Biographical Notes
Meriwether Lewis - 1774-1809

Meriwether Lewis was born on the eve of the American Revolution in Albemarle County in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. His great grandfather, Robert Lewis, a Welsh officer in the British Army, had arrived in the colonies in 1635 with a grant from the British King for 33,333 acres of land in the Virginia Colony. One of Robert's sons, Colonel Robert Lewis, was particularly successful and managed to leave large plantations to all nine of his children. One of those children, William Lewis, inherited 1,896 acres of land, slaves, and a fine house - Locust Hill. All of the Lewis family were well connected. One of William's uncles was a member of the King's Council and another married one of George Washington's sisters. Still another accompanied Thomas Jefferson on an expedition into the Northern Neck between the Potomac and Rappahannock Rivers. In 1769 William married his cousin, Lucy Meriwether. The Meriwether family was also Welsh, well connected, and land-rich with sizable holdings near Charlottesville. Lucy's father was a respected friend of Thomas Jefferson.

On August 18, 1774, Meriwether Lewis was born to William and Lucy. Meriwether had an older sister, Jane, and a younger brother, Reuben. In 1775, when war broke out, William served as commander of one of the first regiments raised in Virginia and later, after the unit was absorbed into the Continental Army, served with distinction as a lieutenant in the regular army. He died in November 1779 of pneumonia. Nicolas Lewis, Meriwether's uncle, became his guardian. In May 1780 Lucy married Captain John Marks and had two more children - John Hastings and Mary Garland. Among Lucy's many talents was an extensive knowledge of the medicinal properties of herbs and she passed this knowledge on to her son at a young age. In the early 1880s Meriwether accompanied his mother and stepfather to a new colony being developed on the frontier in Northeastern Georgia. They lived there for three or four years and Meriwether learned basic frontier skills. When he was about thirteen it was decided that he should begin receiving some formal education and he returned to Virginia to study with a succession of several private tutors.

Meriwether's stepfather died in 1791. The following year Lewis moved his mother and his siblings back to Locust Hill, set himself up as head of household, and took on the task of running a large plantation. He was eighteen years old. On May 11 of that same year, on the west coast of the North American continent, an American ship captain, Robert Gray, sailed into the estuary of a mighty river that he named for his ship - the Columbia. He also fixed the longitude and latitude of the mouth of the river and thus for the first time established the actual breadth of the North American continent. When word filtered back to Jefferson he urged the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia to sponsor an expedition to explore across the continent to the Columbia. On hearing of the proposed expedition, Meriwether volunteered to lead it, but was passed over in favor of a French botanist named Andre Michaux. Michaux started out in June 1793, but was discovered to be a secret agent of France and was immediately recalled.

In 1794 Alexander Hamilton levied a new excise tax on the production of whiskey and rebellion broke out in the frontier region as a result. The regular standing army was in the Ohio Territory fighting indians and so President George Washington called out the militia to deal with the Whiskey Rebellion. Meriwether Lewis enlisted as a private in the Virginia volunteers. His rank reflected his age, not his social status. He became friends with many of the junior officers and had an opportunity to witness first hand the rigors of a military campaign, albeit a campaign that did not see actual battle. When the rebellion leaders fled to Louisiana the militia was disbanded, but Lewis did not return to the plantation. Instead he was commissioned ensign in the Virginia militia and volunteered to remain in western Pennsylvania. He preferred life in the army to running a plantation and late in 1794 he transferred to the regular army as an ensign.