First Look: Meriwether Lewis, a Match Struck for Exploration, Inspiration

By Nathan Raab

The premise of my book, The Hunt for History, is that historical documents gain their emotional value from what they represent, that a letter of Washington means more than his ink on paper. That what he says, where he is, what he is doing, represents both the man and the events around him in a way that fundamentally strikes a chord for us internally.

So often that spark comes early in the life of a figure, before his greatness is widely appreciated but when it shows itself nonetheless.  With history, we see that in the young years or before public prominence, at least.

So it was in 1800, when a young Virginian, Meriwether Lewis, launched his historic career in the US Army, stationed in and around Detroit and Pittsburgh, near the edge of the old American frontier.

Even here, we could grasp the reach of his future employ, as he traveled the countryside first as Captain and then as Lieutenant, ferrying across rivers, leading his band, meeting frontiersmen and women and natives. Would that they knew then what we know now.

William James, who wrote a century later about the qualities that make up great people, felt that greatness required not only a certain talent or quality but a recognition of the environment and of his or her contemporaries that some of these were valued those traits.  A trait shows itself in a person, and a sort of evolutionary process selects that trait as worthy of the moment. A great ballplayer requires a great ball park to play in, otherwise put.

“The relation of the visible environment to the great man  is in the main exactly what it is to the variation of Darwinian philosophy.  It chiefly adopts or rejects, preserves or destroys, in short selects him.”

So it was with Lewis, and we see that here. The skills he gained and his thirst for exploration, seen here, in this document, were later chosen by both the circumstances (a growing nation looking West), and a man (Thomas Jefferson).

Capturing such greatness in its nascence is itself a powerful discovery and uncommon, no less so than with a man who left so few documents to posterity and died so young.

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