Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809)

Meriwether Lewis (1807)

by Charles Willson Peale

Peale's portrait of Lewis

Oil on canvas
Original size, 23 x 18¾ inches

Born on August 18, 1774, Meriwether Lewis literally grew up with the new republic. He was exactly eight months old when Paul Revere made the legendary ride that signalled the beginning of the War of Independence, and the birth of the new United States of America, which Lewis was to serve with distinction.

In January of 1793 the American Philosophical Society of Philadelphia accepted the proposal of one of its leading members, Thomas Jefferson, to send an overland expedition in search of the Northwest Passage, the fabled all-water route to the Pacific Ocean. Eighteen-year-old Meriwether Lewis eagerly volunteered to lead it, but his offer was rejected on account of his youth and inexperience. That expedition was soon aborted anyway.

When Lewis was 20 years old he answered President George Washington's plea for volunteers to quell the so-called Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. While on leave from the military in 1796, he was admitted to the Scribe of the Door to Virtue Lodge No. 44 of the Ancient Free and Accepted Masons in Albemarle County, Virginia, and received his masonic apron in January of 1797.

By age 26 he had risen to the rank of captain in the First U.S. Infantry Regiment. Late in the winter of 1801, 27-year-old Lewis was summoned by Thomas Jefferson, the newly-elected third president of the United States, to serve as his personal secretary and aide.

In January of 1803, Congress appropriated $2,500 to mount an official military expedition to the Northwest, and President Jefferson named Lewis as its commander.

On May 14, 1804, the "corps of volunteers for North West Discovery," as Captain Lewis titled the expeditionary force, embarked from its winter encampment across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, bound up the Missouri River toward the Pacific Ocean at the mouth of the Columbia River. Captain Lewis was three months shy of his 30th birthday.

The Cost of the Expedition?

On August 22, 1997, a new satellite, part of NASA's "Mission to Planet Earth," was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. On board were instruments to monitor pollution, the state of endangered-species habitats, soil resources, and the environmental impacts of energy pipelines.

Appropriately, it was named after Meriwether Lewis, who set out from Philadelphia on August 31, 1803, bound for the Northwest, with environmental and ecological studies as one of his missions.

Lewis, the satellite, was designed to last three years, but just four days after launch its thrusters misfired, and it went into a slow spin, its solar arrays unable to collect enough energy from the sun to charge its batteries. Within a month it destroyed itself upon re-entry into the earth's atmosphere.

At a total cost of $64.8 million, the Lewis mission was to have been a model for NASA's "faster, cheaper, better" space missions in the future.

The total cost of the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1803-06, including the value of the land grants awarded to the men, was $136,602.25 in 1806 dollars—a big-ticket item in a national budget of only $9 million.

This brings to mind the question, How many of today's U.S. dollars would be required to equal one 1805 dollar in purchasing power? Some economists reply that the question can't be answered meaningfully because we have no broad base of commodities within which comparisons can be made. Nonetheless, Robert R.Hunt, a leading student of the Lewis and Clark expedition, has made a stab at it:

"An 'impressionistic' comparison can be calculated," Hunt writes, "from tables published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), U.S. Department of Labor,Consumer Price Indexes (CPI). Applying the suggested formula for calculating Index changes, $861.50 on average in 1993 would be required for the "equivalent" of one dollar in 1805, measuring "average change in prices over time in a fixed market basket of goods and services" for all urban consumers (obviously quite distinct from frontier exchanges)."2 [Ed.— $136,602.25 multiplied by $861.50 equals $117,682,838.38.]

Early in November, 1806, Meriwether Lewis set out from St. Louis, bound for Washington, D.C., with a stop en route for a visit with his mother. On December 13th he arrived at Locust Hill, the 2,000-acre family plantation in Albemarle County, Virginia, among the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. In nearby Charlottesville on the 15th, about fifty of "the most respectable inhabitants of the country" gathered to welcome him home.1

A spokesman for the assembled citizens expressed their affection and congratulations, and welcomed him back "to civilized life."

"The difficult and dangerous enterprize which you have so successfully atchieved," the orator continued, "is pregnant with consequences."

We indulge not in the delusions of hope, nor the visions of fancy; when we behold in this expedition . . . the germ of extended civilization, science and liberty: when we behold the federative system, and the principles of representative democracy extending their genial influence and receiving in their parental embrace, nations still in the infancy of reason and government; and regions yet groaning under unviolated forests.

Lewis responded with appropriate modesty, sharing credit for the expedition's success with his "dear and interesting friend capt. Clark," and to the rest of the Corps of Discovery. Finally, he reassured his friends:

With you I trust, that the discoveries we have made, will not long remain unimproved; and that the same sentiment which dictated to our government, an investigation into the resources so liberally bestowed by nature in this fair portion of the globe, will prompt them to avail themselves of those resources, to promote the cause of liberty and the honour of America, and then to relieve distressed humanity, in whatever shape she may present herself.

According to the local newspaper in which the speeches were reported, "the company then sat down to an excellent dinner: many appropriate toasts were given, the social song went round; and they passed the evening in that spirit of festivity and mirth, which the joyful occasion, and the presence of their friend, safely returned from his perilous expedition, and in the bloom of health, inspired."

After two years, four months, and ten days, the Corps of Discovery returned triumphantly to St. Louis on September 23, 1806. He was thirty-two years old.

The following winter he was appointed governor of the Territory of Louisiana. While en route to Washington, D.C. Lewis died, probably by his own hand, at Grinder's Stand on the Natchez Trace in Tennessee, in the early morning hours of October 11, 1809. He was forever thirty-five.


1. Donald Jackson, Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition with Related Documents, 1783–1854, 2nd ed., 2 vols. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1978), 2:692-693.

2. Mr. Hunt's estimate was footnoted in "Hoofbeats & Nightmares: A Horse Chronicle of the Lewis and Clark Expedition," We Proceeded On, Vol.21, No. 1 (February 1995), p. 7.