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The Mysterious Death of Meriwether Lewis

He fought his way to the Pacific and back but took the wrong turn to Nashville.

Meriwether Lewis committed suicide - or did he? Lewis's death has been the subject of debate for nearly 200 years. Whispers of his depressed state of mind (and/or alcoholism, and/or an addiction to opium) made their way east, and these allegations as well as many other details remain rather ambiguous. For example, the nature of Lewis's wounds is a major area of discrepancy in the many versions of his death: some say he was shot twice, others say three times. Places mentioned are his forehead, back of the head, under his chin, in his sides, chest, abdomen, and back.

Stories abound of what followed Lewis's death on the Natchez Trace in 1809. Some insisted that a coroner's inquest had been held and determined that Lewis was a victim of a homicide based on the site of his wounds and the absence of powder burn marks. Local legend says that the owner of the remote inn where Lewis died was the culprit, but neighbors feared retribution and declared it a suicide to keep the peace. Supposedly a post rider found Lewis's body laying by the Natchez Trace, and he insisted that the explorer, and now governor of the Louisiana Territory, had been shot in the back. Another story from the exhumation of his body in the 1840s claims that Lewis suffered a wound in the back of the head. Pistols then had elongated barrels and this was seen as proof of foul play since such a gunshot would have required the movements of a talented contortionist. A committee sent their findings to the state capital, reporting that they believed Meriwether Lewis was indeed a murder victim.Meriwether Lewis, portrait by Chalres Wilson Peale

Despite these allegations, many contemporary historians tend to cite early assertions of suicide as fact and airily dismiss any alternative. Remarkably their belief stems from the testimony of James Neelly, a man who accompanied Lewis on his trip east, but who was not at the scene. Based on letters by Neelly, both William Clark and Thomas Jefferson accepted this verdict. Family tradition among Clark's descendants, however, holds that he later voiced doubts that his friend would have committed such a desperate act.

Jefferson's easy acceptance, though, is more difficult to explain. Why would a president who could have chosen anyone for private secretary choose one who suffered from what was then called "melancholia"? Furthermore, after living with Lewis for two years, why then select such a man to lead an expedition into the wilderness knowing that he was prone to what Jefferson described as "sensible depressions of mind" and "hypochondriac affections"? And why send him to the Aaron Burr conspiracy trial as the president's personal representative and later appoint him governor of a territory in turmoil? Jefferson stated that the "sedentary occupations" seemed to make Lewis more prone to these attacks; interestingly, it is Jefferson who appointed the soldier-explorer to the only desk jobs he knew. Perhaps the now former president in his mid-60s and hundreds of miles from the scene found it easier simply to accept Neelly's verdict.

The Circumstances

Meriwether Lewis departed St. Louis on September 4, 1809, with his servant John Pernier. A few days into the trip, he fell ill with a recurrence of malaria, a disease which can reappear unexpectedly and manifest itself in a variety of symptoms - high fever, delirium, paranoia, etc. - that may mimic insanity. Lewis stayed at Fort Pickering (present-day Memphis), under the watchful eye of its commander Captain Gilbert Russell before departing for Nashville along the Natchez Trace. During this time, a peculiar thing happened. Word of suicidal attempts by "deranged" Governor Lewis reached Nashville. The source of these rumors is unknown.

Few roads in American history share as colorful or dangerous a past as that of the Natchez Trace. One of its nicknames was the "Devil's Backbone." In many places, the Trace was less a road and more a path, for originally it had been used by Native Americans of the region. It now was the main overland route from New Orleans to Nashville, a small frontier community where a stage could be taken east. Robbers, thieves, and highwaymen roamed the Trace prowling for easy marks. Scarcely anyone traveled the road alone. Some of the roughest men of the frontier, the river men who traveled south to New Orleans on flatboats then returned north, always amassed in packs when they journeyed on the Trace.

Consequently when Lewis appeared healthy enough to resume his journey, he needed others to accompany him. Captain Russell himself desired to be the governor's escort, but his request was turned down by Brigadier General James Wilkinson, a known co-conspirator with Aaron Burr. Then out of the blue arrived a newly appointed Chickasaw Indian agent in the employ of Wilkinson, James Neelly. He immediately volunteered to provide the escort with his own servant. Four men were better than two, and the group departed Fort Pickering on September 29. Lewis himself was well protected with a rifle, brace of pistols, tomahawk, and a dirk. On the morning of October 10, the men rose to find some of the horses missing. Instead of remaining together, they decided to split with Lewis riding ahead and Neelly agreeing to meet him at the next inn or "stand."

Accounts vary considerably as to what transpired next.

