(1774-1809) - Diplomat, explorer, scientist, governor,
soldier, and the official leader of
the Lewis and Clark Expedition,
Meriwether Lewis has been called "undoubtedly the greatest pathfinder this
country has ever known."
Born near Charlottesville,
to William and Lucy Meriwether
faced the world with opportunity and
advantage. After William’s death in 1781, Lucy remarried and moved the
family to Georgia when Meriwether was ten. At thirteen, he was
sent back to
Virginia for education by private tutors. He also began to
manage his family's estate.
Upon the death of his stepfather, Lewis,
not yet out of his teens, became the head of a household that included his
mother and four siblings.
Later, he joined
the Virginia militia and in 1794, participated in putting down the Whiskey
Rebellion. The next year he joined the regular army, in which he continued
to serve until 1801, reaching the rank of captain.
During this time, he met and befriended
one of his commanding officers,
In 1801, shortly after his election,
President Thomas Jefferson
invited Lewis to serve as his personal secretary, where Lewis became immediately involved in the planning of the Corps of Discovery Expedition.
Lewis served as secretary for less than
two years before being reassigned as an intelligent officer who was "fit
for the enterprise and willing to …explore…to the Western Ocean.”
Meriwether Lewis by C.W. Peale
This image available for prints and downloads
Jefferson selected 28-year-Lewis to lead the expedition,
afterwards known as the Corps of Discovery. Lewis,
in turn, selected former Army comrade, 32-year-old William Clark, to be co-leader. Due to bureaucratic delays in the US
Army, Clark officially only held the rank of Second Lieutenant at the
Lewis concealed this from the men and shared the leadership of the
expedition, always referring to
Clark as "Captain."
In 1803, while preparing for his journey to the Pacific Ocean, Lewis spent
a month in Philadelphia studying with the eminent scientists of the day.
His education included intensive courses in medicine, preservation of
plant and animal samples, the use of navigation instruments,
and the study of fossils.
Between 1804 and 1806, Meriwether Lewis and
William Clark led the
Corps of Discovery from Wood River, Illinois, to the
Pacific Ocean. As they traveled,
mapped their route and Lewis
recorded information about and collected samples of the unfamiliar plants
and animals they encountered. The explorers met with the tribes of the
Louisiana Purchase to tell them of the changes that would transpire under
U.S. ownership. Lewis and
also tried to establish peace between
tribes. Not understanding complex intertribal relations and tribal
structures, few of these peace-making efforts met with enduring success.
three years, the pair returned and
President Thomas Jefferson
then appointed Lewis governor of the Louisiana Territory in 1806.
Taking up his post nearly two years later,
Lewis faced challenges almost immediately. Personality conflicts,
political differences, and questions about the appropriation of government
funds all contributed to his difficulties. Hoping to resolve the financial
questions, Lewis set out from
Missouri for Washington D.C. in September, 1809. Traveling
with him was his servant, John Pernia, and
Major James Neely.
Adding to the problems that Lewis was facing
in his career, he was also experiencing personal problems. Meriwether
Lewis had long suffered from periodic spells of what was then termed as "meloncholy."
Land speculation had drained his finances and he had begun to drink to
much. Though his traveling companions worried for his safety and tried to
talk him out of taking the trip, Lewis insisted, even though he was
complaining of terrible headaches and a fever.
Just a little more than a month later, Lewis
died mysteriously from gunshot wounds on October 11, 1809.
Tennessee on October 10th, it began to rain heavily and two of the pack horses fled
into the woods. Neelly advised Lewis to continue on while he rounded up
the horses. Governor Lewis complied and secured lodging at
a public roadhouse called
His servant Pernia was given lodging in the barn. Mrs. Grinder would
later say that Lewis spent
time that evening in the common room pacing and mumbling in a strange
manner and that she had heard the gunshots, but, was to afraid to
investigate. The next morning, Lewis was found with a gunshot in the
head and one in his chest, but, he was still alive for a while.
Major James Neelly,
Lewis's traveling companion, arrived at Grinder's Stand within hours of
Lewis's death and buried his body nearby, where it remains today. He then
took charge of Lewis’ papers and carried them the rest of the way to
On October 18th, from
Nashville, McNeelly wrote to
Thomas Jefferson: "It is with extreme pain that I
have to inform you of the death of His Excellency Meriwether Lewis,
Governor of Upper Louisiana who died on the morning of the 11th Instant
and I am sorry to say by Suicide."
