Murder Mystery on the Frontier- The Death of Meriwether Lewis

Meriwether Lewis by Charles Willson Peale - Photo credit- Wikipedia
Meriwether Lewis by Charles Willson Peale – Photo credit- Wikipedia

In 1809, there was no bigger national heroes than Lewis and Clark. They had just spent years traveling across the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase and their exploits had lit the imagination of the country. Meriwether Lewis was a trusted associate of President Jefferson and had been hand picked for both the expedition and to be the governor of the Upper Louisiana Territory. It must have seemed as though Lewis had his life set.

However, things were not rosy in the home he shared with one of St. Louis’ most august families, the Chouteaus. He was bored with his desk job and began drinking heavily. Lewis was also deeply in debt, both from land speculation and from paying for medicine and supplies for the Native Americans under his jurisdiction out of his own pocket. He even believed he was going to be accused of treason.

In a snap decision, that his friend and former partner William Clark disagreed with, Lewis decided to make the the trip to Washington to defend himself against any charges and sell his memoirs of the trip west to settle his debts. He set out from St. Louis down the Mississippi and intended to get a ship to Washington at New Orleans. However, something happened that made him change his plans. Whether it was rumors of British warships in the Gulf of Mexico or something else, no one can be sure. However, when Lewis got to Chickasaw Bluffs, what is now Memphis, he got off the river boat and began a dangerous overland journey up the Natchez Trace.

By this time Lewis was ill, complaining of a headache and a fever. The Indian Agent at Chickasaw Bluffs, Major John Neely, tried to convince Lewis to stay or continue by river, but he was not successful. Neely decided to travel with Lewis in light of his decision to continue. On October 9, they came to Grinder’s Stand, an inn along the Natchez Trace. According to Priscilla Grinder, the wife of the proprietor, Lewis was agitated and “speaking to himself in a violent manner”. He was intermittently calm and upset. She finally got him settled and went onto bed herself. Somewhere in the night, she heard a pistol shot. Lewis had been shot in the head and in the abdomen, in what was reported as self inflicted wounds. After suffering most of the night, he died with the last words, “I am not a coward, but I am so strong. So hard to die.” He was buried not far from Grinder’s Stand, and the State of Tennessee erected a monument in 1848.

Grave of Meriwether Lewis- Photo credit- Google Images
Grave of Meriwether Lewis- Photo credit- Google Images

Because of Priscilla Grinder’s accounts of Lewis’ state of mind and other reports from his companions, namely Major John Neely, most historians as well as Lewis’ close friend Thomas Jefferson accounted this as a suicide. However, there are still some facts that remain unclear. Mrs. Grinder’s story changed from repeated telling, and even though she is the only known eyewitness, she did not see the events. At first she reported hearing a shot, then it changed to two shots.

The forensics also point to shenanigans going on. The pistols Lewis were shot by were .69 caliber. These are heavy duty weapons that would take a good chunk out of a man, especially at close range. Lewis was also known to be an expert marksman. The first shot is thought to be a headshot, which removed part of the skull. Then a second shot to the chest. How could a man with a severe head wound reload then shoot himself again? This was a flint lock pistol, and not easy to reload. Mrs. Grinder reports that Lewis crawled around the yard wounded and in pain. Would a man with two such severe wounds have the strength to do this? It casts a lot of doubt on the story.

Inscription on Meriwether Lewis' grave- photo credit- Google Images
Inscription on Meriwether Lewis’ grave- photo credit- Google Images

When the monument was placed over Lewis’ grave in 1848, they also exhumed the body and made an examination of the upper portion of Lewis’ skeleton to accurately identify the remains. Upon the examination of the skull, the committee states, “The impression has long prevailed that under the influence of disease of body and mind Governor Lewis perished by his own hands. It seems to be more probable that he died by the hands of an assassin.” Then why does the suicide story still persist?

Descendants of the Lewis family have petitioned several years to have Lewis’ body exhumed and a modern forensic examination made. However, since the body is buried on National Park property, it is prohibited. Until an official examination is made, we will never know how one of America’s earliest heroes met his end.


Daniel Boone

12115718_173323629676394_1734646080862523573_n Daniel Boone is most famous for his exploration and settlement of what is now Kentucky, which was then part of Virginia but on the other side of the mountains from the settled areas. He is known as one of the first American folk heroes, but was also an American pioneer, explorer, a woodsman, and a frontiersman. His exploits made him the stuff of legends.

The Boone family were “Quakers”, they belonged to the Religious Society of Friends, and following persecution in England for their dissenting beliefs, Daniel’s father, Squire Boone emigrated from the small town of Bradninch, Devon (near Exeter, England) to Pennsylvania in 1713, to join William Penn’s colony of dissenters. In 1720, Squire who worked as a weaver and a blacksmith, married Sarah Morgan. They moved to the Oley Valley, near the modern city of Reading. There they built a log cabin, partially preserved today as the Daniel Boone Homestead. Daniel Boone was born there, the sixth of eleven children. One of the folktales that was told of a young Boone was that he was hunting in the woods with some other boys, when the howl of a panther scattered all but Boone. He calmly cocked his rifle and shot the predator through the heart just as it leaped at him. The validity of this claim is contested, but the story was told so often that it became part of his popular image.

In 1750, Squire sold his land and moved the family to North Carolina. Daniel did not attend church again. He identified as a Christian and had all of his children baptized. The Boones eventually settled on the Yadkin River, in what is now Davie County. On August 14, 1756, Daniel married Rebecca Bryan, a neighbor whose brother married one of Boone’s sisters. The couple initially lived in a cabin on his father’s farm and would have ten children.

