THE DEATH OF MERIWETHER LEWIS
Did the Famed Explorer Die by His Own
Hand -- or Was He Murdered?

In September 1806, the Lewis and Clark Expedition returned to St. Louis after an absence of two years and four months. The men had crossed more than 6,000 miles of wilderness and arrived in the city to much celebration. The welcoming festivities were even more joyous than the ones that had marked their departure. The adventurers of the expedition crew were mustered out and Lewis departed for Washington, followed by Clark a short time later.

Lewis was welcomed into the home of President Jefferson and managed to obtain both extra money and land grants for his men. He was also appointed as Governor of the Louisiana Territory, with Clark serving as the region’s Indian agent and being promoted to the rank of Brigadier General. Clark was the first to depart for St. Louis and there, the general married and moved into a new home. He invited Lewis to stay with he and his family but the governor refused, not wanting to impose on the Clark’s. Instead, he moved in with Auguste Chouteau and took over his duties as governor. He soon found much to dislike about the office, such as sitting behind a desk all day long and dealing with politicians, which he despised. There were abuses with the fur trade and problems with land titles, all of which were brought to Lewis.

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Meriwether Lewis

In spite of this, he seemed to be the man for the job. He was well acquainted with the Louisiana Territory, an experienced military officer and popular in the city. The closest post office at that time was in Illinois and it took weeks for mail to reach the city. With that in mind, he opened the city’s first post office and encouraged newspaper publishers to open in St. Louis as well. This news was met with enthusiasm, but Lewis’ early initiatives would not last.

In order to keep the peace and intimidate the Indians, he demanded more money and troops than Washington could afford to send him. War seemed to be coming with England once again, as British ships were seizing sailors on the high seas. Lewis also became involved in several local quarrels and made an enemy of his subordinate, Frederick Bates. A heated argument at a ball one night resulted in Bates humiliating Lewis in public. The furious governor sent Clark to invite Bates to a private meeting. Clark refused to go, convinced that the two men would end up involved in a duel if he did. Bates soon became the governor’s tormentor, spreading rumors about Lewis and reporting the mistakes that he made to men in Washington.

Lewis’ administration began to fail and as it did, his personal life began to deteriorate as well. Land speculating drained his finances. He became careless about his clothing and his appearance. He began to drink too much, complaining that he was unable to sleep unless he took laudanum. To make matters worse, Thomas Jefferson left the presidency and a new administration took over in Washington. Vouchers that Lewis had signed for medicine for the Indians had been returned unpaid and he went deeper into debt by paying for the bills out of his own pocket. He raved and fumed and wrote angry letters to Washington, becoming so ill with worry that he was confined to his bed. He feared that his loyalty was being questioned and that he was being accused of treason. He wrote letters, vowing that he would not try and separate the Louisiana Territory from the United States and become a traitor.

Such a fear is not as strange as it sounds. Lewis’ predecessor had been General James Wilkinson. Although barely remembered today, Wilkinson was famous in his time. Born in Maryland, he had reached the rank of commanding general during the American Revolution. After the war, he sought to make his fortune on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and in 1789, became the paid agent for Spain in New Orleans. Wilkinson later became involved with the treacherous Aaron Burr in a plot to make the Louisiana Territory into a separate nation. Lewis must have feared that, as Wilkinson’s successor, he would be painted with the same brush.

After consulting with Clark (who advised against it), Lewis decided to journey to Washington and defend himself against charges he believed had been leveled against him. He set out down the Mississippi in 1809, planning to travel by boat from New Orleans to Washington. But on reaching Chickasaw Bluffs, now Memphis, he and his small party heard that British ships were patrolling the Gulf of Mexico. Fearing that he might fall into enemy hands, Lewis decided to make his way to Washington by land instead. He would travel along the Natchez Trace, the rough and often dangerous wilderness trail that was the main overland route of the day. By most accounts, Lewis was in no condition to travel. His companions warned him that his health would not hold for the number of days in the saddle that it would take to reach Washington. Lewis could not be dissuaded though and he purchased two pack mules for his records and borrowed three Army horses for himself and his servants. Major John Neely, the Cherokee Indian agent at the Bluffs, tried to talk Lewis out of the journey but when he failed, he decided to accompany him. They soon set out with Lewis complaining of terrible headaches and a fever.

On October 10, 1809, a torrential rainstorm fell on the party. The pack horses fled into the forest and Lewis’ servants went after them. Major Neely begged Lewis to ride to the home of the nearest white settlers on the trail, promising that he would help to find the pack horses and the records they carried. Lewis agreed and the wet and sick man rode to the home of John Grinder, located about 72 miles from Nashville. The house served as an inn to other travelers along the Trace, so Mrs. Grinder graciously opened the door to him, although not before taking her children into an adjoining room. Mr. Grinder was away on business when Lewis arrived. A short time later, the servants arrived with the pack horses and Mrs. Grinder was reassured by their presence. She then prepared a meal for supper.

According to her account though, Lewis ate little. He seemed very agitated and was heard talking to himself. He lit a pipe and then smoked it, pacing back and forth on the front lawn. She said that he ranted about his enemies in Washington. Then suddenly, he would calm down and speak quite kindly to her. She wasn’t sure what to think of her famous, yet quite strange, visitor. She prepared a bed for him, but he refused to sleep on it, preferring to make a pallet for himself on the floor with a buffalo robe. After that, Mrs. Grinder retired to bed with her children, but not before sending Lewis’ servants to sleep in the barn.

