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An Unsettling Death 

In 1809, not long after Meriwether Lewis and William Clark concluded their historic journey to the Pacific Ocean, Lewis was found dead of two gunshot wounds. Did he take his own life, or was he murdered?

Late in the afternoon of Oct. 10, 1809, explorer Meriwether Lewis rode up to an inn called Grinder's Stand, seeking a night's lodging. The rough-hewn log cabin stood about 70 miles west of Nashville, Tenn., on the Natchez Trace, near what is now Hohenwald, Tenn. Lewis, the governor of the Louisiana Territory, was recently back from the historic overland journey to the Pacific Ocean, a three-year odyssey that had made him and fellow explorer William Clark two of the most famous men in the country.

He would be dead of two gunshot wounds by the next morning.

Nearly 200 years later, as the United States celebrates the bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase, the events of that night remain a subject for debate, scholarly wrangling, legal action and congressional hearings. And much of the debate centers on Lewis' remains, which are buried under a monument in the Tennessee county that now bears his name.

"It's one of the grand mysteries of American history,'' says former Tennessee district attorney general Joe Baugh. Baugh convened a coroner's jury in 1996 to reexamine the evidence in light of modern forensic science advances. "Because of the importance of the person in question to the history of Lewis County," the jury found, "we feel exhumation is necessary for closure in this matter."

But currently, Lewis still lies undisturbed beneath a broken shaft of limestone in an open green glade on the Natchez Trace Parkway, a monument authorized by the Tennessee legislature in 1849 to symbolize "the violent and untimely end of a bright and glorious career." The National Park Service refused exhumation -- a decision that stood with noted historians, including the late Stephen E. Ambrose, whose books included the Lewis and Clark biography Undaunted Courage. Ambrose and others wrote letters saying Lewis killed himself during a drunken or drug-induced depression brought on by financial problems.

"They unanimously say there is no question that Lewis committed suicide," says David Barna, a park service spokesman. Thus the agency found no reason to violate its policy against disturbing remains buried on National Park Service property.

Descendants of the explorer's sisters -- he never had children -- dispute the portrayal of Lewis as a depressed drunk or addict. They support efforts to examine the body. "History should have the facts," says Dr. William Anderson of Williamsburg, Va., who believes exhuming the body might not only clear up the circumstances surrounding Lewis' death, but also answer questions about his alleged drug use. "No one in the family suffered depression, but because Thomas Jefferson said it, it has come down as fact." A descendant of Jane Lewis Anderson, the explorer's sister, the 85-year-old Virginian has read extensively about his famous relative and attended the coroner's jury in Tennessee.

Jane Henly, another family member and former head of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, is suspicious of basing historical judgment on the belief of scholars alone. "They are all fine men," Henly says, "but they all talk to each other. The cynic in me says if the mystery is there, they sell more books."

The foundation went on record years ago as supporting exhumation, she adds. And other scholars, notably Dr. John Guice of the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, contend there is scant evidence for suicide.

Lewis' road to his mysterious fate was a crooked one, but the combined work of numerous scholars reveals this much about the weeks leading up to his death.

A little more than three years after the Corps of Discovery's triumphant return to St. Louis, the explorer was headed for Washington to defend disputed expenses. Most importantly, he was on his way to confer with a Philadelphia publisher about the journals he and William Clark kept during their historic overland journey.

Lewis' route was circuitous, due to the fact that the most expedient form of travel at the time was by river. He headed southeast to Fort Pickering, at what is now Memphis, Tenn., with plans to head further south to New Orleans. But the fort's commander, Capt. Gilbert Russell, took Lewis and his papers into custody briefly for the explorer's own protection, writing in a letter that the governor apparently tried to kill himself on the barge from St. Louis, either by jumping overboard or shooting himself. (A number of historians conclude that Lewis was suffering from malaria.) Upon his release, Lewis decided to travel overland; he feared both the effect of New Orleans' heat on his constitution and, with the War of 1812 looming, the presence of the British in the Gulf. And so he left Fort Pickering with James Neelly, a U.S. agent to the Chickasaw Nation, along with a servant of Neelly's and Lewis' own servant, John Pernier.

On Oct. 9, two of the party's horses strayed. Lewis, wishing to continue on, rode to Grinder's Stand, while Neelly searched for the lost animals. Priscilla Grinder, whose husband Robert was away upon Lewis' arrival, is the sole source of information about the next few hours.

According to testimony at the coroner's jury, as well as historical accounts, including Vardis Fisher's Suicide or Murder? The Strange Death of Governor Meriwether Lewis, Neelly reported Priscilla Grinder's account in a letter to Jefferson. A friend of Lewis', ornithologist Alexander Wilson, interviewed her a few months later as well. Finally, an anonymous schoolteacher from the Cherokee Nation published an account Grinder gave when she was in her 60s. Because each tale varied slightly, or was recorded differently, the Rashomon effect of Grinder's testimonies are unsettling and inconclusive.

