Meriwether Lewis Show (available online until July 20)

Event details

  • Monday | July 20, 2020
  • 7:00 pm - 8:30 pm
  • (864) 596-3503

View Show  |  Cost: Free

The Captain Meriwether Lewis Show, presented by Ken Johnston on July 13th will be available online until July 20th.


With the near doubling of its nominal territory by the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the United States needed to find out just what President Thomas Jefferson had bought by putting “boots on the ground” – the boots of Captain Meriwether Lewis and his Corps of Discovery. Take part in a conversation with Captain Lewis in September of 1806 as he returns from over two years of scientific discovery, diplomacy with Native Nations aided by the translator Sacagawea and the African American slave York, mapping immense geographic expanses, and surviving several scrapes with death – all part of the adventure of a lifetime!

Who was Meriwether Lewis? He was a brilliant young man who dined most every night with President Thomas Jefferson. He delivered Jefferson’s State of the Union addresses to Congress. He led a military/commercial/scientific expedition up the Missouri, across the Rockies to the end of Land and back again. He and his men crossed an uncharted land inhabited by hostile and unknown nations only and only once fired their guns in anger and in two years lost only one man. Some say he was being groomed to become President, and was assassinated. Some say he was a troubled soul that committed suicide. Come talk to him at Chautauqua and make up your own mind.

This event is presented by the Spartanburg County Public Libraries.

Ken Johnston

Mr. Johnston graduated from LaGrange College, receiving the Ingrid Bergman Scholarship and the Irene Arnett Drama Award. He has done Museum Theatre and Historic Character Interpretation for Colonial Williamsburg, Mount Vernon, the Smithsonian’s National Archives, National Portrait Gallery and National Museum of American HistoryEnglish Heritage-UK, and the Atlanta History Center. Mr. Johnston, a member of the Screen Actors Guild, has appeared on National Geographic Channel, History Channel, Food Network, PBS, and Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. He has performed Shakespeare, jousted, toured with a rock band in North America/Europe, and is Curator of Education at the Northeast Georgia History Center.

Ken has performed live for Chautauqua as Francis Marion, Banastre Tarleton, Patrick Henry and Daniel Morgan.

Meriwether Lewis was born August 18, 1774 at the Lewis family estate, Locust Hill, in Albemarle County, VA. His family boasted many decorated soldiers, including his father, William Lewis. His mother, Lucy Meriwether was his father’s cousin. She was also a skilled cook and herbalist whose generous and charismatic nature was known throughout the region. The Lewis and Meriwether families were among the first to settle in the region, and as such, had a long standing connection to and deep friendship with the Jeffersons, among other established Virginia families. Thomas Jefferson knew Meriwether Lewis for the latter’s entire life.

William Lewis died of pneumonia in 1779 after crossing a freezing river on leave from the military so he could visit his family. Shortly afterwards, Lucy Lewis married a retired officer, Captain John Marks, in May of 1780. John Marks moved the entire family to Broad River Valley, Georgia, settling in the new Goosepond Community created by General George Mathews. During his time in Georgia, Lewis enhanced his skills as a hunter and outdoorsman. He would often venture out in the middle of the night in the dead of winter with only his dogs to go hunting, at eight years of age. He became interested in natural history, which would develop into a lifelong passion. His mother taught him how to gather wild herbs for medicinal purposes. It was also in Broad River that Lewis first dealt with a native Indian group. The Cherokee Indians lived in antagonistic proximity to the white settlers, but Lewis seems to have been a champion for the Cherokee amongst his own people. Gov. George Gilmer of Georgia described young Meriwether as “having inherited the energy, courage, activity, and good understanding of his mother.”

The family grew while in Broad River when Lucy Marks gave birth to Lewis’s half-brother and sister, John Hastings Marks in 1785 and Mary Garland Marks in 1788. Meriwether Lewis stayed in Georgia only a short time, he chose to return to Virginia sometime between the ages of 12 and 14 to manage Locust Hill and undergo a formal education.

