Oct. 11 marks a tragic event in the history of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. On that day in 1809, Meriwether Lewis, who led the expedition through the uncharted American interior with his co-captain William Clark, died a violent and mysterious death from gunshot wounds to the head and chest at Grinder’s Stand along the Natchez Trace near present-day Hohenwald, Tennessee. He was 35 years old.
Born to William Lewis and Lucy Meriwether, Lewis grew up on Locust Hill, the family’s plantation in Ivy Creek, Virginia, near Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. Lewis enlisted in the army in 1795 and served for a brief time in William Clark’s Chosen Rifle Company. Lewis’ military career advanced rapidly from ensign (1795) to lieutenant (1799) to captain (1800), and in 1801 President Jefferson asked Lewis to be his personal secretary and aide-de-camp.
In 1803 Jefferson appointed Lewis commander of an expedition to explore the American territory newly acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. His considerable frontier skills, military service, physical endurance, intellectual prowess and literary ability made him an excellent choice. Lewis traveled to Philadelphia to study astronomy, botany, zoology and medicine with some of the country’s leading scientists and physicians. He also began making detailed preparations, recruiting men and purchasing equipment, boats and supplies for the expedition. When Jefferson advised Lewis of the numerous commercial, scientific and diplomatic purposes of the venture, Captain Lewis invited his good friend Clark to co-command the expedition.
The Lewis and Clark Expedition spanned 8,000 miles and three years (1804–1806), taking the Corps of Discovery, as the party was known, down the Ohio River, up the Missouri River, and across the Continental Divide and through the Columbia Plateau to the Pacific Ocean. Lewis served as the field scientist, chronicling botanical, zoological, meteorological, geographic and ethnographic information. He also gathered specimens — plant, animal and mineral — to send back east for further study. The expedition’s records are a national treasure.
The co-captains advanced the American fur trade by documenting the river systems and fur resources in the West. They met Indian leaders, distributed trade goods, delivered speeches and conducted peace, friendship and trade negotiations. Moreover, they announced the sovereignty of the United States and distributed gifts of medals, flags, and certificates.
In 1807, Jefferson appointed Lewis governor of the Territory of Upper Louisiana. Post-expedition endeavors — preparing a narrative of the expedition for publication, courting women and attending to family business — delayed Lewis in assuming his post until 1808. Governing the territory from the East proved impractical, and Lewis’ absence empowered the territorial secretary, Frederick Bates, who undermined Lewis’ authority. When Lewis arrived in St. Louis, he clashed with Bates, which created an irreparable rift between them.
Lewis faced additional pressures from his superiors regarding his infrequent correspondence and his handling of land claims, mining disputes, unlicensed traders and intertribal warfare. Secretary of War William Eustis refused to honor some of Lewis’ expense vouchers, which destroyed Lewis’ credit and sullied his reputation. He was successful nonetheless in publishing territorial laws, supporting St. Louis’s inaugural newspaper and establishing the first Masonic Lodge in Missouri.
In 1809, Lewis started out for Washington, D.C., to explain his public expenditures and to clear his name. He traveled along the Natchez Trace, stopping for the evening at Grinder’s Stand about 70 miles below Nashville. The circumstances of Lewis’ death on Oct. 11 have fueled a long-standing debate over whether his death was suicide or murder.
Many scholars believe Lewis took his own life as a result of depression, alcohol abuse, or failing to marry or to publish his journal of the expedition, much to Jefferson’s disappointment. Others assert that thieves, opportunists or political opponents murdered him. Another explanation suggests it may have been accidental. In 1848, Tennessee erected a gravesite marker that in 1925 became the Meriwether Lewis National Monument.
Jay H. Buckley is professor of history at Brigham Young University, director of the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, and past president of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation. He is the author of “William Clark: Indian Diplomat” and co-author of “By His Own Hand?: The Mysterious Death of Meriwether Lewis.” Philippa Newfield is the immediate past president of the LCTHF, the citizen support group for the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail.