Myths, lies and old wives’ tales loom large in the outdoor pursuits. Here at MeatEater, we’re dedicated to separating facts from bull, so we created this series to examine suspect yarns. If there’s a belief, rumor, or long-held assumption you’d like us to fact check, drop us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Claim On October 11, 1809, three years after the Corps of Discovery returned home, Meriwether Lewis died from gunshot wounds to the head and abdomen. It happened in the middle of the night at an inn south of Nashville, Tennessee, while Lewis was traveling to Washington, D.C., for work. Although most historians believe he committed suicide, a vocal minority claim it was murder that ended the great explorer’s life.
Origin When William Clark and Thomas Jefferson learned of Lewis’ death, they both accepted that the gunshots were self-inflicted. His family wasn’t convinced though, beginning the speculation that someone else pulled the trigger.
The murder theory gained real traction 40 years later when Dr. Samuel B. Moore of the Tennessee State Commission examined the body. Although his official report in 1848 was light on details, Moore wrote that “it seems to be more probable that he died by the hands of an assassin.” It’s unclear what evidence Moore found to draw this conclusion.
A few historians have latched onto Moore’s analysis over the last 200 years and built out robust hypotheses about who might have killed Lewis. Some believe it was bandits, who were common along the Natchez Trace route that Lewis was traveling. Others think it was General James Wilkinson, a high-ranking Army officer and Spanish double agent who hatched plans to betray the government.
Suspicion also surrounds the innkeeper’s wife, who gave conflicting accounts regarding when the gunshots went off and where the body was found. She supposedly saw Lewis crawling around begging for water after the gunshots, but was too scared to help him.
Still today, Lewis’ kin casts doubt that the expedition leader killed himself. “This controversy has existed since his death,” said Tom McSwain, Lewis’ great-great-great-great nephew in a 2009 interview. “When there’s so much uncertainty, we must have more evidence. History is about finding the truth.”
From 1993 to 2010, roughly 200 members of his family sought to have the body exhumed for forensic analysis. Their request was denied by the Department of the Interior, which manages the Meriwether Lewis National Monument in Tennessee where he’s buried. The DOI cited the possibility of disturbing the graves of more than 100 pioneers that were laid to rest in the same area.
Facts Despite opposition from Lewis’ family and a few historians, almost all evidence indicates that the death was a suicide.
Before he arrived in Tennessee, Lewis wrote a will and gave associates the power to distribute his possessions in the event of his death. And according to Captain Gilbert Russel, Lewis twice attempted to take his own life while staying at Fort Pickering, Massachusetts, the month prior.
It was well known at the time that Lewis had financial troubles, struggled to finish writing his journals for publication, failed to find a wife, underwhelmed as governor of the Louisiana Purchase, and abused alcohol and morphine. Some also speculate that Lewis suffered from syphilis or malaria, the latter of which is known to cause bouts of dementia. Those closest to Lewis said his depressive tendencies were a lifelong struggle.
President Jefferson, who knew the Lewis clan well, said the family had a history of manic depression and bipolar disorder. He gathered Lewis battled it since youth.
“Governor Lewis had from early life been subject to hypochondriac affections,” Jefferson wrote in a letter after hearing the news of Lewis’ death. “It was a constitutional disposition in all the nearer branches of family of his name, it was more immediately inherited by him from his father. While he lived with me in Washington, I observed at times sensible depressions of the mind, but knowing their constitutional source, I estimated their course by what I had seen in the family.”
William Clark also reported that Lewis had bouts of both euphoria and depression following the expedition. “I fear the weight of his mind has overcome him,” Clark wrote days after the death.
Takeaway Based on an overwhelming amount of testimony, it seems obvious that Lewis took his own life. But how he died doesn’t change how he lived—making incalculable contributions to science, politics, exploration, and the American people. Lewis left behind a major legacy, even if he himself didn’t understand that impact.
“This day I completed my thirty first year,” Lewis forebodingly wrote on his birthday about halfway through the expedition. “I reflected that I had as yet done but little, very little indeed, to further the happiness of the human race, or to advance the information of the succeeding generation. I viewed with regret the many hours I have spent in indolence, and now sorely feel the want of that information which those hours would have given me had they been judiciously expended. In future, to live for mankind, as I have heretofore lived for myself.”