Modern history



August 1806–March 1807

Sometime in late July, Lewis journeyed to Washington, where he turned in his records and receipts to Mr. Simmons in the War Department. He then went to Locust Hill in Ivy, to be with his family. He took the journals with him. In August, he visited Jefferson at Monticello. In September, he traveled to Richmond, where he was an observer of Burr’s treason trial—perhaps at Jefferson’s request, with the duty of writing a report. No Lewis report is known to exist, however, and Jefferson was scrupulous in saving his correspondence.

Back in Ivy, Lewis saw to family business (primarily land speculation in the Ohio Valley). Before setting out for the Pacific in 1803, he had urged his mother to make certain his half-brother, John Marks, got an education. In 1807, he took charge of young Marks’s professional training. He arranged for Marks to go to Philadelphia to attend medical lectures, with letters of introduction to the various savants in town.

He told Marks to call on Dickerson frequently, and asked Dickerson to look after him, for “we both know that young men are sometimes in want of a friend.” Lewis gave Marks sixty dollars and asked Dickerson to advance him two hundred, which he would repay when he received his salary (on January 15) as governor for the last three months of the year.1

Some money was coming in from subscribers to the journals. A William Woods, perhaps a local Baptist minister or perhaps the Woods who was a surveyor of Albemarle County, was his agent. Woods received the thirty-one-dollar total from a number of local residents; other monies came in by mail.2

Lewis had written Clark about one of his courtships. Clark had replied with a recommendation for a “Miss C.” Lewis had replied in cryptic fashion: “For god’s sake do not whisper my attachment to Miss——or I am undone.”3

Who Miss C and “Miss——” were, or what happened, is unknown. Lewis and Clark biographer John Bakeless speculates that perhaps they didn’t meet Lewis’s standards: “What mere girl could approach the grace, the charm, the intelligence, and the tremendous vigor of his fascinating mother?”4 Perhaps the girls didn’t want to get into a competition with Lucy Marks.

Sometime later, in Philadelphia, Lewis had what he described to Dickerson as a “little affair” with “Miss A——n R——sh.” The relationship, he reported, “had neither beginning nor end on her part; pr. Contra, on my own, it has had both. The fact is, that on enquiry I found that she was previously engaged, and therefore dismissed every idea of prosecuting my pretentions in that quarter.”5 Then there was Lewis’s intense interest in “Miss E—— B——y,” which also led nowhere.

In late November, Lewis and his younger brother, Reuben (who was planning to join the governor in St. Louis and get into the fur trade), went to Fincastle, where they stayed in the home of Clark’s father-in-law, George Hancock. There the brothers met Letitia and Elizabeth Breckenridge, daughters of General James Breckenridge.

Reuben wrote to the family back home, “We . . . had the pleasure of seeing the accomplished and beautiful Miss Lettissia Breckenridge one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen, both as to form and features. . . . I should like to have her as a sister.”

Lewis was smitten at first sight. He expressed his intention of making a formal call on Letitia, but he evidently came on too strong. Miss Breckenridge heard “of the Governours intention of Coarting her” and concluded that “if she remained it would look too much like a challange.” She accompanied her father on a trip to Richmond; Reuben reported that “unfortunately for his Excellency [Lewis] she left the neighborhood 2 days after our arrival so that he was disappointed in his design of addressing her.”6

Letitia’s sister, Elizabeth, was still in Fincastle, but Lewis had been so taken with Letitia that he was diffident about approaching her. Sometime later, he wrote to a friend from his early army career, “I consider Miss E[lizabeth] B[recken-ridge] a charming girl, but such was my passion for her sister that my soul revolts at the idea of attempting to make her my wife, and I shall not consequently travel that road inquest of matrimony.”

Whether he courted other young women in Ivy and Fincastle is unknown. Indeed, what he did, even where he lived, for the winter of 1807–8 is unknown.

For the most part, the eight months between Lewis’s departure from Philadelphia and his arrival in St. Louis were a lost period in his life. The only thing productive he did was begin work on a major paper recommending a basic Indian policy for Louisiana, which took him over a year to finish. He courted without success. He took care of some family business. Otherwise, he apparently did nothing at all. He makes no appearance in Jefferson’s extensive, often chatty correspondence. William Clark made no mention of him.

Was he drinking to excess? Was he depressed? What caused his courtships to fail? He had the journals with him, but he prepared not one line for the printer, made no arrangements for an editor.

He had promised Jefferson he would set out for St. Louis in mid-July 1807 to take up his duties (and earn his salary), but he didn’t actually do so until the late winter of 1808. He didn’t even ask for reports from Secretary and Acting Governor Bates on the situation in St. Louis.