Boone would support his family by hunting and trapping game, and selling their pelts in the fur market. It was through this occupational interest that Boone first learned the easy routes to the area. Despite some resistance from American Indian tribes such as the Shawnee, in 1775 Boone blazed his Wilderness Road through the Cumberland Gap in the Appalachian Mountains from North Carolina and Tennessee into Kentucky. There he founded the village of Boonesborough, Kentucky, one of the first American settlements west of the Appalachians.11933460_173323656343058_3356189931321145290_n

Boone was a militia officer during the Revolutionary War (1775–83), which in Kentucky was fought primarily between the American settlers and the British-aided Indians. On July 14, 1776, Boone’s daughter Jemima and two other teenage girls were captured outside Boonesborough by an Indian war party, who carried the girls north towards the Shawnee towns in the Ohio country
. Boone and a group of men from Boonesborough followed in pursuit, finally catching up with them two days later. Boone and his men ambushed the Indians while they were stopped for a meal, rescuing the girls and driving off their captors. Boone would eventually be captured by Shawnee warriors in 1778. He escaped and alerted Boonesborough that the Shawnees were planning an attack. Although heavily outnumbered, Americans repulsed the Shawnee warriors.

Boone was elected to the first of his three terms in the Virginia General Assembly during the Revolutionary War, and fought in the Battle of Blue Licks in 1782. Blue Licks, a Shawnee victory over the Patriots, was one of the last battles of the Revolutionary War, coming after the main fighting ended in October 1781. Following the war, Boone worked as a surveyor and merchant, but fell deeply into debt through failed Kentucky land speculation. Frustrated with the legal problems resulting from his land claims, in 1799 Boone immigrated to eastern Missouri, where he spent most of the last two decades of his life.

12122512_173323669676390_5700338240815175919_nDaniel Boone died of natural causes on September 26, 1820, just 2-1/2 months short of his 86th birthday. His last words were, “I’m going now. My time has come.” He was buried next to Rebecca, who had died on March 18, 1813. Boone remains an iconic figure in American history. After his death, he was frequently the subject of heroic tall tales and works of fiction.


The State of Franklin

Location of the state of Franklin
Location of the state of Franklin

Following the American Revolutionary War there were 13 states that had been officially admitted to the Union. The 14th state to try their hand at joining the Union was a state originally called Frankland but later changed to Franklin. In April of 1784, North Carolina ceded an eastern part of their state between the Mississippi River and the Appalachian Mountains in what is today a part of Tennessee. When the war was over Congress was penniless and many states owed money to the government for war debts. As North Carolina could not afford to pay their debt in currency, the government agreed to the 29 million acres offered as payment for their debt. This agreement also stated that Congress would assume all responsibilities of the offered land within 2 years as it was not owned by the country as opposed to the state of North Carolina.

During the period where Congress had yet to fulfill their duties of responsibilities and North Carolina no longer owning the land, the residents living there decided that they wanted to be their own state. The decision was made after a combination of attacks from the Native Americans, who believed the land should still be theirs, and the government, who had all but abandoned the people living there, that led to the declaration of the new state Frankland. An elected governor, John Sevier, assumed his role and promptly hired a legislature, wrote a constitution and began holding court all within the new state.

It was now time for the state to petition to be an official member of the Union so in May of 1785 that is exactly what happened. Sevier decided that he wanted to change the name from Frankland – meaning Land of the Free – to Franklin, supposedly to win the favour of Benjamin Franklin. The hard work and even the name change was all for naught as Congress denied Franklin entrance into the Union when they did not receive two-thirds of the votes needed for statehood. Even though the state was not official, it did succeed at being its own independent nation for the next 4 years.

John Sevier
John Sevier

The United States did not accept Franklin but one important aspect of the petition that came to be was the addition of a clause into the U.S. Constitution, Article IV, Section III: “New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new States shall be formed or erected within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress”.

Once an independent republic, Franklin set up their own government in the newly declared capital of Greeneville. The very first meeting of legislature occurred in December of 1785 where a permanent constitution was drawn up. Laws were put into place, such as fixed taxes, opening of courts, a bartering system instead of currency, and a two-year reprieve of taxes. Sevier also made peace treaties with the Native American tribes of the area, all except the Chickamauga Cherokee who continually threatened and attacked the people of Franklin as they believed it was rightfully their land.

It was just not enough. Trouble seriously started in 1786 when North Carolina had a renewed interest in the ceded land. What this meant for Franklin was that it no longer had the support of the North Carolina militia and to try to win their land back, North Carolina offered to waive all back taxes. Franklin was still on North Carolina land since the government rejected their admittance into the Union so the independent republic had an obligation to pay taxes to North Carolina. Sevier rejected the offer.

The struggles of the bartering system and a reprieve of taxes had weakened Franklin’s economy so in a last ditch effort to save the independent republic, Sevier asked the Spanish for financial aid in 1788. The decision to ask for aid outside the United States was a bold and terrible move; as soon as North Carolina heard the news they were instantly panicked at the thought of having a Spanish border state. In response, North Carolina had Sevier arrested for treason to stop the deal being finalized. Once Sevier was no longer in Franklin to defend his land, North Carolina once again took back the territory in 1789. Not long after North Carolina gained Franklin back, they ceded it back to the government to form what was to eventually become the state of Tennessee as the 16th state admitted to the Union.

As for Sevier, he escaped punishment on the charge of treason and even went on to become the first governor of Tennessee in 1796.