Much has been documented about William Clark’s ownership of slaves, including the famous York who accompanied him on the Lewis & Clark Expedition. Clark, while generally considered by his white contemporaries to be a kind man, comes off as a harsh master in his own letters when he describes punishing his lazy slaves and “trouncing” York for his discontent after the Expedition’s return. Less has been written about Meriwether Lewis’ attitude toward slavery, but he too was a slave owner.
Lewis’s father William died in 1779, leaving his 5 year-old son Meriwether as the primary heir to his estate. This included his plantation at Locust Hill in Albemarle County, Virginia (about 1600 acres) and other property, including 24 slaves. Until Meriwether Lewis reached the age of majority, his guardians and an overseer managed the slaves at Locust Hill. After the death of his step-father John Marks in 1791, Meriwether ended his schooling, helped his widowed mother move back from Georgia, and somewhat reluctantly took on the job of the day-to-day running of the plantation. He was 18.
By this time, wheat had become the primary agricultural crop at Locust Hill, a crop that was less depleting to the soil than tobacco – but also less profitable. It was also more complicated to grow and harvest than tobacco, and required more training of slave labor. The cultivation of wheat required permanent, plowed fields, including the need to periodically manure the fields and rotate the crops to maintain the fertility of the soil. The use of plows meant that you needed draft animals and slaves trained in their care. The need to transport grain to the mill, and fodder and manure to your farm, meant you had to maintain wagons, horses, and a blacksmith shop. Lewis had a lifetime of agricultural learning ahead of him, as well as getting used to managing the day-to-day task of assigning work and supervising the slaves.
Little is known about Lewis’s feelings about the slaves in his employ. No doubt slaves would have worked in the home at Locust Hill, as well as in the fields, so he would have gotten to know them well. The slaves would have required food, clothing, and medical care. Lewis’s mother Lucy Marks was an extremely capable woman and a skilled herb doctor, and it is known that she treated the Lewis slaves humanely, played the primary role in their supervision, and cared for their medical problems herself. Evidenced by a letter written to Lucy by one of her former slaves, at least some of them had been taught to read and write.
What is also clear is that Meriwether Lewis was ill-suited to the role of country planter and slave owner. In 1794, when the Whiskey Rebellion broke out, Lewis left his life and Locust Hill and joined the Virginia militia and then the regular army. He never looked back.
Although army officers were allowed and frequently did take a slave manservant into the field to cook their meals, clean their quarters, brush their uniforms, polish their boots, and groom their horses, Lewis apparently never did. An inveterate loner and rambler, Lewis seemed not to want the baggage and overhead of having to supervise and provide for a slave. He did, however, agree to let Clark take York along on the Expedition in 1803, as long as Clark believed that York could withstand the trip.
Although Lewis no doubt got an up-close and personal look at the contradictory attitude towards slavery held by his mentor, Thomas Jefferson, he seems to have given the matter no deep thought. “With regards to blacks, he made no distinctions between them, made no study of them, had no thought that they could be of benefit to America in any capacity other than slave labor,” Stephen Ambrose wrote about Lewis in Undaunted Courage. This attitude likely held true for York as well as the other slaves Lewis had dealt with in his life. Clark was in charge of York during the expedition, and aside from assigning work to York like any other enlisted man, Lewis left any supervision or discipline of York to Clark. Nevertheless, York was allowed the special privilege of carrying a gun, and when they reached the Pacific Coast, Lewis did allow York (along with Sacagawea) to vote in the poll of where to make their winter camp. Clearly York had proved himself, and Lewis’s world view could expand enough to concede that even a slave deserved basic rights.
Lewis returned to Locust Hill for a visit after the Expedition, but he had no desire to take up his old role as plantation owner. Upon his arrival in St. Louis as governor of Upper Louisiana in 1808, Lewis once again showed his reluctance to take on the daily supervision of a slave, choosing not to take any of the slaves from Locust Hill with him. Instead he hired a free black man, John Pernia (or Pernier), to be his manservant. Lewis was no doubt aware of Clark’s conflict with York and the thrashing York got at Clark’s hands. It is unknown whether Lewis might have tried to intervene on York’s behalf or moderate Clark’s anger at York … if he did, he did not succeed.
Unfortunately, though their relationship was not one of master and slave, Lewis was destined for conflict with John Pernia. Financial problems led to him getting seriously behind in paying Pernia’s salary. Pernia was with Lewis on the Natchez Trace at the time of Lewis’s death, and some have speculated that Pernia may have played a role in Lewis’s shooting or at least robbed him of the cash he was carrying after his demise. Pernia did travel all the way to Monticello to seek out payment of the $240 in back pay that Lewis owed him, but was rebuffed by Jefferson, as well as Clark, Madison, and Lewis’s family.
In despair, John Pernia later committed suicide. The tradition that prior to his death he was confronted by a Lewis family member in his native New Orleans, supposedly carrying the gold presentation watch given to Lewis by Jefferson, is apocryphal.