The Untimely Unexplained and Mysterious Death of Meriwether Lewis

By Don Vitale

Let's get one thing straight. If you really don't know anything about Meriwether Lewis-- who he was, what he did-- I'll have to fill in the details. We both need to be on the same page, at least historically.

For those of you who didn't fall asleep in your American history class, it'll make my job easier. Here's what you have to be interested in.

It was the night of October 11, 1809.....three years after Meriwether Lewis completed his epic journey with William Clark, exploring the western lands to the Pacific Coast. A journey that took two and a half years. Let me backtrack.

When Thomas Jefferson was elected President, he appointed Meriwether Lewis as his private secretary. Jefferson and the Lewis family were close friends and neighbors over the years. In fact, Jefferson knew Meriwether ever since the Lewis boy was born. One of Jefferson's passions-- even before he was elected President-- was finding a northwest passage to the Pacific coast.  Didn't take him long-- just three years-- after he was in office, to propose the Corps of Discovery. Mission: to form an expedition to explore the western lands to the coast.

He appointed Meriwether Lewis, a Captain in the US Army, as Senior Commander of the Expedition. Lewis selected William Clark, his friend and former commanding officer to share the responsibilities. The Lewis and Clark Expedition. They were to explore the Missouri River to its source, establish the most direct water route to the Pacific and make scientific and geographic observations along the way. They also had  to learn what they could of Indian tribes they encountered and impress them with the technology and authority of the United States. Jefferson during those three years prepared Meriwether for the expedition.  He made sure that Meriwether was schooled by the leading scientists of the day. In botany, mathematics, fossils, mapmaking, surveying, name it. During this period Lewis began stockpiling rifles and other supplies for the trip. Jefferson assigned Clark to map the area they were to explore, search for a northwest passage to the Pacific, catalogue flora and fauna, including fossils.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition set off on its historic voyage on May 14, 1804. A year and a half later the men would stand at what they had “been so long anxious to see.”  The Pacific Ocean at the mouth of the Columbia River. It took them more than 4,000 miles to cross the North American continent. It involved a contingent of 31explorers, mostly U.S. Army enlistees, known as the Corps of Discovery. And a lot of physical and emotional challenges. An historic event, to be sure.

Three years later...

At this point in his life-- Lewis was 35 years old-- a household name, a hero admired by all. Not to mention his appointment as Governor of the Louisiana Territory. Here's what happened. Lewis was traveling on the Natchez Trace, a perilous trail in a remote area of Tennessee. He was on his way to Washington D.C. to settle bills disputed by the government. If the bills signed by Lewis incurred for the expedition's return trip were disallowed, Lewis would have to pay the bills personally. He'd be ruined financially. Lewis stopped at the lodging house known as the The Grinder's stay there overnight. According to Mrs. Grinder, the innkeeper's wife, he was carrying pistols, a rifle and a tomahawk. She prepared a meal that evening, and made up a room for Lewis.  Later...about three in the morning...she said she heard several shots and saw Lewis on all fours begging for water. Lewis died before sunrise the next day with bullet wounds to his head and chest. One of his companions arrived later and buried him nearby.

That's the story-- for what it's worth-- in a nutshell.

Was Meriwether Lewis killed by his own hand?  Or was he done in by bandits...or assassins who wanted him dead. His friends, those who knew him best, assumed he committed suicide. Others believed he was murdered as part of a conspiracy.

Okay....the suicide angle. After Lewis returned from the Corps of Discovery, he was stationed in St. Louis. Signs of hypochondria surfaced. He was said to be under stress with malaria, financial problems and the urging by Jefferson to complete his journals. Lewis began drinking and taking opium pills. His physical and mental condition deteriorated, compounding depression tendencies. Most historians are in agreement with these facts. But at least one professor of history rejects the suicide theory. Describing Lewis, History Professor Paul Douglas Newman said, "At the end of his life he was a horrible drunk, terribly depressed, who could never even finish journals." The expedition "was the pinnacle of Lewis' life. He came back and he just could not readjust." After Lewis' death, Jefferson noted that members of Lewis' family had a history of a manic-depressivedisorder, that Lewis underwent periods of depression since his youth.

In contrast, however, John Guice, a professor emeritus of history, believes bandits roaming the Natchez Trace murdered Lewis. "He had so much to live for. This was the apex of a hero's career. He was Governor of a huge territory. This wasn't just anybody who kicked the bucket."

At this point in trying to fathom the answer, ask yourself how does an expert marksman mess up his own suicide by shooting himself twice? Lewis' mother also believed her son was murdered. And a commissioner from Tennessee authorized to examine Lewis' remains wrote, "It was most probable that he died at the hands of an assassin."

So what was it?  Was it a bout of depression that ended his life by his own hands? Or was an enemy lurking in the shadows that took their revenge?

Along the Natchez Trace Parkway in the town of Hohenwald in Tennessee, Meriwether Lewis is buried at an unadorned memorial. A broken column, a symbol of a life cut short, marks his grave.--dv