According to a lost letter from October 19, 1809, to Thomas Jefferson, Lewis stopped at an inn on the Natchez Trace called Grinder’s Stand, about 70 miles (110 km) southwest of Nashville on October 10. After dinner, he retired to his one-room cabin. In the predawn hours of October 11, the innkeeper’s wife (Priscilla Grinder) heard gunshots. Servants found Lewis badly injured from multiple gunshot wounds, one each to the head and gut. He bled out on his buffalo hide robe and died shortly after sunrise. The Nashville Democratic Clarion published the account, which newspapers across the country repeated and embellished. The Nashville newspaper also reported that Lewis’s throat was cut. Money that Lewis had borrowed from Major Gilbert Russell at Fort Pickering to complete the journey was missing.
While Lewis’s friend Thomas Jefferson and some modern historians have generally accepted Lewis’s death as a suicide, debate continues, as discussed below. No one reported seeing Lewis shoot himself. Three inconsistent somewhat contemporary accounts are attributed to Mrs. Grinder, who left no written account or testimony—some thus believe her testimony was fabricated, while others point to it as proof of suicide. Mrs. Grinder claimed Lewis acted strangely the night before his death: standing and pacing during dinner and talking to himself in the way one would speak to a lawyer, with face flushed as if it had come on him in a fit. She continued to hear him talking to himself after he retired, and then at some point in the night, she heard multiple gunshots, a scuffle, and someone calling for help.
She claimed to be able to see Lewis through the slit in the door crawling back to his room. However, she never explained why she never investigated further at the time, but only the next morning sent her children to look for Lewis’s servants. Another account claimed the servants found Lewis in the cabin, wounded and bloody, with part of his skull gone, but he lived for several hours. In the last account attributed to Mrs. Grinder, three men followed Lewis up the Natchez Trace, and he pulled his pistols and challenged them to a duel. In that account, Mrs. Grinder said that she heard voices and gunfire in Lewis’s cabin about 1 a.m. She found the cabin empty and a large amount of gunpowder on the floor. Thus, in this account, Lewis’s body was found outside the cabin.
Lewis’s mother and relatives always contended it was murder. A coroner’s jury held an inquest immediately after Lewis’s death as provided by local law; however, they did not charge anyone with murdering Lewis. The jury foreman kept a pocket diary of the proceedings, which disappeared in the early-1900s. When William Clark and Thomas Jefferson were informed of Lewis’ death, both accepted the conclusion of suicide. Based on their positions and the never-found Lewis letter of mid-September 1809, historian Stephen Ambrose dismissed the murder theory as “not convincing”.
The only doctor to examine Lewis’s body did not do so until 40 years later, in 1848. The Tennessee State Commission, including Dr. Samuel B. Moore, charged with locating Lewis’s grave and erecting a monument over it, opened Lewis’s grave. The commission wrote in its official report that though the impression had long prevailed that Lewis died by his own hand, “it seems to be more probable that he died by the hands of an assassin.” In the book The History of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, first printed in 1893, the editor Elliott Coues expressed doubt about Thomas Jefferson’s conclusion that Lewis committed suicide, despite including the former president’s Memoir of Meriwether Lewis in his book.
From 1993–2010, about 200 of Lewis’s kin (through his sister Jane, as he had no children) sought to have the body exhumed for forensic analysis, to try to determine whether the death was a suicide. A Tennessee coroner’s jury in 1996 recommended exhumation. However, since Lewis’s gravesite is in a national monument, the National Park Service must approve. The agency refused the request in 1998, citing possible disturbance to the bodies of more than 100 pioneers buried nearby. In 2008, the Department of the Interior approved the exhumation, but rescinded that decision in 2010 after the change in administrations, stating that decision is final. It is nonetheless improving the grave site and visitor facility.