Any analysis of his lethargy is speculative: some that have been offered include being unlucky in love, or suffering from a manic-depressive psychosis, alcoholism, malaria, or some other physical illness. My own guess is that some combination of these explanations, especially the first three, was among the causes, but there were others that exacerbated the depressions and the drinking, and perhaps his inability to find a wife.

He had had more success than was good for him. At age thirty-four, he missed the adulation he had become accustomed to receiving. Of course he was honored at home in Charlottesville and Ivy, but that was hardly like being celebrated in Washington and Philadelphia.

He had had too independent a command too early in life. Not that he had botched it; obviously he was a genuinely great company commander. But he had become accustomed to instant obedience from a platoon-size force of the best riflemen, woodsmen, and soldiers in the United States. He no longer held that command. He certainly couldn’t get his slaves to respond to his commands as quickly or efficiently as the men of the Corps of Discovery had done. And beyond his slaves, he had no one to order about.

In modern popular psychology, he might be said to have been suffering from postpartum depression. Malaria, alcohol, and a predisposition to melancholy would have made it more severe.

His unluckiness in love may have compounded everything. We have no clue why he was spurned. He had a lot to offer: he was young, extremely good-looking, highly cultured for Fincastle, with a prestigious and powerful position in the government and outstanding prospects. Perhaps it was a vicious circle: he was turned down because he drank too much and made a spectacle of himself. That might have been what shocked Miss Breckenridge and caused her to flee. A simpler explanation might be nearer the mark: perhaps Miss Breckenridge and the others could not abide the thought of going to live in a frontier town, albeit the capital of the territory.

Lewis wanted a wife to fill a void in his heart. He never got one. Also during this period, he was without a close companion. For three years, he and Clark had been intimate friends. In Washington in early 1807, he had lived with Jefferson; in Philadelphia, there was Dickerson. In Virginia, his only close companion seems to have been his younger brother, Reuben.

When Lewis finally arrived in St. Louis, he was extremely active on a number of fronts. And we can assume that his courtships were lively affairs, with lots of balls and dinners and visiting, laughter and music. His policy paper was complex and demanding; the work he did on it was outstanding in many respects.

Lewis worked on the paper from August 1807 until August 1808, when he sent the finished version from St. Louis to Secretary Dearborn. It contained about 10,500 words. He called it “Observations and reflections on the present and future state of Upper Louisiana, in relation to the government of the Indian nations inhabiting that country, and the trade and intercourse with the same.”

The plan happily combined two impulses, one to improve the Indians, the other to improve the American fur trade. Or, as Lewis put it, it was “a scheme . . . the most expedient that I can devise for the successful consummation of [our] philanthropic views towards those wretched people of America,” and to build an American fur-trade empire.

He began with a history of the fur trade based in St. Louis during the Spanish period. He condemned the Spanish system of ceding exclusive trading rights to individuals who lived with the various tribes on the Missouri and the other western tributaries of the Mississippi. The traders holding monopoly licenses from the Spanish government badly overcharged the Indians, an evil that was exacerbated by the “ruinous custom” of extending credit to the tribes.

So much for the Spanish system. Meanwhile, the British had gotten into the game. The Spanish controlled the mouth of the Missouri, but the various British companies doing business out of Montreal controlled the upper parts of the river. They undersold the Spanish, thus making the Indians their fast friends and allies.

That got Lewis to the heart of the matter. He pointed out that the British traders were now operating in American territory, for the United States “at present, through mere courtesy, permit them to extend their trade to the west side of the Mississippi; or rather they are mere tenants at will.”

This he thought mistaken policy. The British had unfair advantages over potential American traders, because through mergers and other devices the North West Company had become a giant, with a “surplus of capital and a surplus of men,” which meant the British had it “in their power . . . to break any company of merchants of the United States who might enter into a competition with them” by underselling the competition. The North West Company was already fixing a site for a fortification at the Mandan villages.

Following the seizure of the Chesapeake and other British outrages on the high seas and within American waters, war between the United States and Great Britain was everywhere expected. If it came, what was there to prevent an expedition from Canada into the upper-Missouri country, using Indian allies? And what if it were accompanied by a simultaneous expedition to take New Orleans? What was at stake here was the whole of the Louisiana Purchase, the great western empire of the United States.

Under the circumstances, Lewis asked, “Can we begin the work of exclusion too soon?” He wanted the authority and resources to mount a campaign to drive the British out of Louisiana.

