“Give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man.” So goes an old English saying (and the starting premise for the remarkable “Up” series of films, by the way — start with “Seven Up” if you have not seen them.) So what loving hands shaped Lewis and Clark and brought them up to lead such a remarkable journey into the unmapped American west?
William Lewis, the father of Meriwether Lewis, was born in 1733, one of the eleven children of Robert Lewis and Jane Meriwether. Both of William’s parents came from the strong cousin network of old, respected Virginia families sometimes nicknamed “FFV” (First Families of Virginia). Like the rest of the FFVs, the Lewises and the Meriwethers worked together, pioneered together, and frequently intermarried.
William’s father Robert was a pioneer in the Piedmont territory where Albemarle County and Charlottesville would take root, and amassed over 21,000 acres. Under the laws and customs of the day, the oldest son stood to inherit most of Robert’s property, but Robert had done well enough that he could leave something to each of his sons. To William he left Ivy Creek, a tobacco plantation on which William built a sturdy home named Locust Hill.
Having come into his inheritance at about age 35, William was ready to settle down and find a wife, and he didn’t have to look very far. His mom had died a few years back, and his father had remarried a widow named Elizabeth Thornton Meriwether. Elizabeth had eleven children of her own, one of whom was an intelligent, energetic, and slender daughter named Lucy who was about 17 — prime marrying age. The marriage probably seemed very natural to both of them.
By the time their first son was born on August 18, 1774, Lucy had already known both joy and sorrow. She and William had a four-year-old daughter, Jane, but another named Lucinda had died as an infant. To honor both of their families, they named the boy Meriwether. The boy was said to have been tough and fearless from an early age, slipping out of the house to go hunting barefoot in the dark. I wonder if the name had something to do with it? Seems like he’d have to get tough or die.
Anyway, as rough-and-tumble as Meriwether may have been, his mother was more than a match for him. A family story goes that once, when Lucy decided to switch Meriwether and Reuben, his younger brother, for getting their clothes dirty, Meriwether defied her, saying, “Now Mammy, you find a switch and I will fend back.” Apparently that only happened once!
Lucy herself soon had to grow tough and wise beyond her years. The American Revolution was underway, and William was one of the rebels. He was the third signer of the Albemarle County Declaration of Independence, and accepted a lieutenant’s commission in the Virginia militia. With her husband away, Lucy was in charge of the plantation and its 24 slaves. It was up to her to make sure that the tobacco crop was planted, harvested, and gotten to market, in the middle of a war zone, while caring for three small children. Family stories tell of the time that Lucy bagged a huge buck deer in front of the house, and the time she brandished a rifle to drive off a party of drunken British officers who showed up at Locust Hill.
Things were soon to get worse. While returning home to visit his family in the fall of 1779, William was caught in a flood of the Rivanna River. His horse was drowned and he arrived home soaked and chilled to the bone. A few days later, William Lewis was dead of pneumonia at age 43. Lucy was 27 years old. Meriwether was scarcely five.
It is said that on his deathbed, that William recommended his own successor, a friend and fellow patriot, Captain John Marks. In any case, six months after his father’s death, Meriwether had a new stepfather. Not a lot is known today about John Marks except that he too had the pioneer spirit. At the end of the Revolution, when Meriwether was 10, the Markses were among several families of the “cousin network” to move to a frontier settlement in Georgia. Tempered by war, sorrow, and motherhood, Lucy had by this time developed a commanding presence. It is said that she fired the drunken overseer of their wagon train and took charge of the procession herself.
In Georgia, Lucy and John had two children together, a son they named John Hastings and a daughter Mary. But in 1791, when Lucy was 39, her husband died. The cause is lost to history, though it appears the death was sudden and unexpected. At the completion of the school term, seventeen-year-old Meriwether, who had been away at school, came back to Georgia and helped his mother and the little ones move back to Locust Hill.
Lucy found postwar Virginia a changed world from the one in which she had grown up and begun her married life. The Rivanna River had been dredged and was now navigable to the James River and beyond to Richmond. Charlottesville and the surrounding towns were bursting with new stores, mills, and enterprises, not to mention the spectacular energy generated by Charlottesville’s leading resident (and part of Lucy’s cousin network), Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson.
For the next three years, Meriwether was her right arm. Lucy, her son, and her newly-married daughter Jane worked tirelessly to put the worn-out farm on some kind of paying basis, eventually converting from tobacco to wheat. Lucy also became famous for her sugar-cured hams, which local gourmet Jefferson considered the “nicest” around; every year he ordered several for Monticello’s table.
