Most people in the United States have heard of Meriwether Lewis, one half of the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition that claimed the Pacific Northwest for the U.S. and explored the newly purchased Louisiana Territory. Lewis was an extraordinary person by most accounts. During his life, he was a successful soldier and presidential aide. He was also a talented naturalist, who added to our knowledge of the natural world of the Americas during his travels. When he set out on his famous expedition, he was only 29 years old, and he was appointed governor of the Louisiana Territory at age 33 by President Jefferson.
Almost as intriguing as his life are the events surrounding Lewis’ death in October of 1809, at the early age of 35. He had been travelling towards Washington, D.C. with a small group of colleagues and a servant, when he fell ill with an attack of malaria, from which he suffered often suffered. After spending a few nights recovering at Fort Pickering in Memphis, he made it as far as Nashville before deciding to stop for the night at a lodging house owned by a Mrs. Grinder.
Mrs. Grinder later reported that Lewis had acted strangely during dinner that night. She later recounted that he would pace around the room, then sit back down and begin talking to himself. By the time he went to his cabin for the evening, Mrs. Grinder was quite wary of him, but she was afraid to say anything to him since she was alone there with her children.
Some time that night, she heard gunshots and the cries of Lewis begging for water. She claimed to be so frightened at this point that she did not dare go out to help him, though she watched him crawl back to his cabin through a small hole in her door.
The next morning, Mrs. Grinder decided to check on her guest. She found him in his cabin, wounded from gunshots to his torso and the side of his bead and with cuts all over his body, presumably from his razor. He died later that morning from his extensive injuries, complaining that it was taking him too long to die because he was so strong.
His death was quickly determined to be a suicide, due to his history of erratic behavior. Lewis had often suffered by what we might now call severe depression. He also reportedly had problems with debt and alcoholism, and he may have even used opium. He was said to be quite troubled during his journey, because he felt he had failed as governor of Louisiana. He also saw his great expedition as something of a failure, since he had failed to discover a Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean. The fact that he had written a will during his travels further solidified the conclusion that he had killed himself.
Most historians accept the verdict of suicide, but many conspiracy theorists question this conclusion. They point to the fact that Lewis, an expert marksman, would not have so terribly bungled the job of shooting himself. Since his money was missing at the time of his death, his servant or even Mrs. Grinder have been suspected of killing him in order to rob him. But other valuable items were left in his possession, which somewhat weakens this theory. However, Lewis’ servant killed himself shortly after the incident, after Lewis’s mother accused him of murdering her son. The Grinders also bought some expensive property a few years later, and no one knows where they obtained the money to do so.
There are also some complicated theories suggesting that Lewis may have been assassinated for political reasons by various rivals in government. All of these possibilities have their limitations, including suicide, unless you take into account Lewis’ regular bouts of malaria. Many people suffering from attacks of this disease show symptoms of dementia due to the severe fevers that accompany them. Lewis himself often reported in his journals that he was suffering from fever, and we know that he had been ill during this particular journey. His fevered confusion could explain the haphazard way he committed suicide, along with his terrible thirst that night.
Whether he was murdered or killed himself, Lewis’ death was a great loss for the United States. His adventures and advancement of scientific knowledge inspired many others naturalists and adventurers to continue his studies.
Lewis was buried near the Grinder’s property, and the state of Tennessee built a memorial to him nearby in 1848. It is composed of a broken column, symbolizing a life cut short.