Sad, Brutal End of Explorer Meriwether Lewis’s Life
Meriwether Lewis, co-leader of the famous Lewis & Clark Expedition that explored America’s vast newly-purchased Western frontier, led one of the most exciting—and tragic—lives in American history. A willful leader of men and a master of wilderness survival skills, Lewis had a keen mind with strong scientific interests and a fascination for natural history. He is one of the greatest explorers in the annals of recorded history, who saw many firsts and achieved stunning success—yet was a man with deep flaws who battled bouts of crippling depression and became addicted to alcohol and drugs…until his demons crashed down on him and he committed suicide in a particularly horrid and brutal way when he was only 35.
Lewis demonstrated his leadership skills during an eight-year military career, including time as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army and fighting during the Indian wars in the Ohio Valley. During his service he met William Clark—whom he later chose to co-lead the famous expedition. Through Virginia circles, Lewis came to the attention of President Thomas Jefferson. The president, a keen intellect himself, appreciated the young man’s quick mind and on April 1, 1801, Lewis became Jefferson’s personal secretary. He moved into the presidential mansion and had much intercourse with Jefferson and other leading minds of the day.
One of the significant triumphs of Jefferson’s presidency was the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, in which the U.S. acquired more than 800,000 square miles of western land from France for $15 million. This huge addition doubled the country’s size, and Jefferson wanted it explored and mapped to demonstrate America’s legal claim to the land. For leader of this expedition he needed a resourceful man with military and wilderness skills, experience with the Indians, and an interest in the natural world—and he knew the very man for the job: his aide and secretary, Meriwether Lewis.
Jefferson made a fine choice, and Lewis in turn chose William Clark to be co-leader. The Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-1806) was a grand adventure and a triumph of exploration. During those two years the expedition traveled from St. Louis to the Oregon coast, arriving back in St. Louis on Sept. 23, 1806. Although they did not achieve one of Jefferson’s main objectives—finding a continuous, navigable water route all the way to the Pacific Ocean—their journey was nonetheless an overwhelming success.
They traveled the length of the Missouri River, crossed over the Rocky Mountains, and followed the Columbia River to the sea, making careful maps along the way—they produced about 140 maps in all. Lewis kept careful, detailed journals of all their scientific discoveries, recording more than 200 animal and plant species new to science. They made contact with over 70 Native American tribes, declaring and establishing a U.S. presence to both the Indians and foreign powers such as Spain and Great Britain.
What an amazing adventure they had! They had half of a vast continent to explore, seeing things no white person had ever seen before. They witnessed the incomprehensibly large herds of buffalo before any white hunters had depleted their size, discovered plants and animals no one had dreamed of, crossed the towering Rocky Mountains, and made first contact with many Native American tribes before the Indians were decimated by contact with whites and their guns, alcohol and diseases. They marveled at the beauty of an unsullied, virgin wilderness, and Lewis’s keen eyes were everywhere, taking it all in and recording everything in his journals.
The expedition brought back its maps, numerous animal and plant specimens, stories, and all of Lewis’s invaluable notes. The expedition was a great success, and President Jefferson was pleased to have America’s claim to this land solidified, to acquire all this new scientific information, and to have great commercial opportunities opened to the young nation. He felt his controversial Louisiana Purchase had been justified (Jefferson himself had questioned its constitutionality in 1803, but recognized its importance to America’s future).
Lewis had achieved his crowning success, become an American hero, and was rewarded with 1,600 acres of land. He was also given a political position: President Jefferson appointed him governor of the Louisiana Territory, a post he held from March 3, 1897, until his awful death on Oct. 11, 1809. As he became governor, it seemed the 32-year-old soldier/explorer and now politician was leading a full and admirable life.
From that point on, however, Lewis’s life spiraled downward. While well suited to military leadership, he lacked the skills to deal with political intrigue. He began drinking heavily and his periods of depression worsened, for which he began medicating himself—including quantities of opium. He also dabbled in land speculation and began to accrue debts.
His situation worsened dramatically on Aug. 18, 1809, when he received a letter from Secretary of War William Eustis refusing to pay for a draft (request for payment) Lewis had sent the War Department. Lewis and Clark were involved in a venture called the Missouri River Fur Company, something the War Department initially funded. But now the new administration (James Madison succeeded Jefferson on March 4, 1809) was pulling its monetary support by “protesting” Lewis’s latest draft, and his bill of $500 for presents for the Indians was not going to be reimbursed.
Already deeply in debt due to his land speculations, this refusal was a great blow to Lewis. It crippled him financially, and he also deeply felt his honor had been impugned—as if he were sending reports of false claims trying to steal money from the federal government. Indignant and terribly upset, Lewis decided to go to Washington, D.C., to directly state his case. He also brought along his precious journals—which after three years he still had not fully prepared for publication—in hopes of getting a Philadelphia publisher to help finish the work.
He left St. Louis on September 4. During the trip, on September 11, he wrote his last will and testament, leaving everything to his mother since he had no family of his own. When the boat arrived at Fort Pickering at Chickasaw Bluffs on September 15 (site of present-day Memphis, Tennessee), the crew told the fort’s commander they twice had to stop Lewis from killing himself and that he seemed deranged. Captain Gilbert Russell detained Lewis and put him under observation, but when Lewis’s mind later cleared Russell released him to continue his journey.
