We were now about to penetrate a country at least two thousand miles in width, on which the foot of civilized man had never trodden; the good or evil it had in store for us was for experiment yet to determine, and these little vessells contained every article by which we were to expect to subsist or defend ourselves.
Meriwether Lewis, April 7, 1805,
Meriwether Lewis. The brilliant, mercurial Lewis was born within sight of Monticello and in a sense he never got out from under the shadow of the great man who was his patron. Lewis was a regimental paymaster in the U.S. Army when Thomas Jefferson asked him to become his private correspondence secretary in the spring of 1801. Jefferson groomed Lewis in the White House, sent him to Philadelphia for a short course in the scientific enlightenment, then sent him into the heart of America to explore the Missouri River to its source, cross the “shining mountains,” and descend to the sea by way of the Snake and Columbia Rivers. Lewis (1774-1809) led the most successful land reconnaissance mission in American history. His co-captain William Clark managed the day to day work of the expedition, while Lewis, a loner, a melancholic, and a romantic, tended to spend his time on shore with his rifle, his notebooks, and his Newfoundland dog Seaman.
After the expedition returned safely to St. Louis (one white man dead of natural causes, two Blackfeet killed in self-defense), Lewis was feted and poeticized, when he should have been working on the three-volume report he promised Jefferson he would publish to vindicate the expedition and present his geographic and ethnographic findings to the enlightened world. Appointed governor of Upper Louisiana, Lewis as tardy in taking up his post and, once he was installed in St. Louis, he not only failed to solve the intractable problems of the fur trade frontier, but stopped working on his book and even stopped reporting to the War Department and former President Jefferson. Traveling to Charlottesville and Washington, D.C. in the early autumn of 1809 to explain himself to a frustrated War Department and to his great patron, Lewis killed himself at a rude frontier inn in the early morning hours of October 11, 1809. William Clark wrote, “I fear, O I fear the weight of his mind has overcome him.”
Clay’s personal notes
Lewis was my first Chautauqua character. He’s fascinating on so many fronts. When he was keeping his journal, he was easily the most interesting writer of the expedition, by magnitudes. He regarded himself as the Enlightenment’s personal emissary in the American West. His relationship with Clark is complex, nuanced, and ultimately tragic. His attitude towards American Indians is essential for any understanding of that vexed subject in American history. Sometimes I fantasize about having been a member of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, to have seen Montana in 1804 when hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of bison grazed the plains in a tense equilibrium with elk, grizzly bears, coyotes, wolves, pronghorn antelope, and prairie dogs. (Of course, I would almost certainly have been a copy clerk back in Philadelphia, and probably could not have held up for more than a few days given the physical demands of the journey).
When I read David Freeman Hawke’s Those Tremendous Mountains: The Story of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, I was shocked to learn that Lewis had committed suicide. I could not fathom why a man of such great accomplishment would choose to take his life. That’s the mystery I have been trying to solve ever since, in and out of character. He was a gifted writer and amateur scientist. He had led 30-some men (and one woman) on a 7,689-mile journey through the American wilderness, and brought all but one safely back again. He was a national hero. It is at least possible that he was murdered on October 11, 1809, but such evidence as we have all points to suicide. Lewis left no suicide note, so we are left to speculate about the spiral of his decline.
Lewis had a rich, somewhat odd, sense of humor, which I try to explore in my dramatic interpretations.