Of the great adventures of exploration in early America, it is perhaps the Lewis and Clark Expedition that is the most famous. Meriwether Lewis had been an adventurer from a young age. His thirst for scientific knowledge and sense of curiosity led him, along with William Clark, to become one of the most noted men of his generation. He would later become a politician and have a great influence over early Arkansas.
Lewis was born in Central Virginia in 1774, on the eve of the American Revolution. When he was five, his father died. His mother remarried, and they all moved to Georgia. Lewis had no formal schooling as a youngster, but he had an insatiable curiosity about the world. He read voraciously and explored the outdoors, becoming an expert on area flora and wildlife. He also developed a friendship with the neighboring Cherokee tribe.
At age 13, he was sent to live with his uncle in Virginia, who then arranged for him to study under a private tutor. At age 19 in 1793, he graduated from what is now Washington and Lee University in Virginia and joined the Virginia militia son afterward. He enlisted in the army in 1795 and earned a commission as an officer. During his time in the service, he met Lt. William Clark, and the two developed a life-long friendship. Lewis served honorably and left the army in 1801 as a captain as opportunity opened a new door for him.
In April 1801, less than a month after Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated as president, he brought Lewis into his administration as his personal secretary. Lewis proved himself as an able researcher and correspondent for Jefferson and impressed the president with his own expansive knowledge of science.
When the United States bought Louisiana from France in 1803, it doubled the size of the country overnight. The whole of the area from the mouth of the Mississippi River up to what is now Minnesota and across to the Rocky Mountains now belonged to America. Jefferson, always a scientist at heart, wanted to learn more about the region. He appointed Lewis to head a 50-man Corps of Discovery to explore the Missouri River Valley, learn about the environment and any potential trade routes, and to make contact with the different tribes in the area. Lewis, in turn, picked his old friend William Clark as his second-in-command.
The expedition that cemented Lewis’s place in history began in May 1804 with high hopes and a budget of $2,300. The Corps of Discovery was hardly the first group to travel to the Pacific. Native American tribes had populated the route for thousands of years, and European traders and explorers were already known to journey through the area.
The group spent the winter of 1804-1805 in North Dakota, where Lewis sent an early report to Jefferson about the tribes they had encountered. Early in 1805, they met Sacajawea, the 16-year-old wife of a French trapper, whom Lewis had assisted with the birth of her son. Sacajawea joined the expedition as an interpreter with the tribes and served as a diplomat, reassuring the tribes who were nervous about the large group of men traveling through their lands. By the summer and fall of 1805, they entered the Rocky Mountains and crossed the Continental Divide, braving steep mountain passes and deadly storms. They reached the Pacific Ocean in November and spent the winter on the banks of the Columbia River. The winter was a difficult one, as food was difficult to come by and disease spread in the ranks. But by reaching the Pacific, the United States could now reasonably claim a border on the Pacific Ocean, spreading America from sea to shining sea.
In Spring 1806, they began their journey back. They discovered the majestic Yellowstone Country and learned more about area tribes. They arrived back in Missouri a few months later, hailed for their successful voyage. For Lewis, this portended a great future, but that future would be cut short.