On Oct. 10, 1809, Lewis stopped at Grinder’s Inn for the night, about 70 miles from Nashville. After dinner, he retired to his room. Mr. Grinder was away, and Mrs. Grinder and her children bedded down in the kitchen. Two servants attending Lewis slept in a nearby barn.
Mrs. Grinder later said she heard Lewis pacing in his room and talking earnestly to himself. She then was horrified to hear two pistol shots in the early morning hours of October 11. Too scared to investigate on her own, she waited until daylight and then sent the children to fetch the nearby servants.
When the servants rushed into Lewis’s room, they saw a truly terrible sight. Lewis had pointed the first pistol at his head, but the ball had torn a chunk off his skull without killing him. He then shot the second pistol into his breast; that ball tore downwards, ripping through his intestines before exiting—but again, without killing him. The unfortunate wretch, apparently out of powder for his pistols, was slicing himself with a razor—cutting arteries to bleed to death—when the servants found him. He told them: “I have done the business.”
There was nothing they could do. Soon after sunrise Lewis’s self-inflected wounds finally achieved his purpose, and he died. One of the last things he said was that the papers in his trunk (his journals from the expedition) were of importance to the government. It would be five more years before his journals were finally ready for publication, in 1814, after wealthy banker and scholar Nicholas Biddle edited them.
The following newspaper articles show how the news of America’s fallen hero was given to the public. This article was published by the Supporter (Chillicothe, Ohio) on Nov. 3, 1809:
A Nashville paper of the 20th ult. (i.e., last month—October 20) announces the untimely death of Meriwether Lewis, Governor-general of Upper Louisiana. The accounts are, that Governor Lewis arrived at a house, about 40 miles from Nashville, near the Indian line, very weak, from a recent illness at Natchez, and shewed marks of mental derangement. After calling for his supper and some spirits, of which he partook and gave some to his servants, went to bed, apparently in good order. Some time before midnight he took his pistols and shot himself—he had shot a ball that grazed the top of his head, and another through his intestines, and cut his neck, arm and ham with a razor. Before he expired (which was on the 11th ult.) he spoke about a trunk of papers that would be of great importance to our government—he was on his way to the City of Washington.
This article was published by the Columbian (New York, New York) on Nov. 15, 1809:
Governor M. Lewis
Lexington, (Ken.), October 28.
A letter from a gentleman in Russelville, dated October 20th, to his friend in this town, says: “A gentleman from Nashville informs me, that he conversed with a person who had seen Gov. Lewis buried, on the 12th inst., about 40 miles beyond Nashville on the Natchez road. The accounts are, that Gov. Lewis arrived at a house very weak, from a recent illness at Natchez, and shewed marks of mental derangement. After a stay of a few hours at the above house, he took his pistols and shot himself twice, and then cut his throat.”
The above unfortunate intelligence is confirmed by a gentleman at present in this place. It is added, that Gov. Lewis, in addition to shooting himself twice in the body and cutting his throat, shot himself in the head, and cut the arteries in his thighs and arms.
We have been unable to procure any satisfactory intelligence of the circumstances which led to this unhappy event. We have only heard it stated that Gov. Lewis drew bills to a considerable amount on the government of the United States, for which there had been no specific appropriations, and which came back protested. We can hardly suppose, however, that an incident of this kind alone could have produced such deplorable consequences.
(After the above was put in type, a gentleman politely handed us a Nashville paper of the 20th inst. from which we have made the following extract.)
To record the untimely end of a brave and prudent officer, a learned scholar and scientific gentleman, this column of the Clarion is ushered to the world in black:
On the night of the 10th inst. Meriwether Lewis, Esq., Governor General of Upper Louisiana, on his way to Washington City, came to the house of Mr. Grinder, near the Indian line in this state. [Lewis] called for his supper and some spirits, of which he partook, and gave some to his servants. Mr. Grinder not being at home. Mrs. Grinder retired to the kitchen with her children, and the servants (after the governor went to bed, which he did in good order) went to a stable about 300 yards distant to sleep, no one being in the house with the governor. Some time before midnight Mrs. Grinder was alarmed by the firing of 2 pistols in the house. She called to the servants without effect. At the appearance of daylight the servants came to the house, when the governor said he had now done for himself; they asked what? He said he had shot himself, and would die, and requested them to bring him water—he then lying on the floor, where he expired about 7 o’clock in the morning of the 11th. He had shot a ball that grazed the top of his head, and another through his intestines, and cut his neck, arm, and ham with a razor. When in his best senses he spoke about a trunk of papers that he said would be of great value to our government. He had been under the influence of a deranging malady for about six weeks, the cause of which is unknown, unless it was from a protest to a draft which he drew on the Secretary [of] War, which he considered tantamount to a disgrace by government.
