Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Meriwether Lewis, suicide or murder?

The Lewis and Clark expedition. which explored the land Thomas Jefferson added in the Louisiana Purchase, as well as what became the Oregon Territory, made Meriwether Lewis and William Clark historic figures. While Clark lived to age 68, Lewis died at 35 due to two gunshot wounds. Most historians assumed he killed himself, but the two wounds always raised questions about the possibility of murder. During the bicentennial in 2009 of his death, forensic science made things murkier.

Born on August 18, 1774, in Ivy, Virginia, he was five when his father -- Lieutenant William Lewis -- died of pneumonia on November 17, 1779. His mother quickly married Captain John Marks and they moved to Georgia shortly afterward. As a teenager, Meriwether Lewis enjoyed hunting and exploring the woodland, often going out with his dog in the middle of the night. At 13, he was sent back to Virginia for a formal education, graduating at 18 from Liberty Hall, which is now Washington and Lee University. He joined the Virginia militia. His unit helped quell the Whiskey Rebellion.

Lewis had political connections. Thomas Jefferson hired him as his private secretary early in his presidency. Naturally, when Jefferson wanted the new territory explored, he knew he could trust Lewis and that Lewis was quite knowledgeable about nature. Jefferson assigned Lewis to put together an expedition -- the Corps of Discovery as Sergeant Patrick Gass later called it. They made the first official transcontinental trip by white American. They were the astronauts of their day, exploring terra incognita instead of the galaxies.

For his lieutenant on the journey, Captain Lewis recruited an old Army buddy, William Clark. Their three-year journey covered 8,000 miles. They explored lands that were lightly populated by Indians who were technologically backward. Within a century, the land Lewis and Clark explored would be the home to millions of white settlers who established businesses, government and a new society. The Indians either died, assimilated or became exiled to reservations.

Upon their return, the members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition were national heroes. Jefferson gave Lewis 1,600 acres of land, and appointed him governor of Louisiana Territory.

But by the summer of 1809, Lewis was broke. He and the Department of War had a difference of opinion about his expense account and he headed to Washington to resolve the dispute. He traveled the Natchez Trace from Natchez, Mississippi, to Nashville, Tennessee. This was a dangerous route, also known as the Devil's Backbones as highwaymen patrolled it. The danger was such that he wrote his will before leaving. He suffered malaria throughout his life. He drank too much. He also had failed in an attempted suicide before leaving on September 3, 1809. Debt, illness, alcoholism and depression add up to suicide, right?


On October 10, 1809, Lewis arrived at Grinder's Stand, an inn of sorts with cabins, south of Nashville in Hohenwald, Tennessee. The inn was run by the Griners, Robert and Priscilla, but frequent mispronunciation of their surname led to it being called Grinder's Stand. The next morning, Mrs. Griner found him dead in his cabin. While she later reported hearing voices, gunshots and a cry for help in the middle of the night, she failed to intervene.

Then there was the issue of James Neelly, an Indian agent who accompanied Lewis through this dangerous area. But Neelly was not with him that night.

Finally, there was the money that Lewis had borrowed to pay for his journey; it was gone. Spent? Robbed? Who knows?

On October 11, 2009, the 200th anniversary of the death of Lewis, biographer Thomas Danisi told NPR that the malaria, not depression, likely triggered the suicide: "Well, for one thing, he had a lifelong record of malaria attacks, because this is a parasite that does not go away. He may have even have had more than one of version of malaria. That's very painful disease and it affects, gives you really terrible headaches, for one thing, abdominal pains. If you're weak and suffering from this, you're not in a complete state of good mind."

Of course, it is his life, not his death, that define Meriwether Lewis. He headed one of the most remarkable expeditions in human history, not just U.S. history. The expedition charted territory, identified hundreds of animal and plant species, and made diplomatic agreements with dozens of Indian tribes, many of whom knew of only one small area in the region. They blazed trails that would transform a desert, mountain range and woodlands into The West.

My first collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here. And the Kindle version is here.


  1. He got screwed big time by the government over his expenses while governor of Missouri. They should have done better by this great man than they did. As I mentioned in a comment on an earlier post, Undaunted Courage is a good book about Lewis and the expedition. I have since driven most of the Lewis and Clark historical route. If I have time on my trip west next week, I may get the last leg of that in.

  2. There's the L&C Nat'l. Monument, with museums on both sides (and both worthwhile) of the Columbia River and a replica of Ft. Clatsop where (as best as could be figured, so many years later) they over-wintered,