In 1811, Dr. Alexander Wilson told Mrs. Grinder’s account in detail. She stated that she was awakened several times that night by the sound of Lewis walking back and forth, once again talking to himself. In the middle of the night, she heard the sound of a gunshot and then the sound of something heavy falling to the floor. This noise was followed by the words, “Oh Lord!”

Immediately after that, she heard the sound of another gunshot and in a few moments, Lewis’ voice at her door. He called out to her. “Oh, Madame, give me some water and heal my wounds.” Through the chinks in the log walls, she saw him stagger and fall down between the kitchen and the room where Lewis had gone to bed. He crawled for some distance, raised himself up and then sat for a few minutes. He then staggered back to the kitchen and attempted to draw water, but was unable to. Mrs. Grinder refused to leave the room where she had been sleeping and assist him. In fact, she waited nearly two hours before even sending her children to the barn to rouse the servants. They came inside and found Lewis on his pallet again. He had been wounded in the side and once in the head. The buffalo robe that he lay on was soaked with blood and Lewis was barely hanging on to life. He whispered to them. “I am no coward. But I am strong, so hard to die.” He died just as the sun was rising over the trees.

Major Neely arrived later that morning. He took charge of Lewis’ papers and carried them the rest of the way to Washington. All of the protested vouchers were promptly paid. His journals were turned over to Thomas Jefferson and his records were placed in the care of the State Department. A year later, John Grinder, in whose home Lewis died, was brought before a grand jury and accused of the explorer’s murder. The charges were dismissed as no evidence or motive existed for the crime.

Lewis was buried there on the property. The land now exists as the Meriwether Lewis State Park in Tennessee. According to Major Neely and the historians that have followed him, Lewis’ death was clearly a suicide. The man had been deranged and drunk and took his own life in the Grinder cabin. But was this really the case? If Lewis did in fact kill himself, then why do so many questions remain? Why didn’t Mrs. Grinder come to the man’s assistance? Why didn’t Lewis’ servants hear the gunshots? Were they somehow involved in a crime.. a murder, or a robbery gone bad? Regardless, there were really no eyewitnesses to Lewis’ death, as even Mrs. Grinder did not see the shots being fired.

In fact, the belief that Lewis committed suicide rests only on two accounts for his state of mind during his journey. The first account was that of Captain Gilbert Russell, the commander of Fort Pickering at Chickasaw Bluffs. He stated that Lewis was ill when he arrived there and he believed that the governor had been drinking heavily. Others refute this and say that Lewis was not drunk or deranged, but sick from a digestive ailment. However, Russell’s statement also went on to say that one of Lewis’ party said that he had twice attempted suicide while traveling down the river. Russell claimed to be so concerned that he confined Lewis for five days and kept both liquor and his papers away from him. Lewis seemed to recover and on September 29, he allowed him to leave the fort.

The other account that credits Lewis’ death as suicide was that of Major Neely, who accompanied him but then conveniently disappeared on the night Lewis was killed. He stated that the governor was drinking while they traveled along the Natchez Trace.

While most historians accept the fact that Lewis did commit suicide, there have been many who have questioned this. They believe that his death may have been part of a far-reaching conspiracy and that this may be the reason that Lewis’ ghost is still believed to walk today!

If indeed the famed adventurer’s death was a murder plot, the main culprit behind it is believed to be General James Wilkinson, Lewis’ predecessor. In 1804, Wilkinson had conspired with Aaron Burr to create their own “empire in the west” and had tried to extract money and weapons from both Britain and Spain. He even turned on Burr in 1806 and informed Thomas Jefferson of the plot. Burr was brought to trial but was somehow acquitted. Wilkinson too escaped punishment and in fact, even returned to the post of governor of Louisiana after Lewis’ death! It has been pointed out that Frederick Bates, who did much to sabotage Lewis’ career in St. Louis, was close to Wilkinson and remained in touch with him in New Orleans. It is surmised that perhaps Lewis, who was known for his honesty and integrity, may have discovered new evidence against Wilkinson and planned to use it. It is even believed that this may have been the real purpose behind his trip to Washington and even why he chose to take an overland route instead of journeying by river. Lewis may not have been afraid of British ships in the Gulf, but the fact that Wilkinson was in New Orleans!

Could agents of Wilkinson have pursued Lewis? Some believe so. In fact, Captain Russell at Fort Pickering, who imprisoned Lewis and then testified that he had been drunk and deranged, had been appointed to his position by Wilkinson, as had Major Neely. Could the two men have testified falsely against Lewis after his death? Or more shocking, could Major Neely have actually assassinated Lewis and then disappeared, only to show up at the Grinder house the next morning?

Who knows? This mystery will undoubtedly never be solved.

And perhaps this is why legends persist today that state that the ghost of Meriwether Lewis still wanders the area where he breathed his last. The stories say that on certain nights, the sound of a water dipper scrapes against an empty water bucket and whispered words of “so hard to die” can be heard on the wind near Lewis’ grave site. The unsolved mystery of his death still remains and if the rumors and legends are to be believed, so does the great explorer’s spirit....

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