In Neelly's letter, Mrs. Grinder, who made no mention of servants or children upon Lewis' arrival, said the explorer seemed to be deranged, and that she chose to sleep in a nearby house. She was startled awake at 3 a.m. by two pistol shots. After sunrise, the servants found Lewis shot in the head and "a little below the breast" -- but alive. "I have done the business," Lewis said. "Give me some water."

Wilson's account adds children, servants and conversation to the events of those initial hours. Mrs. Grinder tells of Lewis walking backward and forward, talking to himself in a violent manner, later saying, "Madam, this is a very pleasant evening," and looking wistfully toward the west. She tells of hearing the pistol shots and Lewis crying out at her door: "O madam! Give me some water and heal my wounds!" But she did not go to him until morning, when she and the servants found him lying on the bed, a bullet in his side and a piece of his forehead blown away. Lewis begged them to take his rifle and blow out his brains because he was so strong, and "it is so hard to die."

Finally, in her third account, offered more than 30 years later, Mrs. Grinder adds two or three other men to the scenario. In this final version, the mysterious men rode up to her house after dark and called for lodging, when Lewis drew his pistols and challenged them to a duel. Spurned, they left Grinder's property. She said she asked his servant Pernier to get the pistols from Lewis, who seemed deranged to her, but Pernier told her the governor had no ammunition. "And if he does," Pernier went on, "any mischief it will be to himself, and not to you or to anybody else."

Grinder also adds hearing a third pistol shot and finding Pernier in the stable the next morning, wearing the clothes Lewis had on the night before and carrying the explorer's gold watch. Pernier claimed that Lewis gave the items to him. When the servants found Lewis, who had scrambled across the road, he was wearing old and tattered clothing.

So what might exhuming Meriwether Lewis' body prove? Plenty, says James Starrs, a George Washington University law professor who has led the charge for exhumation. Recent scholarship has slandered Lewis, he contends. "If we find two different caliber bullet wounds, something is wrong,'' Starrs says. "We can match DNA and make sure the body is that of Lewis. We can settle the question of drug use. Syphilis might show up in the bones. We can put to rest all the questions that have been raised."

Forensic experts who testified at the coroner's jury agreed that much might be learned from exhumation and that it's likely the grave preserved the body. Starrs and former Tennessee district attorney general Baugh go on to argue that the park service has different standards for different graves. "They've had several exhumations at Little Big Horn," Baugh says. "It's told them a lot about soldiers and artifacts that have been found."

Unfortunately for proponents of exhumation, former Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska), the congressman who had pushed hardest for the park service to reconsider taking such action, was elected governor of his state. To further slow momentum, scheduled hearings on the matter were canceled after Sept. 11. No one has stepped forward to push for exhumation since then.

Starrs says it is a matter of putting political pressure on the park service, but Jane Henly is skeptical that will ever happen. Baugh, meanwhile, thinks it might, but wonders if it will be too late, since the body deteriorates more each year. "We know it was in good shape when they put the monument up," he says. "They were sure it was him and noticed a wound. But I think the park service is a typical bureaucracy. Eventually, someone will be interested enough to push it."

And maybe then, the questions surrounding that night will finally be answered. In the meantime, historians who argue for murder have fingered Pernier or Neelly as suspects, while others contend a robber or robbers may have murdered Lewis.

David Leon Chandler, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, puts forth Gen. James Wilkinson as a suspect in his 1994 book, The Jefferson Conspiracies. He argues Wilkinson, an Army commander and former governor of the Louisiana Territory who took bribes from Spain, had appointed both Neelly and Russell to their posts. Chandler suggests that the papers Lewis was carrying may have been evidence of Wilkinson's involvement in land fraud. And while the British were nowhere near New Orleans at the time, Wilkinson and the army he commanded were. Chandler argues Jefferson supported the suicide theory because he feared an investigation would point to Wilkinson, whom the former president had supported during the general's questionable involvement in the treason trial of Aaron Burr. Wilkinson was court-martialed in 1811 for various intrigues and scandals, but was cleared of any wrongdoing.

In Lewis County, oral history tells of an inquest held. Some accounts even say Robert Grinder was tried for murder, but no written records have ever been found to support that claim. Patty Choate, director of the Lewis County library for 22 years and a founder of the local chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail and Heritage Foundation, says local legend holds that Lewis was killed by Grinder, who supposedly sold whiskey to the Indians and was something of a disreputable character.

"You have to remember that when Lewis died, this was the edge of Indian Territory and there was no Lewis County,'' she says.

Meanwhile, the county named after Meriwether Lewis remains split as to how to proceed with his gravesite. "Most people say leave it alone," Choate says. "It's a mystery, but it's our mystery."

click to enlarge ERIC ENGLAND
  • Eric England
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