A “Voyage of Discovery”: Walking in the Footsteps of Meriwether Lewis

By John Mathis

I enjoy exploring with my 7-year-old son, Jack. He’s very curious and has a taste for adventure. We both loved visiting the Mandan Native American Exhibit at the Virginia Discovery Museum this last winter over and over again. After yet another full day at the museum, where we donned Indian dress and played everything from a corn hoop game to rowing up the mighty Mississippi in a boat made of buffalo hide, he asked me, “Dad, what is the big deal about Lewis and Clark?” As he looked at me, waiting for a reply, I realized that we had a mission, a “voyage of discovery”: finding out more about them.

Thinking back to history class, I managed to answer. “Well, about 200 years ago, Thomas Jefferson asked Lewis and Clark to lead a group of explorers. Their mission was to map the west, hoping to find a transcontinental water trading route to the Pacific Ocean from the Mississippi River. They were to document the plants and animals they found, and learn about the Indians they encountered along the way. No one had ever done that before. This small group of men crossed the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains, traveling thousands of miles all by boat, by foot and on horseback—all the way to the Pacific Ocean. AND they made it back without ANY modern conveniences like cars or restaurants along the way.

“They encountered treacherous snow-covered mountains that they had to cross on foot. Some became sick along the way. One died from a ruptured appendix. They discovered amazing animals and plants, and made a lot of Indian friends, too. I can imagine it was a pretty rugged trip, can’t you?” Jack’s face said it all: “Wow!”

Since that day a few months ago, Jack has learned more at school about the accomplishments of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark and their significance to American history. I’ve put on my reporter hat to find out more about these intriguing men. Jack’s especially interested since it all started here in Albemarle County not far from where we live. Lewis was born on August 18, 1774, at Locust Hill, his family estate here in Ivy, now a private residence. It’s said that as a boy, he enjoyed hiking and exploring. We can imagine Meriwether exploring the very same woods in our own back yard.

Like many local schools, Meriwether Lewis Elementary, down the road from Meriwether’s birthplace and many acres of land still owned by the Lewis family, is celebrating the bicentennial of Lewis and Clark’s expedition with great enthusiasm. “Meriwether Lewis holds a special place in our hearts,” says principal Jo Vining. “Students will participate in an interactive field trip called ‘Jefferson's West.’ This spring, second and third graders will present the play, `The Adventures of Lewis and Clark.’” Earlier this year, the school welcomed Shawnee Nation United Remnant Band members, historical impersonator Ron Craig and Army Corps of Engineers employees to talk about the expedition.

To find out more, Jack and I visited Dela Alexander, the director at the Virginia Museum of Natural History, and saw the museum_s Lewis and Clark exhibit about the flora and fauna they encountered. Jack and I were intrigued. Dela told us that the West awed the explorers. “So many creatures were totally unheard of. They saw bighorn sheep that hopped from cliff to cliff and clung somehow to the mountainsides. They saw prairie dogs, bison and lots of new plants. Used to the Appalachian Mountains, they had never seen anything comparing to the height of the Rockies.”

To further involve Jack in the bicentennial celebration, Dela gave these suggestions to parents: “Pose questions to children to encourage their imaginations. How do you pack and prepare for a trip that would take more than two years? How do you prepare for the possibility of seeing things that you’ve never encountered before? Lewis and Clark were faced with these questions.” The success of their expedition and even the lives of all the explorers depended on their answers. This especially impressed the seriousness of the voyage upon Jack.

The next morning at breakfast, Jack asked, “Dad, what do you think Meriwether Lewis was like as a kid?” As I got up to clear the dishes, I said, “Well, I know he was the second child, and he had an older sister, Jane, and eventually a younger brother, Reuben. Lewis’s father died during the Revolutionary War, so he was really close to his mother, Lucy, known as `Aunt Marks.’ When she remarried, they all moved to Georgia—untamed frontier at that time. I also read that neighbors viewed her as a character because of her independence and self-reliance.”

