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In the years 1804, 1805, and 1806, two men commanded an expedition which explored the wilderness that stretched from the mouth of the Missouri River to where the Columbia enters the Pacific, and dedicated to civilization a new empire. Their names were Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.


As a rule, one who tries to discover and to set down in order the simple signs that spell the story of a large man's life is confused by a chaos of data. No such trouble arises in this case. There is great poverty of fact and circumstance in the records of the private lives of these men; so careless were they of notoriety, so wholly did they merge themselves in their work. Anything like ostentation was foreign to their taste, and to the spirit of their time, which took plain, dutiful heroism as a matter of course. No one knows any "characteristic anecdotes" of Meriwether Lewis; and the best stories about Clark are those preserved in the tribal histories of Western Indians. The separate identity of the two men is practically lost to all except the careful reader. Each had his baptismal name, to be sure; but even their private names are fused, and they are best known to us under the joint style of Lewis and Clark. In effect they were one and indivisible. For evidence of their individuality we must look to the labors which they performed in common.

When, several years after the conclusion of the great expedition, the manuscript journals were being prepared for publication, the editor could not find sufficient material out of which to make a memoir of Captain Lewis, and was forced to appeal to Mr. Jefferson for aid; for Jefferson had been an early neighbor and friend of the Lewis family, and later, on becoming President, had made the lad Meriwether his private secretary, and had afterwards appointed him to direct the exploration. The sketch written by Mr. Jefferson is, like most of his papers, appreciative and vital. It is to this document, dated at Monticello, August 18, 1813, that every biographer must have recourse:--

    "Meriwether Lewis, late governor of Louisiana, was born on the 18th of August, 1774, near the town of Charlottesville, in the county of Albemarle, in Virginia, of one of the distinguished families of that State. John Lewis, one of his father's uncles, was a member of the king's council before the Revolution. Another of them, Fielding Lewis, married a sister of General Washington. His father, William Lewis, was the youngest of five sons of Colonel Robert Lewis of Albemarle, the fourth of whom, Charles, was one of the early patriots who stepped forward in the commencement of the Revolution, and commanded one of the regiments first raised in Virginia, and placed on continental establishment.... Nicholas Lewis, the second of his father's brothers, commanded a regiment of militia in the successful expedition of 1776 against the Cherokee Indians.... This member of the family of the Lewises, whose bravery was so usefully proved on this occasion, was endeared to all who knew him by his inflexible probity, courteous disposition, benevolent heart, and engaging modesty and manners. He was the umpire of all the private differences of his county,--selected always by both parties. He was also the guardian of Meriwether Lewis, of whom we are now to speak, and who had lost his father at an early age.

    "He (Meriwether) continued some years under the fostering care of a tender mother, of the respectable family of Meriwethers, of the same county; and was remarkable, even in infancy, for enterprise, boldness, and discretion.

    "When only eight years of age he habitually went out in the dead of night, alone with his dogs, into the forest to hunt the raccoon and opossum, which, seeking their food in the night, can then only be taken. In this exercise, no season or circumstance could obstruct his purpose--plunging through the winter's snows and frozen streams in pursuit of his object. At thirteen he was put to the Latin school, and continued at that until eighteen, when he was returned to his mother, and entered on the cares of his farm; having, as well as a younger brother, been left by his father with a competency for all the correct and comfortable purposes of temperate life. His talent for observation, which led him to an accurate knowledge of the plants and animals of his own country, would have distinguished him as a farmer; but at the age of twenty, yielding to the ardor of youth and a passion for more dazzling pursuits, he engaged as a volunteer in the body of militia which was called out by General Washington, on occasion of the discontents produced by the excise taxes in the western parts of the United States [the Whiskey Rebellion]; and from that station he was removed to the regular service as a lieutenant of the line. At twenty-three he was promoted to a captaincy; and, always attracting the first attention where punctuality and fidelity were requisite, he was appointed paymaster to his regiment."

That is about all that is definitely known of Lewis's family and early life. It is not much; but it suffices to show that he came of fine, fearless stock, mettlesome and reliant,--the sort of stock that brings forth men of action. The invertebrate vanity of blood is kept out of this story, in accord with the democratic belief of the time that a strong man's ancestors are what he himself makes them. They may have done their part well, but it remains for him to put the finishing touches to their reputation. Given a few sturdy souls, quick and willing to serve in time of need, and that was enough of family distinction. Behavior, rather than pedigree, made the Lewis character.

When Captain Lewis was appointed to command the expedition, he had served Mr. Jefferson for two years as private secretary. Concerning his fitness for public duties, Mr. Jefferson wrote:--

    "I had now had opportunities of knowing him intimately. Of courage undaunted; possessing a firmness and perseverance of purpose which nothing but impossibilities could divert from its direction; careful as a father of those committed to his charge, yet steady in the maintenance of order and discipline; intimate with the Indian character, customs, and principles; habituated to the hunting life; guarded, by exact observation of the vegetables and animals of his own country, against losing time in the description of objects already possessed; honest, disinterested, liberal, of sound understanding, and a fidelity to truth so scrupulous that whatever he should report would be as certain as if seen by ourselves--with all these qualifications, as if selected and implanted by Nature in one body for this express purpose, I could have no hesitation in confiding the enterprise to him. To fill up the measure desired, he wanted nothing but a greater familiarity with the technical language of the natural sciences, and readiness in the astronomical observations necessary for the geography of his route. To acquire these, he repaired immediately to Philadelphia, and placed himself under the tutorage of the distinguished professors of that place, who, with a zeal and emulation enkindled by an ardent devotion to science, communicated to him freely the information requisite for the purposes of the journey. While attending at Lancaster to the fabrication of the arms with which he chose that his men should be provided, he had the benefit of daily communication with Mr. Andrew Ellicott, whose experience in astronomical observation, and practice of it in the woods, enabled him to apprise Captain Lewis of the wants and difficulties he would encounter, and of the substitutes and resources afforded by a woodland and uninhabited country."