Lewis attended school taught by Parsons William Douglas and Matthew Maury. (Douglas also tutored future presidents Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe.) Following his studies with Maury, Lewis studied with Dr. Charles Everitt. However, he and Everitt developed some animosity towards each other, and he transferred to the Rev. James Waddell in 1790. Lewis finished his formal education with Waddell. He briefly considered attending the College of William and Mary, but opted to remain in Albemarle to maintain Locust Hill instead.

During the early years of his management, Lewis increased the size of Locust Hill and carefully observed all of the flora and fauna that grew on his land. In 1792 John Marks died and Lewis’s mother and half siblings returned to Virginia as well.

In August 1794 in an effort to quell the Whiskey Rebellion President Washington mobilized 13,000 militiamen from Virginia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. Lewis was among those that enlisted. Though the revolt was quickly suppressed, he decided to remain with a volunteer army under the command of General Daniel Morgan which patrolled Pittsburgh following the revolt.

In August of 1795 Lewis joined the forces of General “Mad” Anthony Wayne at Fallen Timbers in time for the Treaty of Greenville, which accorded peace between the United States and several Indian tribes which had been attacking settlers in the western outreaches of the country. He served alongside another soldier with whom he would become well acquainted, William Clark. In late 1795 Lewis was reassigned to the Chosen Rifle Company, which was commanded by Clark. The two became friends and developed a deep respect for each other. Unfortunately, Clark was forced to resign his commission soon after Lewis’s arrival due to familial and health related problems. On December 5, 1800 Meriwether Lewis was promoted to the rank of captain.

In February of the following year he was invited by his longtime acquaintance and newly elected president Thomas Jefferson to become his private secretary and assistant. During his first few months in office, Jefferson developed his plan for studying the western outreaches of the American continent, and exploring new species of interest to botanists and naturalists. Jefferson discussed this idea with Lewis, and Lewis promptly volunteered to lead the proposed expedition. Jefferson sent Lewis to study natural history, botany, astronomy, and other disciplines with some of the leaders in each respective field at the time to prepare Lewis for the journey and give him a background on which to base the scientific observations which Jefferson desired the expedition to record. Jefferson proposed the expedition in a somewhat clandestine message to Congress in January, 1803, and it was approved. Jefferson left the task of recruiting men to accompany the exploration to Lewis and allowed him to invite William Clark to be his co-captain.

Lewis wrote Clark, informing him of the expedition and invited him to become his partner. Due to the inefficiency of the post at the time, Clark’s response was delayed. Lewis offered the position to another man, Moses Hooks, should Clark decline. A few days later, Clark’s elated acceptance of the offer arrived – Lewis rescinded the offer to Hooks. The expedition began on May 14, 1804, and returned in the late summer of 1806.

In 1807, Lewis returned to Washington for several events celebrating the success of the expedition, also recognizing Lewis’s personal merit. He intended at that time to start organizing his journal and field notes for publication. He disseminated his celestial observations and plant and animal specimens that the party had brought back to various scientists for further examination, analysis, and preservation. President Jefferson appointed him Governor of Louisiana, a territory the United States had acquired shortly before the expedition departed in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. In 1809, as Lewis traveled from New Orleans to Washington to see Jefferson and apprise him of his progress on publishing the journals, Lewis died. There is some controversy over whether the governor committed suicide, or whether he was murdered as part of some conspiracy, but either way, on 18 October 1809, Meriwether Lewis was found dead of several gunshot wounds in Grinder’s Inn, in Natchez Trace, Tennesee.

August 18, 1774 Lewis was born to William Lewis and Lucy Meriwether. He lived with his parents in Albemarle County, Virginia.

1793  After having no formal education until age thirteen, Lewis’ mother and stepfather sent him to school. He graduated from Washington and Lee University.

