When you look up the job description for “Explorer,” one of the prerequisites is having a powerful patron. Think Columbus and Queen Isabella. Sir Walter Raleigh and Queen Elizabeth I. Captain Cook and the Earl of Sandwich. And of course, Meriwether Lewis and Thomas Jefferson.
For Lewis, Thomas Jefferson was someone he had known and revered all his life. The Lewis family farm, Locust Hill, was located about ten miles from Monticello, and both the Lewis and Jefferson families had deep roots in Albemarle County, Virginia. Jefferson was well acquainted with Lewis’s mother, father, and other relatives who served the patriot cause in the Revolution. Jefferson served as governor during the Revolution, and there is no doubt that both the Meriwethers and the Lewises admired their distinguished neighbor.
Jefferson took note of young Meriwether Lewis as well. In a posthumous biographical sketch, Jefferson wrote this description of Meriwether as a child: “When only eight years of age, he habitually went out, in the dead of the night, alone with his dogs, into the forest to hunt the raccoon and opossum…in this exercise no season or circumstance could obstruct his purpose, plunging through winter’s snows and frozen streams in pursuit of his object.” At the time Jefferson would have observed Meriwether’s nocturnal hunting forays, his beloved wife Martha had just died in childbirth. During the Jefferson’s ten-year marriage, three of their six children had died, including a stillborn son. It would not be surprising if the sight of the intrepid boy cheered him up a little.
Jefferson apparently kept tabs on his young neighbor. After spending several years in Georgia with his mother and stepfather, Meriwether returned to Albemarle to seek his education and take over the family farm. In 1792, Meriwether got wind that Jefferson had proposed an expedition to “ascend the Missouri, cross the Stony Mountains, and descend the nearest river to the Pacific,” and he “warmly solicited” Jefferson to let him go along. Jefferson diplomatically turned down the green 18-year-old, choosing the distinguished French botanist Andre Michaux to lead the trip instead.
Michaux’s trip never came off (for all the reasons why, you’ll have to read The Fairest Portion of the Globe). But Jefferson didn’t forget his young neighbor and his interest in the job. By the time Jefferson became president in 1801, Meriwether Lewis was a captain in the regular army, with years of frontier service and wilderness travel under his belt. He was also a loyal Jeffersonian—and even more importantly, he knew who among his fellow officers wasn’t. In February 1801, Jefferson wrote to Lewis asking him to accept the position of his private secretary, “not only to aid in the private concerns of the household, but also to contribute to the mass of information which it is interesting to the administration to acquire.”
Lewis was thrilled and accepted immediately. He wrote with humorous honesty to a friend, “This unbounded, as well as unexpected confidence, conferred on me by a man whose virtue and talents I have ever adored, and always conceived second to none, I must confess did not fail to raise me somewhat in my own estimation.”
Next in this series: Lewis, Tall Tom, and Dusky Sally