It is plain that this astute judge of men reposed perfect confidence in his friend. From January, 1803, when Congress sanctioned the undertaking, until May, 1804, when the party set out from St. Louis, the young officer had full charge of the intricate and difficult details of preparation. It was he who superintended the building of boats and the making of arms, accoutrements, scientific apparatus, and all equipment; and, what was of more importance, he selected the men who were to form his command. That was a nice matter. It would have been worse than useless to lead a company of fretful dissenters. The expedition was to be conducted on a military basis; but it was not ordinary field service; it was a mission for picked men. Much would depend upon each man's natural aptitude for his task; much more would depend upon the integrity of the corps as a whole. The consummate wisdom of Lewis's selection of his aids shines from every page of the journals. None of the men seemed to need instruction in the cardinal elements of conduct; each was as sensible of his trust as Lewis himself. It was in this spirit of the subordinates, rather than in the absolute authority of the captain, that success was to lie.

To guard against untoward accident, that might thwart the work, Lewis wished to have a companion in command. This pleased Mr. Jefferson, and the choice fell upon Captain William Clark.

William Clark was the ninth of a family of ten children. His father was John Clark, second, who, like his father before him, was a Virginian, living in King and Queen County. The pioneering spirit was strong in the family,--the _Wanderlust_, that keeps man's nature fluid and adaptable. This led John, second, to remove first to Albemarle County, and later to Caroline County, where William was born on August 1, 1770, not far from the birthplace of Meriwether Lewis.

When the boy was about fourteen years of age, the family moved once more, into the dim West, settling at the place now known as Louisville, in Kentucky. William's elder brother, George Rogers Clark, had preceded the others, and had built the first fortification against the Indians at the Falls of the Ohio, around which were clustered a few of the rude dwellings of the frontiersmen. At this place, amidst the crudest conditions of the Kentucky border, the lad grew to maturity. That was not an orderly life; it was rather a continuing state of suspense, demanding of those who shared in it constant hardihood and fortitude. For the right-minded man, however, it had incalculable value. Many of the strongest examples of our national character have been men who owed the best that was in them to the apparently unkindly circumstances of their youth. What was denied to Clark in easy opportunity had ample compensation in the firmness and self-reliance which came from mastering difficulties.

To read Clark's letters and papers is to discover that his education in the politer branches of learning was as primitive as the surroundings of his home. It is plain that the training which prepared him for manhood was got mostly outside the schoolroom.

Like Lewis, he chose a military career. When he was but eighteen years of age, he was appointed ensign in the regular army; and two years later he was made captain of militia in the town of Clarksville, "in the Territory of the United States North West of the Ohio River." In 1791 he was commissioned as a lieutenant of infantry, under Wayne, and served afterward as adjutant and quartermaster. Ill health led him to resign his commission in the army in 1796.

A few months before his resignation he first became acquainted with Meriwether Lewis, who, as an ensign, was put under his command. Then began one of those generous and enduring friendships that are all too rare amongst men. It is not known just what their private relations were in the mean time; but in 1803, upon Lewis's earnest solicitation, Captain Clark consented to quit his retirement upon his Kentucky farm and join in that work which was destined to be but the beginning of his real usefulness.

He comes to us out of the dark. We must forego intimate knowledge of his growth, being content with finding him full-grown and ready. No doubt his service in the army, where he was associated with men of ability, had helped him to master many details of engineering craft, which he was to use in his later service. But this was at most incidental; his strength, his power to serve, was native, not acquired.

That they might share alike in all particulars of rank and responsibility in the expedition, it was understood that Lewis would endeavor to procure for Clark a captain's commission. Clark wrote to Nicholas Biddle (the editor of the journals) in 1811:--

    "On these conditions I agreed to undertake the expedition made my arrangements, and set out, and proceeded on with Capt. Lewis to the mouth of the Missouri where we remained the winter 1803 made every necessary arrangement to set out early in spring 1804 everything arranged I waited with some anxiety for the commission which I had reason to expect (Capt. of Indioneers [Engineers]) a few days before I set out I received a Commission of 2d Lieutenant of Artillerist, my feelings on this occasion was as might be expected. I wished the expedition suckcess, and from the assurence of Capt. Lewis that in every respect my situation command &c. &c. should be equal to his; viewing the Commission as mearly calculated to authorise punishment to the soldiers if necessary, I proceeded. No difficulty took place on our rout relative to this point...."

In the very nature of things, personal difficulty of a petty sort could not arise. Official rank was as nothing between them. They were capable and loyal; the morale of their party was ideal; and under their guidance was wrought out what has been well called our national epic of exploration.