Hard as he worked, young Meriwether hated the confining life of the plantation; at the earliest decent opportunity, he enlisted in the Virginia militia (which needed volunteers to put down the “Whiskey Rebellion” in Pennsylvania) and then the regular army, never to live at Locust Hill again except when home on visits. We can only speculate about Lucy’s thoughts. Pride, certainly. But was there anger that the army that had taken William had also lured Meriwether away? Could she have been a little envious of his freedom to choose to roam? Certainly her son thought so:
so violently opposed is my governing passion for rambling, to the wishes of all my friends that I am led intentionally to err and then have vanity enough to hope for forgiveness. I do not know how to account for this Quixottic disposition of mine in any other manner or its being affected by any other cause than that of having inherited it in right of the Meriwether Family and it therefore more immediately calls on your charity to forgive those errors into which it may at any time lead me – Meriwether Lewis to Lucy Marks, May 22, 1795
Just 42 when her son left home for his life of history and adventure, Lucy Meriwether Lewis Marks had only begun to write her own legend. Somewhere along the line, Lucy had trained as a “yarb” or herb doctor, and earned a reputation as a skilled midwife. Her father was known as a healer, and she may have begun her training in childhood. There were many doctors in her family, both formally trained and in the folk tradition. Lucy probably began her medical practice by treating the slaves that worked on her and William’s plantation. As her reputation grew, she became sought after by her neighbors to deliver their babies and treat their ailments.
In her practice, Lucy would have grown herbs, compounded medicine, and kept books of herbal remedies known as “simples.” Though none of Lucy’s “reciepts” have survived, some of her son’s have; Meriwether Lewis was a remarkably adept and knowledgeable field doctor, with medical knowledge as good or better than most formally trained physicians of his day. He learned at his mother’s knee and from her library of books on herbs and medicine. Lucy’s younger sons Reuben and Jack went on to become doctors.
For the next forty years, Lucy would ride the hills around Charlottesville, bringing comfort to the sick and new life into the world. Her intelligence and hard work were bolstered by an underlying faith. During her time in Georgia, she had converted to Methodism, a faith that was known, among other things, for an imperative to evangelize the slaves. Apparently, Lucy did work to bring Christianity to the 47 slaves she owned at Locust Hill, and taught a number of them to read and write. It seems, though, that she never considered the (financially ruinous) step of freeing them.
Lucy’s faith doubtless helped her endure the cruel blows that her older years were to bring. She probably wasn’t too surprised when her son Meriwether became a national hero after the Lewis & Clark Expedition, with a fame equivalent in our own time to that of a John Glenn or a Neil Armstrong. Some even thought Meriwether might become president one day. Mother and son were making plans that Lucy might move to St. Louis to be near him. But in the fall of 1809, Lucy received word that at age 35, Meriwether had been found shot to death at a remote inn along the Natchez Trace in Tennessee. Was it murder or suicide? The controversy never raged in Lucy’s mind. She believed her son’s valet, a Creole by the name of John Pernia, had murdered her son in order to steal his watch. When Pernia committed suicide not long after Meriwether’s death, did she see a guilty conscience at work ? Or only poetic justice?
Lucy’s youngest son John Hastings also met a tragic fate. Trained as a physician, young Jack’s promise seemed unlimited. But he suffered from debilitating mental illness which included symptoms of paranoia. At one point he was apparently committed to the mental hospital in Williamsburg, where he refused to stay, fleeing the family for a hard life in Baltimore. Eventually, he was forcibly committed to the insane asylum there, where he died with pneumonia-like symptoms at age 37.
Lucy continued to practice medicine until very shortly before her death in 1837 at age 85. In her last years, she lived at Locust Hill with her daughter Jane, surrounded by Jane’s nine children and many grandchildren. Her son Reuben, once a fur trader up the Missouri River, had returned home to marry and live nearby, and her youngest daughter Mary had married a Georgian and returned to the old Marks family plantation in Georgia, where she became the mother of twelve children.
A great description of Lucy Marks was written by John Bakeless, who interviewed many Lewis family descendants in the 1940s while researching his ground-breaking Lewis & Clark: Partners in Discovery: “a Virginia lady of the patrician breed, a benevolent family autocrat, with a character so sharp and definite that her twentieth-century descendents still refer to her as Grandma Marks.”
Thanks to the fantastic exhibit on Lucy at Monticello, from which much of this information was gleaned. For more great reading, check it out at Lucy Meriwether Lewis Marks: Virginia Planter and Doctoress.
Next week: Meet John Clark and Ann Rogers