M ERIWETHER LEWIS was just eight months old when the first guns of our Revolutionary War were fired at Lexington. He was born near Charlottesville, Virginia, not far from the home of Thomas Jefferson.
The Lewis family was one of the most distinguished in Virginia, and Meriwether's father and uncles were noted for their courage and patriotism. All were wealthy and enterprising, and one of his granduncles had married a sister of George Washington.
From his very cradle the lad was accustomed to hear much talk of brave deeds done for the love of country; and as soon as he was able to run about by himself he began to show a daring spirit that was very wonderful in a child of his age. It is said that when only eight years of age he would often go out at night, alone with his dogs, to hunt raccoons and opossums in the dark woods. What a fearless little fellow he must have been!
In the pursuit of his game nothing could discourage him. Wading through deep snow and streams of icy water, and caring naught for storms or darkness, he would press onward when even stout men had given up the chase. And so it continued throughout his whole life: when he made up his mind to do a thing, he was quite sure to do it.
When he was thirteen years old he was sent to a famous Latin school in Charlottesville, kept by two parsons of the village. We do not know that he distinguished himself as a Latin scholar, but we are told that he had a great love for nature, and that the objects which he delighted most to study were the plants and animals of Virginia.
He left school when he was eighteen, and with a younger brother undertook the management of his mother's farm, for his father had died several years before. But farming was dull business for one of his adventurous nature, and before he was twenty-one he enlisted as a volunteer in the state militia.
Two years later he was chosen captain of his company, and soon afterward became the paymaster of the regiment. A young man who shows himself to be both able and enterprising is almost always sure of promotion. When Thomas Jefferson became President of the United States, he looked about him for a private secretary, and could find no one better suited for the place than Meriwether Lewis. It must be confessed, however, that, with all his good qualities, the young man was a very poor speller.
It was in March, 1801, when Lewis entered the service of the President. He was then nearly twenty-seven years old. Two years later Mr. Jefferson appointed him leader of the exploring party which the government was about to send to the Far West.
"I could have no hesitation in confiding the enterprise to him," said the President. Why? Because he was known to be a man of courage and firmness and perseverance; because he was a born leader of men; because he had studied the character of the Indians, and knew how to deal with them; because he was a skilled hunter and understood all the lore of the woods; and because he was honest, liberal, exact, and truthful.
Seldom has any man been better fitted by nature and education for a great undertaking like this. He needed only to learn the scientific terms used in botany, and how to make such astronomical observations as might be necessary in describing his journey; and to acquire this knowledge he spent two busy months in Philadelphia, receiving instruction from the ablest professors in that city.
Early in July he was ready to start on his famous journey. Astronomical instruments, presents for the Indians, tents, and various other supplies had been ordered, and these he was to find at Pittsburgh. The men who were to accompany him were to be selected at various settlements and posts along the Ohio.
President Jefferson was too wise and cautious to intrust so great an undertaking to one man. He knew that if Captain Lewis lived, all would go well. But what if some accident should befall him, and the expedition have no leader? To provide against such an emergency he selected Captain William Clark, at that time living near Louisville, Kentucky, to be Lewis's companion and helper.
Who was this Captain William Clark?
He was the younger brother of General George Rogers Clark, the famous Virginian commander, who in 1780 drove the British from the Old Northwest and won that vast region for America.
William Clark, like Meriwether Lewis, was born near Charlottesville, Virginia. He was only ten years of age at the time of his brother's famous triumph, and before he was old enough to bear arms the Revolutionary War was ended.
When he was fourteen his parents moved to Kentucky and settled near the falls of the Ohio, where Louisville now stands. The place was in the heart of the wilderness. A fort was there, and around it were clustered the cabins of a few backwoodsmen. All else was a wild solitude.
Young William had not the advantages of a modern education, but he was schooled in the rough experiences of frontier life. We know very little about his boyhood and youth, but that he proved himself both brave and honorable there is no doubt. Before he was seventeen he was admitted into the famous society of the Cincinnati, and his certificate of membership was signed by General Washington.
At eighteen he became an ensign in the army under General St. Clair, and at twenty-one he was made a lieutenant. When General Wayne made his famous expedition against the Indians of the Northwest, Captain William Clark went with him, having command of a rifle company.
When the Indian war was over he resigned from the army and went back to Kentucky. There he settled on a farm not far from Louisville, where he lived in quiet for several years.
To Captain Lewis and President Jefferson no other man seemed better fitted to aid in conducting the exploration of the Far West. Both were well acquainted with him, and they knew him to be a person of rare good judgment, accustomed to the rough life of the frontier.
It was at Captain Lewis's invitation that Clark consented to join the expedition. And late in the fall of 1803 the two men met at Louisville, and then went on to St. Louis with the little company that had been collected on the way.
In those days news traveled very slowly, and the French officers at St. Louis had not yet heard of the sale of the country to the United States. As winter was now setting in, the two captains with their party encamped on the east side of the Mississippi and waited for spring. The long, cold months were spent in drilling the men and in making things ready for the start as soon as the ice should disappear from the Missouri.