Americas,  ER,  United States

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.