Meriwether’s Mysterious Death
Friday, October 11, 2013
In 1803, Thomas Jefferson purchased the vast Louisiana Territory from the French Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte. Despite domestic opposition, Jefferson believed the deal was too good to pass up; not only was the price ridiculously low, less than 3 cents an acre – 42¢ in today’s dollars. The deal also helped assure the removal of the French from much of North America, something Jefferson believed would protect his young country from future conflicts.
In order to fully evaluate his purchase, Jefferson planned an expedition to explore and record the vast acquisition, and looked no further than his trusty secretary, Captain Meriwether Lewis, to lead it. Although not yet thirty years old, Lewis had gained a reputation as an intrepid outdoorsman and a knowledgeable student of natural history. After successfully leading the Corps of Discovery to the Pacific Ocean and back, Lewis achieved fame as a national hero. Few, however, knew much about his personal life.
Clark, Lewis’s trusted traveling companion and friend, wrote that Lewis suffered from alcoholism and bouts of depression. Despite this, Jefferson named him Governor of Louisiana Territory in 1807, a post the young captain would hold for only two years.
On a trip from St. Louis to Washington, D.C., in 1809, Lewis traveled along a perilous Tennessee trail called the Natchez Trace. On October 10th, he stopped for the night at a lodging house known as Grinder’s Stand. The following morning, on this date in 1809, he was found dead in his room from two gunshot wounds, only three years after returning from the great expedition west.
The circumstances of his death remain a mystery to this day. His death was ruled a suicide at the time, and many friends and family members agreed, given his severe depression. Some, though, continued to question this, and believed he may have been killed, either by known bandits from the trail, or the innkeepers themselves. Hoping to lay conspiracy theorists to rest, one researcher put in a request to the National Park Service to exhume the great explorer’s corpse in 2009; in 2010, the Park Service rejected the proposal. Today, Captain Lewis’s grave can be found on federal land outside of Hohenwald, Tennessee, where it is marked by a single white, broken column representing a life cut tragically short.
Dakota Datebook written by Jayme L. Job
Lounsberry, Clement Augustus. 1913. Early History of North Dakota: Essential Outlines of American
History: p. 72. Liberty Press: Washington, DC.
Lovejoy, Bess. November 28, 2012. “Raising the Dead,” The New York Times: p. A33.
Tucker, Abigail. October 2009. “Meriwether Lewis’ Mysterious Death,” Smithsonian Magazine.