As we loaded the dishwasher, I continued. “I found out that family stories recorded by a relative named Mary Newton Lewis tell of his mother’s `great interest and skill in using herbal medicine,’ which she passed on to Meriwether. I think that his mother’s interest in herbal medicine must have led to his great interest in natural history, don’t you think? Remember that Meriwether became secretary to Thomas Jefferson when he grew up, so you can imagine with Jefferson’s great interest in studying plants and things of nature that they must have had a lot in common.”

That night, Jack and I read about Lewis's bravery and quick thinking as boy. At just 8, he and his dogs hunted opossums and raccoons at night. A year later, he stood his ground and shot a charging bull. The books recounted a story of him hiding with other settlers in the Georgia woods from attacking Indians, and that he had the presence of mind among all the panic-stricken adults to douse a fire that a neighbor had started which was giving their location away to the attackers, and saved them all! Around the age of 13, Meriwether returned to Virginia to continue his schooling in Williamsburg and then finally returned to Albemarle to run the family farm at 16. “Imagine that, Jack! Things sure are different now, huh?” I said.

I told Jack that he could be a great explorer. He has the same wonderful desire to ask questions, examine, write and draw. He said he felt like he was a great explorer in the wilderness last weekend when we climbed up a muddy and flooded trail to Humpback Rocks above the Blue Ridge Parkway. I showed him the route we took on a map. Wide-eyed and enthusiastic, he asked about latitude and longitude because his teacher talked about maps. I told him that Lewis and Clark had to be well versed in math and science. They would need those skills to navigate, document what they found and observed, and solve various problems along the way.

The hike was Dela Alexander’s idea. She encouraged us to pretend we were intrepid explorers for a day. “Help children hone observation skills as they hike through our woods and forests locally,” she said. “Find seeds and cones and notice what states they are in at different seasons. Look for tracks and try to discover whose they might be and what those animals might be doing. These are skills Lewis and Clark shared in their journals.”

Descendants of Lewis, Clark, and even Jefferson still live among us here in Albemarle—some in homes their ancestors built. The greatest thrill of all in our “voyage of discovery” was visiting Howell and Janice Bowen, who live just across the road from the Lewis family home that Meriwether lived in with his family in his later years. Mr. Bowen’s fourth-generation great uncle was Meriwether Lewis, and he enjoyed sharing some family stories of Lewis and the epic trip through the West with us.

“We do talk to our grandchildren about Meriwether’s dog, Seaman. He was a big Newfoundland and black—a wonderful dog,” he says warmly. The dog went all the way out there and back with him.” Mr. Bowen was very kind and had all the qualities of a gracious Southern gentleman.

Remembering his own youth listening to family tales, he recalled a favorite. “A story I always enjoyed was the wild bull. Not sure how it all happened to come about, but there was a bull running through the camp, missing the heads of the men where they lay sleeping on the ground by no more than 18 inches!” He demonstrated the distance with his hands. “Confused by the noise and maybe the light from the campfires, the bull went charging straight at Meriwether’s tent. Seaman stood his ground in front of the tent and challenged that bull. Meriwether believed undoubtedly that Seaman saved his life that night.” Jack and I were captivated.

A kid at heart, I'm eager to explore the world with Jack. We’ll continue to expand our mutual interest in Lewis and Clark by visiting bicentennial exhibits and events in and around Charlottesville. Monticello is the Commemoration’s center and the National Park Service's Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail beginning. Jack and I will head there next. We’ll imagine ourselves as Jefferson and young Meriwether wandering the gardens and discussing botany. The University of Virginia, Montpelier, the Science Museum of Virginia and other groups are inviting families to hands-on exhibits sure to bring out the trailblazing adventurer in every child—and parent. Jack and I started a journal about our “voyage of discovery” walking in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark.

Thanks to everyone who contributed to this bicentennial commemorative article and generously gave their time to share family stories, history books, artwork, and to help gather resources: Howell and Janice Bowen, Dela Alexander, Jo Vining, Watts Schwab, Michelle Sassmann, the Albemarle County Historical Society, Janis Herbert and X Publishers, the Lewis & Clark Trail Heritage Foundation and the Monticello staff.

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