Two men, two vastly different fates

The Examiner

Meriwether Lewis was born on Aug. 18, 1774, near Ivy, seven miles west of Charlottesville, Virginia Colony, on the eve of the American Revolution. His father died when Meriwether was 5. His mother remarried, and the new family moved to Georgia. There he quickly learned frontier skills.

Ted Stillwell

At 13, Lewis returned to Virginia to live with relatives. There, he received special tutoring. For his day, he became well educated. At age 20, he enlisted in the Virginia Volunteer Corps. In 1795, Ensign Lewis was reassigned under the command of, none other than William Clark. By 1800, Lewis attained the rank of captain of the First Infantry of the U.S. Army.

The Corps of Discovery relied heavily on the assistance of native Americans.

The following year Lewis accepted a position as secretary to President Thomas Jefferson and lived in the presidential residence in the city of Washington. Thirty-one years his senior, Jefferson became Lewis’ mentor.

By the time of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, Lewis was well prepared to lead the Corps of Discovery up the Missouri River. From the moment he accepted the assignment as Jefferson’s personal secretary his education began in geography, natural history, botany, mineralogy, and astronomy – celestial navigation. He learned field medical treatments and how to make a field medicine chest.

But with all that education, nothing prepared him for the Bitter Root Mountains. Enter the Nimi'ipuu, or Nez Perce, a given to the Native American tribe by French fur trappers, meaning “pierced noses.” They lived primarily in what are today Montana, Idaho, Oregon and Washington state. They were the largest Indian confederation in the northwestern part of America.

Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce were instrumental in saving the Lewis and Clark expedition from starvation when the explorers stumbled out of the Bitter Root Mountains on their way to the Pacific coast.

The Nez Perce continued to be staunch friends with the white man until they were pushed beyond endurance in 1877. Chief Joseph led a war party against encroaching white settlers and the U.S. Military. When he discovered that his warriors were not strong enough to win, Chief Joseph decided to lead his people across the Canadian border for their safety. However, by the time they reached northern Montana, he realized they weren’t going to make it the rest of the relatively short distance to the border.

He called all of the sub-chiefs together and delivered the following famous speech: “Hear me my chiefs. I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”

Chief Joseph and about 400 members of the southern Nez Perce were brought in unheated rail cars to our neighborhood. They were interned in a makeshift prisoner of war camp at Fort Leavenworth. The camp was down by the Missouri River on an old horse race track. They spent eight miserable months, through the winter and spring, initially in tents and then graduated to wigwams and teepees. Eventually, the U.S. government sanctioned visits twice weekly for the townspeople and tourists, who flocked to see one of the last Native American tribes to rebel against American expansionism.

Late that following summer, the weary and defeated Nez Perce survivors were carted off by train once again, to the Oklahoma Territory this time. They remained in Oklahoma for 10 years, then were finally returned to the present-day Nez Perce reservation around Kooskia, Idaho. 

As for Meriwether Lewis, he was successful in leading the Corps of Discovery. He shared that information about the west with President Jefferson and the science community. In 1807, he was appointed Governor of the Louisiana Territory and stationed in St. Louis.

Reference: “Leavenworth: First City of Kansas,” by Bob Spear.

Reach Ted W. Stillwell at or 816-896-3592.