Meriwether Lewis in St. Louis

18, August 2017

Though his time in our river town was short, Meriwether Lewis’s efforts as a trailblazer and founding father of the Louisiana Territory ensure he’ll forever be associated with St. Louis.

Introducing . . . Governor Lewis

Chalk portrait of Meriwether LewisMeriwether Lewis, ca. 1803. Chalk portrait by Charles Balthazar Julien Fevret de Saint-Memin. Missouri History Museum.

After Lewis and Clark’s triumphant return from exploring the new American West, President Thomas Jefferson appointed Lewis governor of the Louisiana Territory, a vast expanse of wilderness that stretched the length of the Mississippi River from Wisconsin to southern Arkansas and roughly west to the Rockies. St. Louis was the established capital of this enormous territory, just as it had served as the colonial capital of Upper Louisiana during the French and Spanish regimes.

At the time of Lewis’s appointment, the post of territorial governor was vacant due to the removal of James Wilkinson, who’d been accused of colluding with Vice President Aaron Burr in a treasonous plot. The scandal seriously disrupted the political landscape on the American frontier, and Jefferson’s choice of Lewis was meant to both reassure loyal citizens and clean up a terrible mess.

Because he was acting as President Jefferson’s personal observer at Burr’s trial and continuing to prepare the official Corps of Discovery journals for publication, Lewis chose to remain in Washington for nearly the first year of his governorship. He seemed confident that he could govern the Louisiana Territory from 800 miles away—he was wrong. Back in St. Louis, everyday business was in the hands of the territorial secretary, Frederick Bates, who was an experienced jurist but a complete novice in the area of Indian affairs. Bates’s lack of such skills seriously hampered politics in the complicated environment of the fur trade.

Scan of document signed by Meriwether Lewis during his time as territorial governorAn order from Gov. Lewis to Secretary Bates allowing Manuel Lisa to trade with local Indian tribes, dated June 7, 1809. Missouri History Museum.

When Lewis finally arrived in St. Louis in March 1808, he found that Bates had made many enemies due to perceived blunders and favoritism, making the already challenging job of governing the Louisiana Territory that much more difficult. As a result, Lewis and Bates had a tense relationship, both personally and professionally, for the remainder of Lewis’s tenure as governor. Fortunately, Lewis had friends in William and Julia Clark, whom he lived with on Spruce Street for some months until Julia became pregnant with the couple’s first child.

Revealing Artifacts Left Behind

Lewis’s time as governor is probably the least popularly understood portion of his life, but it was certainly important to the history of the St. Louis region, a fact reflected by various items in the Missouri History Museum’s collections. The Meriwether Lewis Papers and Chouteau Family Papers contain important documents relating to Lewis's political and business affairs, but two incredible artifacts represent his time in the city as well.

One is the desk he used while serving as governor. It stands as a testament not only to his official duties but also to his solid friendship with the Clarks. When William and Julia’s son was born in 1809, they named him Meriwether Lewis Clark. Governor Lewis died later that year, and the desk was presented to his namesake at age 18. Clark used the desk for the rest of his life in honor of his father’s friend and the legacy of a national hero.

Color photo of desk used by Meriwether LewisDesk used by Meriwether Lewis while serving as governor of the Louisiana Territory. Missouri History Museum.

The second artifact, Lewis’s Masonic apron, illustrates the intersection of his public and private lives. Lewis, like most prominent Protestant men of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, was a member of the Freemasons. Because the nearest Masonic lodge was in Ste. Genevieve, Lewis and several local men secured permission from the Pennsylvania chapter of the Freemasons to establish a new lodge in St. Louis in 1808. Competing for the role of Worshipful Master of Lodge 111 was none other than Secretary Bates. Once again Lewis outshone his second in command, winning the position over Bates—an outcome that did nothing to improve their relationship.

Color photo of Masonic apron worn by Meriwether LewisMasonic apron worn by Meriwether Lewis, who was elected leader of Lodge 111 in St. Louis in September 1808. Missouri History Museum.

Learn More

Lewis lived a short life of just 37 years, but from his service to the third president of the United States, to his command of the Corps of Discovery, to his time in frontier-era St. Louis, he witnessed more than most men. To find out more about his life and adventures, look to Thomas Danisi and John C. Jackson’s Meriwether Lewis and Richard Dillon’s book of the same name, as well as Danisi’s Uncovering the Truth About Meriwether Lewis, which examines the circumstances surrounding Lewis’s mysterious death.

The common thread among these books (aside from the subject matter)? Each one draws on sources taken from our collections, sources you can even see for yourself at the Missouri History Museum’s Library and Research Center.

—Christopher Gordon, Director of Library and Collections

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