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Meriwether Lewis: Biography, Expedition & Facts

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

Learn about Meriwether Lewis in this lesson. Explore his life, and focus specifically on his role as an explorer and mapper of the American frontier. Then you can place his contributions in historical context and understand why he is important.

Who Was Meriwether Lewis? Introduction and Overview
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Meriwether Lewis (1774 -1809) was an American explorer of the frontier. He was the leader of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which President Thomas Jefferson commissioned to explore and map the newly acquired Louisiana Territory. The Lewis and Clark Expedition is more formally referred to as the Corps of Discovery. William Clark served as Lewis's lieutenant.

The expedition took place between 1804 and 1806. The goal of the expedition was to explore and map the western United States, find a passable route to the Pacific Ocean, and conduct scientific inquiries into plant and animal life. The Corps of Discovery also established trade with various Native American tribes.

An important reason for the expedition was to establish American sovereignty over territory that was contested by Native American tribes and European powers alike. The expedition was a way for the young United States to lay claim to the westernmost reaches of the North American continent. The expedition was a huge success, and it prepared the way for American westward expansion.

The Louisiana Purchase
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In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon Bonaparte of France for the incredibly low price of 15 million dollars (or approximately three cents an acre). With the stroke of a pen, the size of the United States doubled. So... now that the U.S. had acquired this vast new territory, someone had to go out and explore it. Enter Meriwether Lewis.

Biography of Meriwether Lewis

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To explore the new land to the west, President Jefferson commissioned Meriwether Lewis as captain of the Corps of Discovery. Meriwether Lewis was born in Albemarle County, Virginia, in 1774. After his father died while he was a young boy, Lewis moved to Georgia with his mother and stepfather. There, he developed a love for the outdoors and became a skilled woodsman.

Lewis moved back to Virginia at the age of 13 to begin his education. He graduated from college in 1793 and joined the Virginia militia. In 1794, he was assigned to help put down the Whiskey Rebellion. In 1801, Lewis was appointed as an aide to President Jefferson. He worked closely with President Jefferson in a variety of capacities.

Of course, Lewis is most famous for his role in the Lewis and Clark Expedition between 1804-1806. Following his return from the West, Lewis was appointed governor of the Louisiana Territory in 1807. He died in 1809. The circumstances of his death are shrouded in mystery. A fierce debate continues to rage among historians over whether Lewis was murdered by thieves or committed suicide.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition

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After purchasing the Louisiana Territory, President Jefferson wanted to know what the land was like, so he commissioned a U.S Army unit to explore and map the territory. This specialized unit was called the Corps of Discovery. Meriwether Lewis was the captain of the unit, and William Clark served as his lieutenant. For this reason, the team is commonly called the 'Lewis and Clark Expedition.'

The expedition began on May 21, 1804, when Lewis, Clark and 33 other volunteers set out from the St. Louis area of Missouri. Following the Missouri River westward, the expedition encountered numerous Native American tribes. Most interactions were relatively peaceful. The corps built Fort Mandan in North Dakota and Fort Clatsop in the Oregon Territory.

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