When Lewis and Clark were boys, there was no system of public education in America. Children were schooled by friends or relatives either in their own home, or at somebody else’s home nearby. Well-to-do families sent their children to schools run by private tutors, which usually meant that the child would have to leave home and live with either the tutor or with a relative. But these private tutors were expensive, and even many wealthier families could afford only a few years of education.
Meriwether Lewis was thirteen or fourteen when he left his family in Georgia to return to Virginia for school. According to Lewis’s biographer Richard Dillon, Lewis attended school for two years at the Albemarle Classical School, which was held in a “in a rude log building on the lawn of the Edgeworth farm.” The tutor was Parson Matthew Maury, the father of the boy who would become Civil War naval hero Matthew Fontaine Maury. From Maury, Lewis got a foundation in the usual subjects: reading, writing and arithmetic, plus a smattering of Latin, Greek, and natural science.
After two years, Lewis moved on to the school of a Dr. Charles Everitt, which proved to be a miserable match. One of Everitt’s other pupils wrote, “We disliked the teacher. His method of teaching was as bad as anything could be. He was impatient of interruption. We seldom applied for assistance, said our lessons badly, made no proficiency and acquired negligent and bad habits.” Despite Everitt’s faults, Lewis was a doggedly persistent pupil. Lewis’s kinsman and classmate George “Peachy” Gilmer recorded this impression of Lewis as a young student:
He was always remarkable for perseverance, which in the early period of his life seemed nothing more than obstinacy in pursuing the trifles that employ that age; of a martial temper and great steadiness of purpose, self-possession and undaunted courage. His person was stiff and without grace; bowlegged, awkward, formal and almost without flexibility. It bore to my vision a very strong resemblance to Buonaparte.
Lewis endured Everitt’s teaching for only a short time before transferring to the school of the Reverend James Waddell, whom he liked better and considered a “very polite scholar.” He wanted to stay at Waddell’s for a couple of years, but the press of business at his late father’s plantation was growing. By the summer of 1790, Lewis was spending a lot of his time working at Locust Hill. The death of his stepfather in 1791 ended Lewis’s hopes for formal education, and he reluctantly traded in his schoolbooks for the plow.
Lewis had dreamed of going to college at William and Mary, which was the only choice for Virginians who could not afford to go North or travel to England for higher education. Despite the fact that it was Thomas Jefferson’s alma mater, William and Mary had a mixed reputation. Many young men of the First Families of Virginia attended there, but both students and faculty were known to get rowdy. One critic complained the he had “known the Professors to play all Night at Cards in publick Houses in the City, and … often seen them drunken in the Street!”
Little is known of the education of William Clark. Clark was likely taught at home, along with his nine brothers and sisters, or at the home of a neighbor. Had the Clark family stayed in Virginia, William might have studied with a tutor, but the family moved to the Kentucky frontier in 1784 when young William was fourteen, and such amenities were simply not available. Clark may have been tutored by his older brother, George Rogers Clark, who had a year or so of formal education and a lifetime of wilderness skills to teach his young brother.
Despite Clark’s lack of formal education, he was obviously intelligent. Clark rose to the rank of captain in the Kentucky militia by the age of 20. His skills included military command, engineering and construction; he could survey land, draw maps, and lead pack trains through enemy country. Clark knew how to fight the Indians on their own ground and how to negotiate with them from a vantage point of respect. He also managed his family’s finances.
It is easy to make fun of Clark’s creative spelling, but phonetic, non-standard spelling was nothing unusual in those days. Nobody even proposed a standard method of spelling in America until Noah Webster’s Speller came out in 1783. By that time, William and his family were packing up for Kentucky, and he had other things besides schoolwork on his mind.