Historian Paul Russell Cutright wrote a detailed refutation of the murder robbery theory, concluding that it “lacks legs to stand on”. He stressed Lewis’s debts, heavy drinking, and possible morphine and opium use, failure to prepare the expedition’s journals for publication, repeated failure to find a wife, and the deterioration of his friendship with Thomas Jefferson. This refutation was countered by Eldon G. Chuinard, who argued for the murder hypothesis. Leading Lewis scholars Donald Jackson, Jay H. Buckley, Clay S. Jenkinson and others, have stated that, regardless of their leanings or beliefs, the facts of his death are not known, there are no eyewitnesses, and the reliability of reports of those in the place or vicinity cannot be considered certain. Author Peter Stark believes that post-traumatic stress disorder may have been a contributor to Meriwether Lewis’s condition after spending months traversing hostile Indian territory, particularly because travelers coming afterward exhibited the same symptoms. (Wikipedia)
The death of Meriwether Lewis has been controversial since the great explorer drew his last breath. Robert Grinder, owner of the Grinder’s Stand, the inn where Lewis died, was allegedly accused of murder, but the charges were said to have been dropped for lack of evidence. There are no records of those events. His wife, Priscilla Grinder, gave three very different accounts of what transpired. Major James Neely, a Chickasaw Indian agent traveling with Lewis, wrote the account that led to the suicide conclusion, but Neely was actually sixty miles away (two days ride by horse) at the time of Lewis’s death. A deposition, allegedly written by Major Gilbert C. Russell and produced for General James Wilkinson’s 1811 court martial, claims that Lewis attempted suicide twice on his way to Fort Pickering (Memphis) on that final journey. But the FBI has proved that deposition a forgery; a fraud designed, it seems, to bolster the suicide theory.
But who would want Lewis dead? And why?
First, in brief, the facts and the alleged eyewitness accounts: Lewis was headquartered in St. Louis in the fall of 1809. He had engaged in some land speculation, not unusual for the time. But Congress refused to reimburse him for expenses he made in the course of his duties as governor; his land speculation failed to earn him much money. Lewis was, in a word, broke. The young explorer determined to go to Washington and plead his case to Congress. Failing that, he intended to sell his journals, which were almost guaranteed to fetch a high price.
He intended to travel down the Mississippi River to New Orleans and then book passage on a steamer to Washington, D.C. But for some reason, Lewis altered his course at Fort Pickering (Memphis, Tennessee) to proceed by the Natchez Trace, an old frontier road that ran from Natchez, Mississippi, to Nashville. This is where the story starts getting strange. Major Gilbert Russell, commander at Pickering, allegedly wrote a letter claiming that Lewis attempted to commit suicide twice while at Fort Pickering. The letter didn’t appear until General Wilkinson’s 1811 court martial. And, in 1996, it proved to be a forgery. Russell never wrote it.
But back to Lewis.
Traveling with Chickasaw Indian agent James Neely, who, like Russell, was appointed to his position by General James Wilkinson, Lewis struck the Trace, probably somewhere between what is now Corinth, Mississippi, and the Alabama line. Each man had a servant traveling with him. Just before they arrived at the Grinder’s Stand inn, according to Neely, two of their horses ran away and Neely went to chase them down. Keep this in mind for just a minute.
Priscilla Grinder said Lewis arrived at the inn and demanded a room. (Her husband, Robert, was away.) She described Lewis as distracted, claimed he appeared to be talking to himself. His bizarre behavior continued at dinner. Then late in the night, Mrs. Grinder heard several gunshots, and Lewis scratching at the back door and crying out for help. She said later that she had been too scared to venture into the night. But she also said in other testimony that there were servants with Lewis. And in later years, she claimed that two or three riders had come up the evening before and Lewis charged forth and challenged them to a duel. (Rather odd behavior if true.)
At any rate, Lewis was found at daylight with a gunshot to the chest and one to the head, and, apparently, several knife wounds. He died shortly thereafter.
His and Neely’s servants were asleep in a barn nearby. They claimed not to have heard the gunshots.
Neely provided Thomas Jefferson with an account of Lewis’s death. But attorney Tony Turnbow has discovered irrefutable court documents showing that at the time Neely claimed he was chasing down the horses, he was actually in Franklin, Tennessee, two days ride from Grinder’s Stand.
But let’s look at it rationally. First, Lewis would have had to have used his pistols (both .69 caliber) as his long rifles were not suited to suicide. For anyone familiar with firearms, the idea that Lewis could have shot himself not once, but twice with .69 caliber pistols is ludicrous. The wound made by such a round either to the head or the chest would have caused massive damage and surely would have precluded a second shot. My father, once a member of the Tennessee National Guard’s pistol marksmanship team, always swore that a round from a .45 caliber pistol to a thumb would stop a man in his tracks. And we’re asked to believe that Lewis sustained such a wound and then was still able to target either his head or chest for a second round. Those who believe that was possible (including famed historian Stephen Ambrose) either a) have no familiarity with firearms of that period, or b) are insane. This is not a situation where you can sit in your ivy-covered tower in academia and apply psychoanalytic babble to Lewis. This is a situation that cries out for proper forensic analysis.
