Captain Meriwether Lewis was born into fortunate circumstances in 1774. He is best known for his expedition to the Pacific along with his friend William Clark. He was a diplomat, explorer, friend of the President and the governor of the Upper Louisiana Territory. A man who only three years before had survived a dangerous trek over the wilds of the Rocky Mountains died of gunshot wounds at the age of 35. Many thought it was suicide but from the beginning there have been whispers of murder.
,Lewis' father died when he was a childand while still a teenager he took over the family household upon his stepfather's death. At the age of twenty he joined the militia and participated in putting down the Whiskey Rebellion. He joined the regular army where he met his friend William Clark, and he attained the rank of Captain.
In 1801, he became Thomas Jefferson's personal secretary. Before two years had passed President Jefferson chose him as leader for the Corps of Discovery Expedition into the newly acquired Louisiana Territory. Lewis picked William Clark as the co-leader of the expedition.
From May 1804 to September 1806, both men led the trek to the Pacific and back to Wood River, Illinois. Clark mapped the route and Lewis took samples of unknown plants and animals encountered along the way.
They both returned as heroes.
The President gave Lewis 1600 acres of land, double pay and he was named Governor of the Louisiana Territory. Even though the post was meant to be a reward it turned out to be a source of worry for Lewis.
There were disagreements concerning appropriation of funds, division along political lines and dislike between him and those he worked with.
In September 1809, he set out for Washington D.C. in order to lay to rest the rumors of financial double-dealings. His servant John Pernier (Pearny), and Major James Neely, a federal agent accompanied him.
There was a cloud though that Lewis occasionally lived under, which in those times was called "melancholy". His finances had been drained by land speculation and his consumption of alcohol became worrisome. Despite complaining of headaches he insisted on traveling to Washington D.C to explain the expenses of the expedition.
The party traversed through Tennessee using the Natchez Trail also known as the Devil's Backbone due to the rough terrain. This was a dangerous route, known to be the hunting ground of various bandit gangs.
On October 10, they encountered inclement weather and two pack horses dashed off into the woods. Neely volunteered to round them up and urged Lewis to continue onward with his servant
Approximately seventy miles southwest of Nashville, they came to a roadhouse named Grinder's Stand. Lewis secured a room, and his servant was bedded down in the barn. Mrs. Grinder, whose husband was absent that night, later described the Lewis paced around the common room mumbling to himself.
In the night she heard gunshots, but inexplicably she did not investigate the source. She cowered with her children in a separate building from the tavern. She looked through slats in the wall and saw Lewis stagger, fall and drag himself to her door calling out for help. He wanted water and for her to "heal his wounds".
From there he crawled to the kitchen and she saw how he struggled with the water pump to appease his thirst but it didn't work. He painfully made his way to his room where he lay on a buffalo robe.
The sun was barely peeking over the horizon when the servants walked over from the stables and found Lewis barely clinging to life. He begged them to kill him. A gunshot had blown away part of his forehead and he'd been shot in the abdomen. The bullet exited near his backbone. In some accounts he had slashes to his throat.
He died at dawn of October 11.
Only a few hours passed before Major Neelly arrived and buried his body nearby. He took the governor's papers to Washington D.C. and from there went to see Thomas Jefferson to notify him of Lewis' death. The immediate assumption was that he had died by his own hand.
Many of Lewis' close associates and friends were quick to agree that he had taken his life, having witnessed his strange behavior from time to time, especially in those days before his death. They all believed that his depression finally overcame him.
Other stories circulated that he had tried to commit suicide only a few weeks earlier.
On a boat headed for Fort Pickering in September 1809, a number of military officials reported that Lewis was obviously distraught and had made two attempts to take his own life. It’s not clear how he tried to do it, but the prevailing belief was that Lewis was in a state of deep despondency that appeared to some as a mental illness. Captain Gilbert Russell, who was in charge of Fort Pickering, would later state that he ordered Lewis detained until he regained his composure. "His condition rendered it necessary that he should be stopped until he would recover which I done [sic]," Russell wrote. Lewis, he added, exhibited "mental derangement." (MentalFloss)
Later historians noted that he might have been suffering from untreated syphilis which affected his brain.