Lewis left Neelly to search for horses. (In one story, the servants accompanied Lewis. In another, they followed some time later.) That afternoon Governor Lewis came to a pair of roughly hewn log cabins with a passageway between. He rode up and inquired of the mistress if it was a public house. She affirmed this and he asked for lodging which she provided in the cabin across from hers. Mrs. Grinder was there alone with her children because her husband was away (depending on which version of the story, at another farm of theirs or hunting). She cooked dinner for the governor who ate with her and her family (and, according to one account, the servants were there too). Mrs. Grinder later commented that his behavior was odd for he would pace and then sit and talk "like a lawyer." He asked for liquor but drank little. Pernier and Neelly's servant appeared sometime (or were already there) and bedded down (in the stable or in Lewis's cabin).

Later that night shots rang out (two, or was it three?). A short time later Mrs. Grinder heard a noise outside as though someone were crawling. Then Lewis's voice cried begging for water. Fearful that danger lurked in the dark, Mrs. Grinder refused his request and kept the door closed. She did, though, peer between the chinks in her door and witness the Governor of Upper Louisiana pitifully scraping the empty water bucket then painfully dragging himself back to his cabin.

Once day broke Mrs. Grinder said she went to visit him (presumably finally to give him some water) and found him wounded in the head and chest. The servants (one or both of whom may or may not have been present in the cabin or asleep in the barn) claimed he had said, "I have done the business." He complained that because he was so strong it took him so long to die. Lewis breathed his last early that morning.

Some time later James Neelly arrived. The only contemporary written account of this tragic event comes from his pen. Of course he was not present at the time, but gives the servants and Mrs. Grinder as the source. Neelly wrote the news to Jefferson and apparently, to others, as well. He announced that Lewis's death was a suicide. Both Clark and Jefferson readily accepted the verdict citing their friend's melancholy frame of mind. One who disputed Neelly's word was Captain Russell, who insinuated that Neelly may have been responsible for the governor's death. Further, each time Mrs. Grinder related the story, it changed a bit. However, regardless of which version of the story you believe at the very least, Meriwether Lewis appears as one of the most inept suicides ever.

Here is an expert in firearms who bumbles along, shooting his head ("grazing" it or blowing away a "piece of his forehead") then his chest (side, back, or abdomen and possibly stopping to reload since Mrs. Grinder said there were three shots from his two single-shot pistols). He then crawls to the next cabin to beg for water, and crawls back to his cabin before lingering for several more hours in agony. Incredibly, some stories depict the medical officer of the Lewis and Clark expedition now unable to locate any vital artery as he slashes himself wildly with his razor before he finally perishes. This is the version that many claim is the most plausible explanation for Lewis's death.

On the other hand, the list of possible murder suspects can be readily shortened. Those who allege this to be a typical murder along the Trace must explain why any highwaymen would simply kill Lewis but fail to relieve him of his fine set of pistols, his watch and other personal effects. Only his money was taken, but no one knows by whom.

Those pointing the finger to John Pernier, Lewis's servant (described as a mulatto, Creole or Spaniard), must attempt to reconcile the commission of such a hideous act with his decision to make the long journey to Virginia to personally inform Lewis's mother Lucy Marks. Her tough, no-nonsense frontier spirit was legendary. She declared he must have murdered her son and chased him away with her rifle. Pernier hastily departed (apparently not collecting the $240 he said Lewis owed him) and supposedly committed suicide soon after.

The motive for the Grinders most likely would be robbery. Years later the Grinders managed to acquire an attractive property, although no one knew where the money originated. It is interesting to note that of the many graves at this isolated site, at least two immediately adjacent to Lewis's grave are unmarked. Perhaps Grinder's Stand was a popular suicide spot?

Neelly himself was suspected of robbery by members of Lewis's family. Moreover, conspiracy theorists jump at his name since Neelly worked for the notorious General Wilkinson. Was this a political assassination? Had Lewis gained knowledge which could prove fatal to Wilkinson's already checkered career?

Prior to Lewis's departure from St. Louis, the governor learned that someone (most likely Wilkinson) was spreading rumors. Just as earlier during the Burr affair, Wilkinson was again the subject of inquiry, and some historians have posited that he may have decided to escape suspicion by claiming Governor Lewis was intent on creating an insurrection, using St. Louis as his base. In his final letter to Secretary of War Eustis, Lewis defensively wrote, "my Country can never make 'A Burr' of me."

People suffering from depression or recurrences of malaria are not immune to murder, and in their brochure of the Natchez Trace Parkway, the National Park Service states the one fact not in dispute. It describes Grinder's Stand as the site where Meriwether Lewis "died of gunshot wounds . . . under mysterious circumstances."

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This article is excerpted from"The Lost Years of Meriwether Lewis" in Journal of the West (summer 2003, vol 42, no 3, Sunflower University Press, Kansas State University). It can be found on the web by clicking here.