The only examination of Lewis’s remains that bore even a semblance of forensic scrutiny took place in 1838, when his body was exhumed so his burial place could be determined and a memorial placed over it. An inquest jury at the time ruled that Lewis’s death probably was the result of homicide.
Clay Jenkinson, writing in 2012, claims speculation that Russell’s letter of 1811 was a forgery is unsupported. Jenkinson is a renowned and widely respected historian. But FBI handwriting specialists don’t typically draw unsupported conclusions, and that’s who pronounced Russell’s letter a fraud.
At the heart of most of the conspiracy theories is Major General James Wilkinson, twice commander of the United States Army, of whom Theodore Roosevelt later said: “In all our history, there is no more despicable creature.” Wilkinson was court-martialed for his role in Vice President Aaron Burr’s empire-building scheme in the southwest, but, to President James Madison’s chagrin, Wilkinson was acquitted. After Wilkinson’s death, it emerged that he had been a paid agent of the Spanish crown.
No question exists that Wilkinson was capable of arranging Lewis’s murder, but the motive is a bit vague. Some say that Wilkinson had Lewis killed in jealousy after Lewis was named governor of the Louisiana Territory. Some say Wilkinson feared what Lewis would report to Washington, D.C.
Kira Gale, who wrote The Death of Meriwether Lewis with forensic scientist James E. Starrs, believes that Wilkinson planned the assassination of Lewis. Historian David Chandler says that Lewis learned of Wilkinson’s treasonous activities and planned to reveal them to Congress as part of a bid to have his expenses as governor covered by the government, giving Wilkinson a motive to eliminate his much younger rival.
Even Thomas Jefferson, who hand-picked Lewis as his personal aide in the White House, has been implicated, if only in a passive role. David Chandler believes that Jefferson had a great deal to lose by Lewis’s revelations concerning Wilkinson. The treasonous general was commander of the U.S. Army under Jefferson. Had Lewis revealed his knowledge of Wilkinson’s treason, says Chandler, Jefferson’s legacy would have been permanently scarred.
Although critics only hint that Jefferson may have been directly involved, most grant that, at the very least, he eagerly embraced the suicide story. After all, Jefferson was close to both Wilkinson and Lewis, but Lewis was dead, so Jefferson took the path of least resistance—champion the suicide story to try and protect his reputation from being tarnished by Wilkinson’s misdeeds. Jefferson was a pragmatic politician; Lewis could no longer defend himself while Wilkinson might be able to paint the president with some of the wrongdoing.
Let’s sum up: Priscilla Grinder, the only available eyewitness, told three very different and contradictory accounts of Lewis’s death. Scratch Grinder as a credible witness. Major Neely, who reported Lewis’s death to Thomas Jefferson, is documented as having been 60 miles away on the day of Lewis’s demise. Everything that Neely reported to Jefferson was, by necessity, hearsay. Scratch Neely. The famous letter from Gilbert Russell, detailing earlier attempts by Lewis to commit suicide, was proven a forgery. Scratch Russell.
By numerous accounts, Lewis sustained one .69 bullet wound to the chest and one to the head. The head wound is said to have taken off part of his skull. He is also reported to have had several knife wounds. It would be valuable now to know the location of the knife wounds, as they might have more closely reflected defensive wounds than suicide attempts.
Meriwether Lewis’s death cannot and should not be put down to suicide. The suicide story simply has too many holes in it and too much evidence arguing strongly against it. An exhumation and forensic examination could go a long way towards resolving the puzzle. Literally dozens of Lewis’s kinfolk have requested such an exhumation. But thanks to a Department of the Interior decision in 2010, we’ll never know the truth behind the famous explorer’s death.
On an episode of the History channel series ‘America Unearthed’ forensic geologist Scott Wolter examined famous explorer Meriwether Lewis’s Masonic Apron and discovered that the blood stains on the apron were not Lewis’s and in fact belonged to two or more other individuals. This is a shocking discovery that would validate claims made in Xaviant Haze and co-author Paul Schrag’s 2011 book The Suppressed history of America. For more evidence that Lewis was murdered also watch the episode of Brad Meltzer’s Decoded ‘Secret Presidential codes’ Here. Clay Jenkinson, author of “The Character of Meriwether Lewis,” believes otherwise after weighing the evidence of suicide or murder while Kira Gale, co-author of “The Death of Meriwether Lewis,” argues that Lewis did not commit suicide as is widely believed. She says that the available evidence suggests that he was murdered. What do you think? The books and videos below will help you further explore this subject.