Oregon Focus: People to Know: Captain Meriwether Lewis

About Captain Meriwether Lewis

painting of Meriwether Lewis in black jacket and white ascot
Captain Meriwether Lewis. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)
Meriwether Lewis was born in Virginia in 1774 not far from the home of Thomas Jefferson. Their families were good friends.
In 1794 he enlisted in an expedition to quell the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania, and then joined the regular army in 1797.
President Jefferson chose Lewis to be his private secretary in 1801. This led to his appointment as head of an expedition to explore the Louisiana Territory in 1803. Lewis then chose his friend Captain William Clark to co-lead the effort.
The expedition set out from St. Louis, Missouri in 1804 and arrived at the mouth of the Columbia River where they wintered in 1805. Their camp was called Fort Clatsop. It was located just south of Fort Astoria, and was chosen because hunting was good and the ocean was nearby for gathering salt. In fact, the site of the salt cairn can be seen today at Seaside -- a pile of rocks on which the fire was built. Ocean water was boiled constantly to evaporate the water and leave the salt.
map of Lewis and Clark Expedition
The route of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. (Image courtesy Florentine Films)
During the expedition, Lewis proved to be a resourceful and brave leader. Among the Native Americans, he was called "Long Knife." He reported that the Native Americans with whom he dealt and who he put in charge of various jobs such as supplies and horses, were very trustworthy and dependable.
Lewis had many exciting adventures on the expedition. One day he was returning to camp and killed a large buffalo. He was so intent on getting the meat that he forgot to reload.
Suddenly, he looked up to see a large brown bear less than 20 steps away. He escaped by leaping down an embankment into waist-deep water. He reloaded his gun after the bear departed and continued toward camp. On the way, he was surprised by a crouching, snarling wolf (probably wolverine). He shot the animal, which disappeared into a burrow. Then a short way farther on, he was charged by three bull bisons who came to within 100 yards of him and came to a sudden stop. Late that night, he rejoined his party. However, the climax to these adventures was topped off when he awoke the next morning to find a large rattlesnake coiled on the trunk of the tree under which he had been sleeping. The party returned to St. Louis in September 1806.
Lewis, along with William Clark and Sacagawea, is depicted on one of the stone sculptures at the entrance to the Capitol in Salem.
Also see Notable Oregonian descriptions for Lewis | Clark | Sacagawea.

Suggestions for Teachers

Ask students to:
postage stamp with painting of Meriwether Lewis in the center
A U.S. postage stamp honors Captain Meriwether Lewis.
Explore Web exhibits about the expedition.
Show the route of the expedition on a map of the United States.
Paint a mural showing specific places on the trip.
Visit Fort Clatsop or another Lewis and Clark Expedition site in Oregon.
Make a model of Fort Clatsop.
Have a Lewis and Clark Day. Come dressed as explorers.
Map a journey through the school grounds or a nearby park. Use a compass to navigate.
Next Focus: John McLoughlin >