From the beginning, there
were questions about whether Lewis committed suicide or was murdered.
Career associates, including
Thomas Jefferson, believed that he died at
his own hand. However, some family members and others maintained that he was killed. Though
most historians today accept the theory that Lewis took his own life, a
conspiracy theory also continues to linger.
Those who believe
Meriwether Lewis took his own life have differing theories regarding his
reasons, including depression, personal problems, and some type of
debilitating illness. Major James Neelly, the the U.S. agent to the
Chickasaw Nation; Captain Gilbert Russell, commander of Fort Pickering in
present-day Memphis, Tennessee;
and Alexander Wilson, a friend of
reported his death as a suicide in letters and statements written later. Neelly and Russell based their conclusions on personal
Lewis' strange behavior shortly before his death, while
Wilson accepted Mrs. Grinder's story two years after the event. In
addition, three men who were probably closest to Lewis
William Clark , and Mahlon Dickerson immediately assumed that
Lewis had taken his own life when they heard the news. In a letter to his
William Clark wrote, "I fear O! I fear the weight of his
mind has overcome him."
would later write:
"While he lived with me
in Washington, I observed at times sensible depressions of mind...
During his western expedition the constant exertion which that required of
all the faculties of body & mind, suspended these distressing affections;
but after his establishment in
St. Louis in sedentary occupations they
returned upon him with redoubled vigor, and began seriously to alarm his
friends. He was in a paroxym of one of these when his affairs rendered it
necessary for him to go to Washington."
Later, some historians theorized that
may have suffered from either paresis, defined medically as, "a disorder characterized primarily by impaired
mental function, caused by damage to the brain from untreated syphilis."
Others believe he may have been suffering from malaria. Both diseases
would affect both his mind and body.
Adding more evidence that
died by his own hand was the fact that prior to leaving
St. Louis, he had
given several associates the power to
distribute his possessions in the event of his death and he had recently
composed a will. Reports also surfaced that he had attempted to take his
life several times a few weeks earlier.
Despite what appears to be a clear-cut
case of suicide, given
Lewis' state of mind, rumors of murder were
circulating as soon as
Lewis' death was
made known. Why would such a prominent young man take his own life? And,
why would he do it in such a way that he would linger in great pain?
Several motives were put forth -- a jealous husband, robbery, and political assassination.
Because Mr. Robert Grinder was not at
Lewis was provided lodging, some suspected that when he arrived,
he shot Lewis. By some accounts, Robert Grinder was later investigated due
to his coming into a
large sum of money. He was also said to
have been brought before
a grand jury, but the charges were
dismissed as no evidence or motive existed for the crime. However, there
are no court records.
The robbery motive goes farther with
numerous suspects including random bandits known to have lurked upon the
wilderness road, to
Lewis' servant, John Pernier, and Major James Neelly. As to Major Neelly, Mrs. Grinder would report that Neelly
had no reaction to
Lewis' death. He was conveniently absent all night.
Others would say that when he retold the story it sounded rehearsed. There
were documents that appeared to be missing when they were delivered to
Washington. And Neelly was known to have been heavily in debt. John Pernia, a Creole, vanished immediately after death, supposedly
returning to New Orleans. Later, a watch that belonged to Lewis turned up
in New Orleans. A third theory of assassination suggests that
had discovered secrets about General
James Wilkinson, his predecessor as
Governor of Upper Louisiana, and if revealed, would not only destroy the
reputation of General Wilkerson, but, would also tarnish that of Thomas
For years, Lewis lay in an unmarked grave
off the Natchez Trace. However, in 1848,
a special commission was established by
the State of Tennessee to consider building a monument to Lewis. That commission examined his
body and the
physician on the committee wrote in his
report that Lewis was most likely a "victim of assassins."
Today, his isolated
is marked by a monument.
Even the historic marker at the
site acknowledges the controversy surrounding his death stating that it
marks the spot where Lewis’ “life of romantic endeavor and
lasting achievement came tragically and mysteriously to its close.”
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.” Perhaps what appears to
be a suicide is not enough and
Lewis continues to reach out for the
mystery to be solved.
of America, updated August, 2017.