On October 11, 1809, explorer Meriwether Lewis died along the Natchez Trace in Tennessee.
I know it is unusual for me to post about someone on their death day, but this event warrants some discussion.
I’ll honestly admit, I knew little about Meriwether Lewis other than he and William Clark headed UP the Corps of Discovery and traipsed all over the Louisiana Territory at the behest of President Thomas Jefferson.
America had just purchased the vast area of land from France and everyone back at DC wanted to know what was out there.
Lewis was appointed Governor of the Louisiana Territory by TJ in 1807 and took the job seriously. He stopped at an inn on the Trace called Grinder’s Stand*. About 70 miles from Nashville, he turned in for the night following dinner.
He’d arranged for a one room cabin.
Sometime before dawn, Priscilla Griner, the inn-keeper’s wife heard gunshots. Rushing to the cabin, servants found the Governor with a gunshot wound to the head and one to the abdomen.
Shortly after sunrise, he bled to death on his Buffalo Robe.
Newspapers reported that Clark’s throat had been slashed, and money (borrowed from a friend) was missing as well.
Jefferson and other friends, as well as many modern historians, accept Lewis’ death as a suicide, but there is some debate.
And what’s America without debate? Huh?
And what’s a death without a conspiracy theory or two?
Mrs. Griner left no written account, and some believe her story was a fabrication. She claimed Lewis acted strangely the night before his death; standing and pacing during dinner while talking to himself the entire time!
She claimed he was speaking in a manner one would address a lawyer, flush faced, almost as though he were in a “fit”.
She claimed to hear him continue the conversation with himself even after he retired.
And, she heard gunshots, a scuffle, and calls for help. She also claimed she could see him crawling in his cabin, but never explained her lack of further investigation and never explained why she sent her children to waken Lewis and his servants.
A second account claims Lewis’ servants found him wounded and bleeding in his cabin, part of his skull gone. He managed to hang on for several hours.
And a third version also attributed to the inn-keeper’s wife, says when Lewis realized he was followed by three men, he challenged them to a duel. She claimed again, she heard voices and gun shots and found the cabin empty and the Governor outside.
Lewis’ mother went to her grave insisting her son was murdered. The coroner’s inquest declined to charge anyone with the crime.
When Clark and Jefferson heard of his death, they both leaned toward the suicide theory.
But no one can tell us why.
There was no autopsy, and it wasn’t until 40 years later that a doctor even looked at the body.
Dr. Samuel B. Moore was commissioned by the State of Tennessee to find Lewis’ grave and erect a monument. The commission’s report stated that although the opinion had “…long prevailed that Lewis died by his own hand, it seems to be more probable that he died by the hands of an assassin.”
But again, I ask, “Why?”
And apparently so do a lot of other people!
From 1993-2010, nearly 200 of Lewis’ relatives – great-great nieces and nephews as the man had no children – wanted his body exhumed again so they could determine whether it was suicide or murder.
In 1996, The Tennessee Coroner’s Jury recommended exhumation, but there’s a snag. The gravesite is in a national monument and exhumation needs the approval of the National Park Service.
They refused, claiming the bodies of more than 100 pioneers might be disturbed.
In 2008, the Department of the Interior gave the go-ahead for the exhumation, but rescinded the decision in 2010 after the presidential administration changed.
One historian, Paul Cutright, says the murder-robbery theory “lacks legs to stand on.” Lewis it seems was a heavy drinker who was heavily in debt, and probably addicted to opium.
He had other problems as well. He couldn’t get it together to edit his journals from the expedition for publication – which everyone was demanding – his friendship with Jefferson was on the skids, and he was unlucky in love, never finding the right one.
Of course, there were other opinions. Eldon Chuinard, another historian, argues for the murder theory.
And modern theorists claim PTSD, stating that after spending months in hostile Indian territory many people exhibited symptoms of the condition plaguing so many today.
But, we still don’t know.
Lewis is buried about 200 yards from Grinder’s Stand. In 1848, a monument was erected over his grave, the stonemason, Lemuel Kirby, chose a broken column design which was used to symbolize a life cut short.
Meriweather Lewis was 35 years old.
*Griner’s Stand was mistakenly called Grinder’s Stand, after a while, the Griner family gave UP on correcting everyone.