Meriwether Lewis

Explorer Meriwether Lewis, who joined William Clark to blaze a trail across the continent to the Pacific Ocean, was born on August 18, 1774, near Charlottesville, Virginia.

Lewis and Clark Map, with annotations…by Meriwether Lewis. Manuscript map on paper, 1803. Discovery and Exploration. Geography & Map Division

Lewis grew up roaming the woods of Albemarle County, near Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson. When Jefferson assumed the presidency in 1801, he selected Lewis as his private secretary. Two years later, Jefferson appointed Lewis to lead an exploration of the Louisiana Purchase—the vast territory that the U.S. acquired from France in 1803.

Known as the Corps of Discovery, the expedition set out from Camp River Dubois on May 14, 1804, heading northwest on the Missouri River. They hoped to discover a Northwest Passage—a water route to the Pacific Ocean. The expedition wintered in present-day North Dakota, traveled to what is now Montana, and reached the mouth of the Columbia River in present-day Washington before returning to St. Louis on September 23, 1806.

Lewis and Clark kept detailed journals of their three-year journey. Originally published in 1814, the journals generated excitement about the unknown region and diminished Easterners’ fears about venturing beyond the Mississippi.

Captains Lewis & Clark holding a council with the Indians. Illus. in: A journal of the voyages and travels of a corps of discovery: under the command of Capt. Lewis and Capt. Clarke of the Army of the United States […] Philadelphia: Printed for Matthew Carey, 1810. Prints & Photographs Division

For their part in the three-year adventure, Lewis and Clark each received 1,600 acres of public land. Popular acclaim led to Lewis’ assumption of the governorship of the Louisiana Territory and Clark’s appointment as governor of the Missouri Territory. Meriwether Lewis died of mysterious circumstances—either by suicide or murder—on October 11, 1809.

First Snow of the Season in the Foothills of the Little Belt Mountain, Lewis and Clark National Forest, Meagher County, Montana. Russell Lee, photographer, Aug. 1942. Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Color Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division

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