Epidemiologist Reimert Thorolf Ravenholt describes, “sexual intercourse with women of the tribes by Corps members was frequently urged by the Indians and was commonplace and several Corps members (probably at least eight) did develop syphilis.”
He pointed out a passage from Lewis' diary dated August 13, 1805 during the expedition: “I was anxious to learn whether these people [Shoshonis] had the venereal, and made inquiry through the interpreter and his wife.”
Another possible explanation for Lewis' strange behavior in the last two years of his life was the use of mercury to treat venereal disease.
Some family members thought he was the victim of foul play. They questioned why he would do away with himself in such a painful manner. Suspicions ranged from a jealous spouse, bandits and political assassination. Others claimed that he was a young man who had returned triumphant from an expedition to map an area that had doubled over the size of the United States.
Though Lewis’s mother is said to have believed he was murdered, that idea didn’t have much traction until the 1840s, when a commission of Tennesseans set out to honor Lewis by erecting a marker over his grave. While examining the remains, committee members wrote that “it was more probable that he died at the hands of an assassin.” Unfortunately, they failed to say why. (Smithsonian)
Historian Kira Gale, posited in her two books that Lewis was assassinated. The culprit was General James Wilkinson, Lewis' predecessor as governor. The motive was fear that the new governor would discover plans Wilkinson had of controlling mines south of St. Louis, and to brazenly invade Mexico to take over silver mines.
Wilkinson sold American secrets to Spain who controlled the Louisiana Territory from 1763 to 1803. He warned the Spanish of expansion planned by the United States and Lewis and Clark's expedition.
Despite the initial explanation of Lewis' death as suicide a year later, John Grinder was accused of his death and brought before a grand jury. The charges were dropped for lack of evidence and motive.
Later, Captain Gilbert Russell, the commander at Fort Pickering where Lewis' party had stopped on their trip stated that the governor was drinking heavily and appeared deranged. He testified that in order to protect his health he had detained Lewis for five days at the fort.
Major Neelly also claimed that Lewis had been drunk. Many asked why Neelly had disappeared the entire night when everything transpired, only to reappear after Lewis had died. Could he be a murderer?
Coincidentally, or not, Captain Russell and Major Neelly who insisted on the suicide theory had been appointed to their positions by General WIlkinson.
"I propose the motive was to prevent Lewis from bringing information to Washington regarding crooked land deals involving Wilkinson and John Smith T, a mine operator in the lead mine district south of St. Louis. Wilkinson had a history of assassinating, or attempting to assassinate, people who were his rivals and possessed incriminating information that could jeopardize his career. Meriwether Lewis was a man 'of undaunted courage' who stood up to him."
Another source to cast doubt on the suicide scenario was Priscilla Grinder who hid in her quarters when she heard gunshots.
Over 25 years after she had given Major Neelly her story of Lewis' final hours, she added a very important detail originally omitted from her initial description. She said that Lewis with pistol in hand had warned off three, strange men who had followed him to the inn. She also recalled that Lewis' servant John Pernier was later seen wearing his clothes.
John Pernier a free mulatto, worked for Thomas Jefferson at the presidential mansion from 1804 until 1807. It was then that he left Washington to become Lewis' personal servant.
There were those who believed him negligent in not preventing Lewis' suicide to accusing him of murder. He committed suicide 6 months later by taking an overdose of laudanum.
In 1996, James Starrs a professor at George Washington Law University petitioned the National Park Service to exhume Lewis' body in hopes of discovering clues as to the true manner of his death. He was not granted permission, and in 2009, Lewis' descendants were also denied their request for exhumation.
If his death is not mystery enough, more tales speak of his burial site being haunted. A number of visitors have reported to have seen ghostly figures, heard voices, and tell of a restless energy that pervades the spot. Yet others have described specifically hearing the words “so hard to die", accompanied by the sound of a water-dipper scraping a bucket. Perhaps what appears to be a suicide is not enough and Lewis continues to reach out for the mystery to be solved.
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