Meriwether Lewis was born on August 18, 1774. He was young enough to be Thomas Jefferson’s son. Jefferson had no sons. Lewis lived with President Jefferson in the White House for more than two years before he began his immense journey through the American West. Lewis was born within sight of Monticello.
Lewis was a brilliant man, whose scientific observations were so acute and discerning that Jefferson said you could count on them as if you had seen these things yourself. He was a natural in the wilderness. He was an iron man–physically indomitable, courageous, persevering, seemingly impervious to mosquitos, hunger, disease, even a gunshot to his backside.
But Lewis was high strung, sometimes irritable, self-critical, even self-punishing, so devoted to the success of the mission that he said he measured his own worth–his own existence–with the outcome of his official travels.
Lewis committed suicide on October 11, 1809. He was just 35 years old. He had been back from his famous trek for just three years. He had severe re-entry issues. He was at odds with President Madison’s War Department. He had gone frustratingly silent. Even his patron Jefferson was unhappy with him. He was in some danger of being recalled as the Governor of Upper Louisiana, and he almost certainly would not have been re-appointed to that role. Nor had he written the three-volume account of his journey that he had promised the learned world in a very impressive, even pretentious, prospectus.
Some people believe that Lewis was murdered, in spite of the fact that no evidence of murder has ever been nailed down.
On his birthday in 1805, on August 18, out near the source of the Missouri River, Lewis wrote (or later wrote) a melancholy account of how intellectually unprepared he felt for the Jeffersonian and Enlightenment demands of the mission.
Here is part of that letter. If you want to understand Meriwether Lewis, you must try to come to terms with this document:
This day I completed my thirty first year, and conceived that I had in all human probability now existed about half the period which I am to remain in this Sublunary world. I reflected that I had as yet done but little, very little indeed, to further the hapiness of the human race, or to advance the information of the succeeding generation. I viewed with regret the many hours I have spent in indolence, and now soarly feel the want of that information which those hours would have given me had they been judiciously expended. but since they are past and cannot be recalled, I dash from me the gloomy thought and resolved in future, to redouble my exertions and at least indeavour to promote those two primary objects of human existance, by giving them the aid of that portion of talents which nature and fortune have bestoed on me; or in future, to live for mankind, as I have heretofore lived for myself.–
This was not a happy go lucky man.