed.

Should you reach the Pacific Ocean. inform yourself of the circumstances which may decide whether the furs of those parts may not be collected as advantageously at the head of the Missouri (convenient as is supposed to the waters of the Colorado and Oregon or Columbia) as at Nootka Sound, or any other point of that coast: and that trade be consequently conducted through the Missouri and United States more beneficially than by the circumnavigation now practised. [367]

On your arrival on that coast, endeavor to learn if there be any port within your reach frequented by the sea vessels of any nation, and to send two of your trusty people back by sea, in such way as shall appear practicable, with a copy of your notes; and should you be of opinion that the return of your party by the way they went will be imminently dangerous, then ship the whole, and return by sea, by the way either of Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope, as you shall be able. As you will be without money, clothes, or provisions, you must endeavor to use the credit of the United States to obtain them, for which purpose open letters of credit shall be furnished you, authorizing you to draw on the executive of the United States, or any of its officers, in any part of the world, on which drafts can be disposed of, and to apply with our recommendations to the consuls, agents, merchants, or citizens of any nation with which we have intercourse, assuring them, in our name, that any aids they may furnish you shall be honorably repaid, and on demand. Our consuls, Thomas Hewes, at Batavia, in Java, William Buchanan, in the Isles of France and Bourbon, and John Elmslie, at the Cape of Good Hope, will be able to supply your necessities by drafts on us.

Should you find it safe to return by the way you go, after sending two of your party round by sea, or with your whole party, if no conveyance by sea can be found, do so, making such observations on your return as may serve to supply, correct, or confirm those made on your outward journey.

On re-entering the United States and reaching a place of safety, discharge any of your attendants who may desire and deserve it, procuring for them immediate payment of all arrears of pay and clothing which may have incurred since their departure, and assure them that they shall be recommended to the liberality of the legislature for the grant of a soldier's portion of land each, as proposed in my message to Congress, and repair yourself, with your papers, to the seat of government.

To provide, on the accident of your death, against anarchy, dispersion, and the consequent danger to your party, and total failure of the enterprise, you are hereby authorized, by any instrument signed and written in your own hand, to name the person among them who shall succeed to the command on your decease, and by like instruments to change the nomination, from time to time, as further experience of the characters accompanying you shall point out superior fitness; and all the powers and authorities given to yourself are, in the event of your death, transferred to, and vested in, the successor so named, and further power to him and his successors, in like manner to name each his successor, who, on the death of his predecessor, shall be invested with all the powers and authorities given to yourself.

Given under my hand at the city of Washington, this twentieth day of June, 1803.
Thomas Jefferson,
President of the United States of America.

While these things were going on here, the country of Louisiana, lately ceded by Spain to France, had been the subject of negotiation at Paris between us and this last power, and had actually been transferred to us by treaties executed at Paris on April 30. This information, received about the first day of July, increased infinitely the interest we felt in the expedition, and lessened the apprehensions of interruption from other powers. Everything in this quarter being now prepared, Captain Lewis left Washington on July 5, 1803, and proceeded to Pittsburg, where other articles had been ordered to be provided for him. The men, too, were to be selected from the military stations on the Ohio. Delays of preparation, difficulties of navigation down the Ohio, and other untoward obstructions, retarded his arrival at Cahokia until the season was so far advanced as to render it prudent to suspend his entering the Missouri before the ice should break up in the succeeding spring.

From this time his journal, now published, will give the history of his journey to and from the Pacific Ocean, until his return to St. Louis on Sept. 23, 1806. Never did a similar event excite more joy through the United States. The humblest of its citizens had taken a lively interest in the issue of this journey, and looked forward with impatience for [368] the information it would furnish. Their anxieties, too, for the safety of the corps had been kept in a state of excitement by lugubrious rumors, circulated from time to time on uncertain authorities, and uncontradicted by letters or other direct information, from the time they had left the Mandan towns, on their ascent up the river in April of the preceding year, 1805, until their actual return to St. Louis.

It was in the middle of February, 1807, before Captain Lewis, with his companion, Captain Clarke, reached the city of Washington, where Congress was then in session. That body granted the two chiefs and their followers the donation of lands which they had been encouraged to expect in reward of their toil and dangers. Captain Lewis was soon afterwards appointed governor of Louisiana, and Captain Clarke a general of its militia, and agent of the United States for Indian affairs in that department.

A considerable time intervened before the governor's arrival at St. Louis. He found the territory distracted by feuds and contentions among the officers of the government, and the people themselves divided by these into factions and parties. He determined at once to take no side with either, but to use every endeavor to conciliate and harmonize them. The evenhanded justice he administered to all soon established a respect for his person and authority; and perseverance and time wore down animosities, and reunited the citizens again into one family.

Governor Lewis had, from early life, been subject to hypochondriac affections. It was a constitutional disposition in all the nearer branches of the family of his name, and was more immediately inherited by him from his father. They had not, however, been so strong as to give uneasiness to his family. While he lived with me in Washington, I observed at times sensible depressions of mind; but, knowing their constitutional source, 1 estimated their course by what I had seen in the family. During his Western expedition the constant exertion which that required of all the faculties of body and mind suspended these distressing affections; but, after his establishment at St. Louis in sedentary occupations, they returned upon him with redoubled vigor, and began seriously to alarm his friends. He was in a paroxysm of one of these when his affairs rendered it necessary for him to go to Washington. He proceeded to the Chickasaw Bluffs, where he arrived on Sept. 16, 1809, with a view of continuing his journey thence by water. Mr. Neely, agent of the United States with the Chickasaw Indians, arriving there two days after, found him extremely indisposed, and betraying at times some symptoms of a derangement of mind. The rumors of a war with England, and apprehensions that he might lose the papers he was bringing on, among which were the vouchers of his public accounts and the journals and papers of his Western expedition, induced him here to change his mind, and to take his course by land through the Chickasaw country. Although he appeared somewhat relieved, Mr. Neely kindly determined to accompany and watch over him. Unfortunately, at their encampment, after having passed the Tennessee one day's journey, they lost two horses, which obliging Mr. Neely to halt for their recovery, the governor proceeded, under a promise to wait for him at the house of the first white inhabitant on his road. He stopped at the house of a Mr. Grinder, who not being at home, his wife, alarmed at the symptoms of derangement she discovered, gave him up the house, and retired to rest herself in an out-house, the governor's and Neely's servants lodging in another. About three o'clock in the night he did the deed which plunged his friends into affliction and deprived his country of one of her most valued citizens, whose valor and intelligence would have been now employed in avenging the wrongs of his country, and in emulating by land the splendid deeds which have honored her arms on the ocean. It lost, too, to the nation the benefit of receiving from his own hand the narrative now offered them of his sufferings and successes, in endeavoring to extend for them the boundaries of science, and to present to their knowledge that vast and fertile country which their sons are destined to fill with arts, with science, with freedom and happiness. [369]

To this melancholy close of the life of one whom posterity will declare not to have lived in vain I have only to add that all the facts I have stated are either known to myself or communicated by his family or others, for whose truth I have no hesitation to make myself responsible; and I conclude with tendering you the assurances of my respect and consideration.

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