1794 The Whiskey Rebellion. Lewis, upon graduation, joined the Virginia militia. He was sent to assist in putting down the Whiskey Rebellion.

1795 After the Whiskey Rebellion, Lewis was commissioned as an Ensign. He became captain in 1800. One of his commanding officers happened to be William Clark.

April 1, 1801 President Thomas Jefferson appointed Lewis to be his aide. Lewis moved into the presidential mansion. His job was to complied information on personnel and politics of the U.S. Army.

1803 After the Louisiana Purchase, Jefferson wanted a direct and practical water communication across the continent and an accurate vision of the new land and resources. Lewis was asked by the President to lead the first transcontinental expedition.

1806 Lewis and Clark returned from the pacific with a wealth of information, maps, and plant and animal specimens.

1807 After his return from the expedition, Lewis was appointed governor of the Louisiana Territory by President Jefferson. Jefferson rewarded him with 1,600 acres of land. They also agreed to publish the Corps of Discovery journals.

August 2, 1808 With his journals in hand for publishing, Lewis set out to the capitol to assist in the resolution of bad drafts he had written as governor. His intention was to travel by ship, but changed his mind and traveled overland.

October 10, 1809 Lewis wrote a letter to President Jefferson. According to his letter, Lewis stopped at an inn for the night, had dinner, and left for his room. The innkeeper stated that gunshots were heard in the early morning. Lewis was found injured badly, dying after sunrise.

October 1809 At age 35, Meriwether Lewis was buried in an unmarked grave. Wilson, friend of Lewis and well known ornithologist erected a fence and marker for his gravesite.

“Of courage undaunted, possessing a firmness and perseverance of purpose which nothing but impossibilities could divert from its direction . .  .  I could have no hesitation in confiding the enterprise to him.” – Thomas Jefferson

Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West, by Stephen Ambrose

From Sea to Shining Sea, by James Alexander Thom (a novel published in 1984)

Lewis and Clark Pioneering Naturalists by Paul Russell Cutright (2003) Filled with quotes from the original journals balanced with precise scientific commentary by Cutright, this book was the first and is still the best at shining a spotlight on Lewis and Clark’s vital contributions to our ecological understanding of the west. With quotes on the birds, mammals, insects, fish, reptiles, plants and soils, this book is more than a catalogue of their discoveries it is homage to their diligence and inquisitive natures.

Lewis and Clark Across the Divide by Carolyn Gilman (2003) The Smithsonian Institution and The Missouri Historical Society collaborated with about a dozen museums along the route to put together a touring exhibit. This beautifully illustrated, large format book is the catalogue. With quotes from the journals, photographs of artifacts, and gorgeous landscape images, this book is the next best thing to being there. I had the great good fortune to lead teacher workshops and tours of this exhibit, but I recommend the book for a different reason, there are more post-it notes sticking out of the margins of this book than any other book in my Lewis and Clark collection.

Lewis And Clark: On the Trail of Discovery, A Museum in a Book by Rod Gragg (2003) With lots of flaps to flip, envelops to open, reproductions of maps, letters, and a shopping list, this is a fun book for any age, and my favorite book for young readers.

Lewis and Clark, An Illustrated History by Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns
Lewis and Clark on the Trail of Discovery: A Museum in a Book by Rodd Gragg
Lewis and Clark for Kids by Janis Herbert
Editions of the Lewis/Clark Journals
The Journals of Lewis and Clark edited by Bernard DeVoto (1953) Recently republished with a foreword by Stephen E. Ambrose, this is the most important journal of discovery, period! Literate, a solid piece of writing that is fun to read, filled with insight and commentary from several corps members besides the commanders, this is one of the best primary source documents in American History.
Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1804-1806; Printed from the Original Manuscripts in the Library of the American Philosophical Society – Reuben Gold Thwaites, Editor
The Definitive Journals of Lewis and Clark, 7-volume set – Gary E. Moulton, Editor