Who killed Meriwether Lewis after his famous journey through the Louisiana Purchase?
History columnist Curt Eriksmoen explains why we still don't know if Lewis was shot by someone else or died by suicide.
FARGO — In September 1806, Meriwether Lewis, along with his co-commander, William Clark, returned from their 6,000-mile journey through the wilderness of what is now the northwestern U.S. On their return, both men were hailed as heroes, and Lewis was appointed governor of Louisiana Territory. Three years later he was shot and killed. Over 200 years later, we still do not know who pulled the trigger.
On April 7, 1805, the Corps of Discovery left Fort Mandan, near present-day Washburn, N.D., on their journey west to the Pacific Ocean. They now had three new passengers: Toussaint Charbonneau, his Shoshone wife, Sakakawea, and their two-month-old son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau. Toussaint and Sakakawea would serve as guides and interpreters. The Corps would proceed up the Missouri River and then look for an acceptable route through the Rocky Mountains.
As luck would have it, the expedition encountered a tribe of Shoshone Indians in August and their chief was Cameahwait, Sakakawea’s brother. With Sakakawea serving as interpreter, Lewis and Clark were able to negotiate with the Shoshones for horses, which would enable them to complete their journey to the Pacific coast. Some of the Native Americans also agreed to serve as guides to assist the expedition in getting over the Rocky Mountains. Because of Sakakawea, what appeared to be a nearly impossible task was now believed to be attainable.
In late November, the Corps arrived at the Pacific Ocean near present-day Astoria, Wash. There, they constructed a log stockade that they named Fort Clatsop, which would be their quarters for the winter. Then, on March 23, 1806, the expedition began their journey home, largely retracing the route they used to get to the Pacific coast. In early August, they arrived in what is now North Dakota.
Their stay at Fort Mandan was delayed a week because Lewis was accidentally shot in the buttocks by one of his own men during an elk hunt and needed to recuperate. After dropping off Sakakawea, her husband and her young son, the expedition proceeded down the Missouri River on Aug. 17. Because they were now traveling with the flow of the river, they were able to cover about 70 miles a day. On Sept. 23, the expedition arrived in St. Louis.
They had been gone two years and four months and had traveled over 6,000 miles of wilderness. Lewis obtained extra money and land grants for his men from President Thomas Jefferson and was appointed governor of the Louisiana Territory, replacing Gen. James Wilkinson. This appeared to be the ideal appointment because Lewis was well acquainted with the Louisiana Territory, was popular in St. Louis and was a personal friend of the president. Having served as the secretary to Jefferson prior to the expedition, the president’s admiration and friendship would help Lewis in his administrative duties.
At first, everything was going well for this celebrated explorer. Lewis organized the first post office in St. Louis, began enticing newspapers into the area and was successful in attracting settlers into the region. However, Lewis’ duties soon became a problem. He disliked sitting behind a desk and contending with politicians, whom he greatly despised. Much of his time was spent dealing with abuses of the fur traders and settling land claims. To exacerbate all of this, Lewis soon found himself having to pay for supplies and medicine out of his own pocket and was facing a financial crisis because he purchased more land than he could afford. As if this was not enough, Frederick Bates, secretary of the Louisiana Territory, began spreading rumors about Lewis and humiliating him in public.
Lewis needed to get away and, in April 1807, arrived in Philadelphia. The reason he gave Jefferson for this trip was that he wanted to locate a publisher for the two-volume work he was planning to write concerning the expedition he made with Clark. While in Philadelphia, Lewis fell in love with at least one woman, and maybe two. He neglected the work on his book and prolonged his stay in the eastern city for eight months. Lewis was “determined to get a wife,” and he proposed marriage. When Lewis was rejected, he became depressed and began to imbibe in alcoholic spirits. He then traveled to Virginia and, while at the home of Clark’s father-in-law, again experienced unrequited love. Finally, on March 8, 1808, he returned to his position in St. Louis as governor of Louisiana.
Lewis's return to St. Louis only deepened his depression. Financially, he was nearing bankruptcy, and his feud with Bates became worse. Lewis also learned that his predecessor, Gen. Wilkinson, had been involved in a plot with Aaron Burr to make the Louisiana Territory a separate nation. Fearing that he would also be implicated in the plot and that his loyalty would be questioned, Lewis decided to travel to Washington, D.C., to defend himself.
Because of his depression, overuse of alcohol and lack of sleep, his physical and mental health had deteriorated. In October 1809, Lewis originally planned to travel by boat down the Mississippi River to New Orleans and then to sail to Washington. While traveling on the river, Lewis was informed that British ships were patrolling the Gulf of Mexico. When he arrived at the present-day city of Memphis, he purchased pack mules and horses for himself, his servants and his traveling companion, Maj. John Neely, and began the long overland journey to Washington. On Oct. 10, a heavy rainstorm spooked the mules, and they ran off into the forest. Neely convinced Lewis to continue on the trail to the nearest home, and he would look for the mules.
Arriving at the home of John Grinder, who was away at the time, Mrs. Grinder fed Lewis and his servants, prepared a bed for him and made arrangements for the servants to sleep in the barn. After she fell asleep, Mrs. Grinder heard a gunshot and “something heavy falling to the floor.” She then heard another gunshot. After a few moments, she heard Lewis call out, “Oh, Madame, give me some water and heal my wounds.” Fearing for her own safety and that of her children, Mrs. Grinder did not come to the aid of Lewis. After two hours, she sent her children to the barn to fetch the servants so that they could tend to Lewis. He died at sunrise on Oct. 11.
Historians who believe Lewis’ death was a suicide claim that he was depressed and deranged. They state that he had previously attempted suicide. Maj. Neely, who reportedly arrived with the mules that morning, declared to authorities in Washington that Lewis’ death was “clearly a suicide."
Those who advocate that Lewis was murdered point out that Mrs. Grinder waited for two hours before venturing for help, and that Lewis’ servants should have clearly heard the shots and come to the house to investigate. Neely was conveniently away at the time and, since he was a friend and an appointee of Wilkinson, may have committed the crime. Wilkinson may have had the greatest motive to kill Lewis. It is theorized that Lewis had evidence against him for treason in his attempt to make Louisiana a separate country and that Lewis planned to present this evidence once he arrived in Washington.
Unfortunately, because of the long passage of time, we will likely never know if Lewis was murdered or died by suicide.