Captain Meriwether Lewis, Leader of the Expedition 1803-1806

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Captain Meriwether Lewis and 2nd Lieutenant William Clark led an expeditionary group to explore the far reaches of the wild country of the North American continent. In this quest, they became the first white people to cross what is now the Western portion of the United States. Commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson in 1803, they were to map the area and note the resources in the newly acquired land known as the Louisiana Purchase. They were also to find a practical route across the western half of the continent, to stake America’s claim to the west before Britain or other European powers could claim it. A big part of their travels was keeping a journal of daily life, with notes about the study of and sketches of the flora and fauna discovered, and to establish trade with the local native tribes as they traveled.

The United States as it was during the Lewis and Clark Expedition

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By 1806, Lewis and Clark returned to Washington with journals and sketches in hand. At that time, they weren’t well known to the public, but became famous later when the public became aware of the things they had done to help the United States expansion across the western territory. Schoolchildren were taught for years about their Expedition and their names became household words for a time. Even today the names Lewis and Clark always bring to mind the intrepid explorers. But one thing people rarely mention is the mysterious death of Meriwether Lewis.

In 1807, Lewis returned to St. Louis, Missouri and for a while got involved in politics, and was appointed governor of the upper peninsula of Louisiana. On September 3, 1809 he set out for Washington to conduct some business, but never made it to his destination.

Lewis took the Natchez Trace route, a notorious trail of the time for nefarious activities. However, there were many inns and trading posts along the way known as “stands.” He stopped for the night on October 10 at Grinder’s Stand. The Innkeeper’s wife Priscilla said he acted strangely that night, seeming to be nervous or upset, pacing the dining area. Shortly after dinner, he retired to his room.

 

An original section of the Natchez Trace. Modern roadwork all but obliterated most of the old trail

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In the early hours of October 11, in one of her three different stories, Priscilla said she heard gunshots, and then watched as Lewis dragged himself out of his room, bleeding, pleading for help. In historical references, there is no record of her rendering aid. There is also no mention of the woman being closely questioned, as the police would do today. However, servants found Lewis on the floor with a gunshot wound to his head and one to his abdomen. He suffered until he died a few moments after sunrise that morning at the age of 35.

Many believed Lewis committed suicide because he was known to have financial problems. Most of those stemmed from the fact that he was undermined by the territorial secretary Frederick Bates. Bates, an ambitious man, wanted the governorship for himself. With the mail slow to be delivered in those days, it began to seem that Lewis was not keeping in contact with President Jefferson, and it was easy for Bates to make unfounded accusations against Lewis. The President decided to hold up payment for his duties until the truth could be determined. When Lewis’ creditors heard this, they forced him to pay up immediately. This caused him to have to liquidate all his holdings. The trip to Washington through the Natchez Trace was to defend himself against Bates’ accusations and be reimbursed the money he was owed.

So what are the facts? Was it a suicide as it was deemed then or is there more to the story?

  • The Innkeeper’s wife Priscilla told conflicting stories about the evening of Lewis’ death.
  • There are many people who did not believe it was suicide because there were TWO bullet wounds.
  • Guns in those days were not easy to reload, certainly not on the part of a man already wounded.
  • It’s possible that the envious Bates set up the murder,  to prevent Lewis from redeeming himself with the President.
  • Lewis did have financial troubles, but would he have killed himself on the way to his vindication?

Will we ever know what killed Meriwether Lewis? It’s doubtful and it seems it’s another American mystery that will never be solved. There is much speculation and more information about the Lewis and Clark Expedition in the books below.