The Death of Meriwether Lewis

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Meriwether Lewis

Scholars have long wondered if Lewis was a victim of foul play, or if he committed suicide. In 2009, the 200th anniversary of his death, the debate intensified.

When the Lewis and Clark expedition returned to the St Louis after an absence of two years and four months, there was great rejoicing. Though he did not know it at the time, Meriwether Lewis was at the pinnacle of his career. Lewis and his co-commander William Clark had explored a vast new continent, mapping rivers, discovering new plant and animal species, and establishing relations with Native American Indian tribes.

Both men were honored for their accomplishments. Lewis became governor of Louisiana Territory, seemingly the start of a brilliant career. But only three years later, on October 11, 1809, Meriwether Lewis was mortally wounded while staying at a frontier inn along the Natchez Trace. He had been found bleeding profusely from two gunshot wounds. But was it suicide or murder? The 200th anniversary of his death in 2009 has both sharpened and renewed the historical debate

Did Meriwether Lewis Commit Suicide?

Even in the best of times, Lewis was often moody and introspective. He was capable of making good friends—William Clark and President Thomas Jefferson are prime examples—but managed to rub many others the wrong way. Lewis simply did not seem to be a likeable man. At times he was touchy, opinionated, and quarrelsome. But his personality seemed to deteriorate in his last years. The explorer became careless of dress, engaged in wild—and unsuccessful—land speculation, and drank heavily.

Some historians have “diagnosed” depression. At the time of his death Lewis was traveling to Washington, DC by way of the Natchez Trace. Lewis was angry and depressed. As governor he had paid official bills out of his own pocket, and had not been reimbursed by the government. Witnesses claim he was acting erratically during much of the journey. Unable to fight his personal demons, Meriwether Lewis shot himself. That, at least, is the theory espoused by some historians.

It should be said that those who cared for him the most, like William Clark, thought he committed suicide. According to Landon Y Jones’s article in a 2002 Time magazine, Clark read of his friend’s demise in a Kentucky newspaper. “I fear O!” Clark wrote, “I fear that the waight (sic) of his mind has overcome him.”

Meriwether Lewis and Syphilis

Some feel that Lewis was suffering from the advanced stages of venereal disease, more specifically syphilis. Some modern physicians take this view. In his article Self Destruction on the Natchez Trace Dr Reimert Thorolf Ravenbolt claims Lewis and other members of the expedition contracted the disease by sleeping with infected Native American women. Dr Ravenbolt points to one specific time, August 13-14, 1805, when Lewis and some others were with the Shoshoni (Clark was with another party).

A few weeks later Lewis noted “several of the men are unwell,” and that “brakings out (sic) and irruptions of the skin have also been common with us for some time.” Dr Ravensbolt thinks these are the secondary stage of syphilis, and by the term “us,” Lewis is indirectly including himself. Both Lewis and Clark never record their own possible sexual adventures, though they do talk of other members of the expedition.

In any case Lewis never really seems to have been well again. Even in the latter stages of the expedition, Clark noted “Capt Lewis scarcely able to ride on a gentle horse.” His erratic behavior also seems to point to latter-stage syphilis.

Was Meriwether Lewis Murdered?

Others feel sure he was murdered. Mrs. Grinder, wife of the innkeeper, gave conflicting and sometimes contradictory testimony. Lewis was shot, but she also told a story of him crawling around the courtyard begging for water, or trying to cut himself with his own razor. The Grinders later moved, and had money to buy land, fueling conspiracy theories.

Authors Kira Gale and James E Starrs claim in their book The Murder of Meriwether Lewis: A Historic Crime Scene Investigation that it was more than just murder—it was political assassination. The Natchez Trace was a rough area, infested with highwaymen and other unsavory people. Yet robbery does not seem the motive. Some—like Gale and Starr—say it was an assassination arranged by General James Wilkinson, then commander of the U.S. Army, among others. Supposedly Lewis was about to expose fraudulent land deals in the Louisiana Territory.

The Lewis Family and Exhumation

Lewis died childless, but there are still descendants of his family. The modern-day Lewis family filed an application with the National Park Service in January, 2009 to exhume the body for forensic examination. After the examination, the body would be given a Christian burial. The hope is to settle the controversy once and for all. The NPS is considering the matter.

Sources:

  1. Vardis Fisher, Suicide of Murder? The Strange Death of Governor Meriwether Lewis (Swallow Press, 1993)
  2. Kira Gale and James E. Starrs, The Death of Meriwether Lewis: A Historic Crime Scene Investigation (River Junction Press, 2009)
  3. Dr Reimart Thorolf Ravenbolt, MD “Self Destruction on the Natchez Trace”, Columbia—The Magazine of Northwest History (Summer, 1999)