Since he intended to be a part of the fur trade, here was a case where there was a happy coincidence between his self-interest and solid public policy. The government would provide the resources to take effective control of Upper Louisiana, the Indians would be made dependent on the United States, Lewis would be in fact as well as name the governor of the territory, and the fur trade would prosper, to the great profit of the St. Louis merchants.

Having shown the evils of the Spanish and British systems, Lewis submitted “for the consideration of our government the outlines of a plan which has been dictated as well by a sentiment of philanthropy towards the aborigines of America [Jefferson would like that], as a just regard to the protection of the lives and property of our citizens [and that]; and with the further view also of securing to the people of the United States, exclusively, the advantages which ought of right to accrue to them from the possession of Louisiana [that most of all].”

Lewis wanted authorization to kick the North West Company out of Louisiana; he further wanted to abolish the “pernicious” custom of giving exclusive licenses to traders and allowing them to extend credit to the tribes. He wanted free trade, in other words, for the Americans, or, as he put it “a fair competition among all our merchants.”

His plan to realize these objectives was to establish fortifications at various convenient spots along the rivers, especially the Missouri, built and defended by U.S. soldiers, and make these into trading posts where both the Indians and the traders could gather to do business. No more licenses to individuals to monopolize the trade with a single tribe, but a common mart where the marketplace would rule.

Frontier fortifications and trading posts would bring another great benefit. “The first principle of governing the Indians,” Lewis wrote, “is to govern the whites,” which was impossible to do without such establishments. By “governing the whites” he meant keeping out settlers.

For the immediate future—say the next ten or twenty years—Lewis envisioned a relationship with the Indians exclusively based on the fur trade, which meant leaving them in exclusive possession of their lands. In other words, Governor Lewis had come down on the side of the merchants, as opposed to the potential settlers. If American frontiersmen began to hunt and clear lands along the Missouri, Osage, Des Moines, and other rivers, settlers would follow and there would be no fur trade, only Indian wars along the frontier.

Lewis had seen more of the tribes west of the Mississippi than any other American, even including Clark, who never met the Blackfeet. Better than most others, he could see things from their point of view. Thus in this case he wrote: “With what constitence of precept and practice can we say to the Indians, whom we wish to civilize, that agriculture and the arts are more productive of ease, wealth, and comfort than the occupation of hunting, while they see distributed over their forests a number of white men engaged in the very occupation which our doctrine would teach them to abandon.”

In other words, he wanted the hunters as well as the British banned from Upper Louisiana.

But not quite all of Upper Louisiana. Lewis went on to explain that his system of army-built and -defended trading posts applied only as far up the Missouri as the Mandans. West of those villages, either the government would have to become the merchant, “or present no obstacles to their citizens” who might wish to form companies and prepare expeditions. These citizens could establish trading establishments, at their own cost and risk. They would have to be supported by hunters.

Lewis was proposing to adopt the British system for Louisiana west of the Mandans, only with a St. Louis firm running the show instead of the North West Company. He was going to be, perhaps already was, a member of that St. Louis firm. Nevertheless, he described his motive in establishing an American presence in the farthest reaches of the Purchase as altruistic, writing that he assumed “our government [wishes] that the Indians on the extreme branches of the Missouri to the west, and within the Rocky mountains, should obtain supplies of merchandise equally with those more immediately in their vicinity.”

Then the clinching argument for this two-version Indian policy as it applied to the western reaches: if we didn’t do it, the North West Company would. It was good national policy to “contravene the machinations preparing by the Northwest company for practice in that quarter.”

A major obstacle to any trade on the Missouri was the Sioux tribes. Lewis had a plan to deal with them, based on his view of the Indian character. “The love of gain is the Indians’ ruling passion,” he wrote—underscoring it, as if this were some new insight and applied only to Indians, not all human beings. “The fear of punishment must form the corrective.” No “punishment could assume a more terrific shape to them [the Sioux] than that of withholding every description of merchandise from them.”

He therefore proposed an embargo on the Sioux. The United States should build trading posts on the river, but forbid the Sioux the right to trade at them. That would have the advantage of enforcing “a compliance with our will without the necessity of bloodshed.” Soon the Sioux would crumble. “I am confident,” Lewis wrote, that in order to trade “they would sacrifice any individual who may be the object of our displeasure, even should he be their favourite chief, for their thirst for merchandise is paramount to every other consideration.”7

So there was his plan: drive the British out of Upper Louisiana and use the U.S. Army to promote and protect the fur traders of St. Louis while holding back the squatters. It clearly favored the established elite in St. Louis over the onrushing Americans looking for land. Just as clearly, it was going to require expenditures by the government far in excess of anything yet contemplated in Washington.

In late winter of 1807–8, Lewis set out for St. Louis to see if he could put it into execution.

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