Meriwether Lewis' Mysterious Death

Two hundred years later, debate continues over whether the famous explorer committed suicide or was murdered

Controversy over Meriwether Lewis' death has descendants and scholars campaigning to exhume his body at his grave site in Tennessee. (Connie Ricca / Corbis)

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Guice believes that bandits roaming the notoriously dangerous Natchez Trace killed Lewis. Other murder theories range from the scandalous (the innkeeper discovered Lewis in flagrante with Mrs. Grinder) to the conspiratorial (a corrupt Army general named James Wilkinson hatched an assassination plot.)

Though Lewis’s mother is said to have believed he was murdered, that idea didn’t have much traction until the 1840s, when a commission of Tennesseans set out to honor Lewis by erecting a marker over his grave. While examining the remains, committee members wrote that “it was more probable that he died at the hands of an assassin.” Unfortunately, they failed to say why.

But the science of autopsies has come a long way since then, says James Starrs, a George Washington University Law School professor and forensics expert who is pressing for an exhumation. For one thing, with mitochondrial DNA samples he’s already taken from several of Lewis’ female descendants, scientists can confirm that the body really is Lewis’s (corpses were not uncommon on the Natchez Trace). If the skeleton is his, and intact, they can analyze gunpowder residue to see if he was shot at close range and examine fracture patterns in the skull. They could also potentially learn about his nutritional health, what drugs he was using and if he was suffering from syphilis. Historians would hold such details dear, Starrs says: “Nobody even knows how tall Meriwether Lewis was. We could do the DNA to find out the color of his hair.”

Some scholars aren’t so sure that an exhumation will clarify matters.

“Maybe there is an answer beneath the monument to help us understand,” says James Holmberg, curator of Special Collections at the Filson Historical Society in Louisville, Ky., who has published work on Lewis’s life and death. “But I don’t know if it would change anybody’s mind one way or the other.”

The details of the case are so sketchy that “it’s like trying to grab a shadow,” Holmberg says. “You try to reach out but you can never get a hold of it.” Even minor features of the story fluctuate. In some versions, Seaman, Lewis’s loyal Newfoundland who guarded his master against bears on the long journey West, remained by his grave, refusing to eat or drink. In other accounts, the dog was never there at all.

However Lewis died, his death had a considerable effect on the young country. A year and a half after the shooting, ornithologist Alexander Wilson, a friend of Lewis’s, interviewed Mrs. Grinder, becoming one of the first among many people who have investigated the case. He gave the Grinders money to maintain Lewis’s grave and visited the site himself. There, reflecting on the adventure-loving young man who had mapped “the gloomy and savage wilderness which I was just entering alone,” Wilson broke down and wept.

About Abigail Tucker

A frequent contributor to Smithsonian, Abigail Tucker is writing a book about the house cat.

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