In the death of Gov. Lewis the public behold the wreck of one of the noblest of men. He was a pupil of the immortal Jefferson—by him he was reared—by him he was instructed in the tour of the sciences—by him he was introduced to public life, when his enterprising soul, great botanical knowledge, acute penetration, and personal courage soon pointed him out as the most proper person to command a projected exploring party to the N.W. coast of the American continent. He accepted the arduous command, on condition that he might take Mr. Clark with him. They started; the best wishes of the American people in general attended them. After an absence of two years (to us of anxious solicitude), we were cheered with the joyful return of our countrymen. A new world had been explored, additional knowledge in all the sciences obtained, at a trifling expense. The voice of fame echoed the glad tidings through the civilized world, the name of Lewis was the theme of universal praise: the national legislature voted a complimentary donation to the brave band.
Scarcely had the governor time to pay his respects to a widowed mother, before he was again called into active service. The Upper Louisiana had been torn to pieces by party feuds; no person could be more proper to calm them—he appeared and all was quiet.
The limits assigned this notice do not admit of a particular detail of his executive acts—suffice it to say that the parties created by local circumstances and Wilkinson were soon united—the Indians were treated with and large purchases of valuable land made of them—the laws were amended, and judicious ones adopted—to the securing the citizens of the territory from a renewal of the scenes of 1806.
During the few leisure moments he had from his official duties, he was employed in writing the particulars of his celebrated tour up the Missouri—to complete which appears to have been the wish nearest his heart—and it gives us much pleasure, if we can feel pleasure in the present melancholy instance, to state that we have it from a source which can be depended upon, that he had accomplished the work in three very large volumes, with an immense number of paintings—and all was ready for the press. We hope these volumes may be the means of transmitting to posterity the worth of a man whose last act casts a gloom over the fair pages of his early life.
“The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave
Await alike th’ inevitable hour—
The path of glory leads but to the grave.”
A Virginia paper reprinted that same October 20 Nashville article, prefacing it with the following comment. This was published by the Farmer’s Repository (Charlestown, [now] West Virginia) on Nov. 24, 1809:
The following circumstantial account of the death of the worthy and heroic Capt. Meriwether Lewis, is from a Nashville paper of the 20th ult. It confirms the sad tidings we published some days since, of the tragical end of a great ornament of his country; and leaves the feeling reader in a perplexing dilemma, whether he shall more commend the noble actions of Lewis’s life, or compassionate the melancholy manner of his death.
This notice was published by the Federal Republican & Commercial Gazette (Baltimore, Maryland) on Nov. 11, 1809:
Meriwether Lewis, Esq.
The Staunton Farmer mentions on the authority of a traveler in the stage, that in a fit of delirium, this gentleman [Lewis] destroyed his life by shooting and cutting himself. The cause is said to have been the protest of some bills of exchange he had drawn on public account.
He was a man of honour and integrity.
This article was published by the Merrimack Intelligencer (Haverhill, Massachusetts) on Nov. 18, 1809:
Death of Meriwether Lewis
Staunton, Nov. 3.
A report reached this town, predicated we believe upon good authority, that his Excellency Meriwether Lewis, Governor of Upper Louisiana, put an end to his life a few days since on this side [of] the Tennessee River, on his way to this country. The circumstances, as we have heard them related, are as follows: Mr. Lewis had drawn on the government for money to discharge some debt of a public nature; but what amount of the sum required, or to what it was to be applied, we have not been able to learn—but his bills were protested. He was seized with a delirium, and in a fit, discharged a pistol at his forehead. The ball glanced. He discharged a second pistol at his breast. This also failing to take effect, he took a knife and cut his wrists in such a manner, that, before any relief could be afforded him, he bled to death! How these particulars could be ascertained so minutely, and Mr. Lewis not be prevented from committing such an horrid act, we cannot say; but that he has terminated his existence in a way somewhat like this, is believed here—the information was [brought] by a passenger in the stage of last Monday.
As the circumstances of Lewis’s suicide became better known, news spread about his debts and how the War Department had refused to pay the latest bill he had submitted for reimbursement. A Delaware paper reprinted a letter Lewis wrote on September 22 to his good friend Major Amos Stoddard lamenting the government’s “protest” of his bill. This letter was written shortly after his first two suicide attempts while traveling down the Mississippi River, and 19 days before his third suicide attempt took his life. This article was published by the Delaware Gazette (Wilmington, Delaware) on Dec. 2, 1809:
Extract of a Letter from Governor M. Lewis, Dated Chickasaw Bluffs, 22d. Sept. 1809.
“I must acknowledge myself remiss in not writing you in answer to several friendly epistles, which I have received from you since my return from the Pacific Ocean. Continued occupation in the immediate discharge of the duties of a public station will, I trust, in some measure plead my apology.
“I am now on my way to the city of Washington, and had contemplated taking Fort Adams and Orleans in my route; but my indisposition had induced me to change my route and shall now pass through Tennessee and Virginia. The protest of some bills, which I have lately drawn on public account, form the principal inducement for my going forward at this moment. An explanation is all that is necessary, I am sensible, to put all matters right. In the meantime the protest of a draft, however just, has drawn down on me at one moment all my private debts, which have excessively embarrassed me.”