the suicide of meriwether lewis? -- 5/14/18

Today's selection -- from Bitterroot by Patricia Tyson Stroud. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark -- Lewis and Clark -- were the adventurers who answered President Thomas Jefferson's call to explore and map the newly acquired Louisiana Territory. In doing so, they became true American legends and heroes. But the reputation of Lewis became tainted when his early death was explained as a suicide, and has been repeatedly portrayed as such in the 200 years since. Some recent scholars are now disputing that view:

"That [Meriwether] Lewis died a violent death is incontrovertible, though the facts surrounding his demise are far from clear. The story of his suicide was circulated early on, as were accounts of his mental instability, alcoholism, and depression. Over the years, and especially of late, the narrative of a weak and troubled alcoholic depressive has dominated historiographic accounts, biographies, and films. Having failed as the governor of the Louisiana Territory, burdened by debt, and perhaps crazed by malaria, this version goes, Lewis shot himself in despair on his way east from St. Louis. But how do we reconcile this figure with the healthy, undaunted, resilient leader of the 1804-6 expedition? And what if Lewis did not suffer from depression or alcoholism at all? The cause of Lewis's death will probably remain a mystery after more than two hundred years as we can never know Lewis, sadly, but the nature and behavior of the man as documented in this book strongly suggest that he did not take his own life.

"The seeds of denigrating historiography are embedded in a short biography that Thomas Jefferson wrote for the truncated 1814 edition of the Lewis and Clark Journals, published five years after Lewis's death in October 1809. The ex-president said that he had observed 'sensible depressions of mind' while Lewis lived with him in Washington as his personal secretary. However, Jef­ferson had expected that the 'constant exertion' required of Lewis on the expedition would suspend these 'distressing affections.' But, Jefferson added, they 'returned upon him' when Lewis was governor in St. Louis, and it was in 'a paroxysm of one of these' that he left for Washington on his fateful journey (the president said nothing about depression or the abuse of alcohol while Lewis served as his secretary).

"Shortly after Lewis's death, Jefferson had received a letter from the man who set off with Lewis from the fort where he stayed briefly on his way east, announcing Lewis's unwitnessed 'suicide' and explaining that en route the governor had exhibited 'symptoms of a deranged mind.' Jefferson quoted this phrase in his biography without having instigated an investigation of any kind into the circumstances of Lewis's death. The implication is therefore that this aberration was responsible for his suicide. We can trace the source for Lewis's purported alcoholism to the com­mander of this same fort, who informed Jefferson, without any corroborating evidence, that Lewis was a drunkard. Some months later, Jefferson replied to the commander concerning these two imputations, that Lewis's mind was 'clouded' by his affliction of hypochondria, 'probably increased by the habit [alcohol] into which he had fallen.' I will examine this unsubstantiated mate­rial more fully later in this book, but suffice it to say that it is here, and in Jefferson's 1814 remarks, that we find the bitter root of most later biographies of Lewis. ...

Meriwether Lewis

"Some months after the expedition's return in the fall of 1806, Jefferson once again took a hand in Lewis's career by appointing him governor of the Loui­siana Territory, recently bought from France. ... It was a position for which Lewis appears to have had neither the inclination nor the required diplomatic shrewdness. Nevertheless, he accepted this post to manage a cha­otic, contentious situation in St. Louis, which he had seen something of on his return from the expedition, and pursued his complex responsibilities with the authority he acquired as an army officer. He confronted conflicting land claims, established Indian trading posts, dealt with hostile tribes, established a press to print much-needed territorial laws, and organized the local militia in case of British encroachment from the north, all during a period in his life when posterity has depicted him as an alcoholic failure. Then, after several years, the federal administration refused to honor vouchers he submitted for reimburse­ment for out-of-pocket expenses for government work, including the printing of the laws. His personal loans made on land purchases were called in, which threw him into crippling debt. To defend his honor by explaining his actions to the War Department, Lewis embarked on the fatal journey to Washington.

"The charge of alcoholism has been raised by Paul Russell Cutright, among other modern authors, in his History of the Lewis and Clark Journals (1976). Cutright cites Jefferson's statement about 'the habit into which [Lewis] had fallen' as supporting evidence. Yet if excessive drinking had been an issue, surely Lewis's secretary in St. Louis, Frederick Bates, who criticized him repeat­edly, would have mentioned it. But he never did. Could it be that everyone drank so much in the rough-and-tumble town of St. Louis at the time that it was not an issue? And who would have informed Jefferson of Lewis's excessive drinking in St. Louis? Cutright offers no answers. He does, however, cite the letters to Jefferson from Gilbert Russell, commander of Fort Pickering on the Mississippi, from where Lewis left to travel overland to the east, and James Neelly, the Indian agent who offered to accompany him from the fort to the inn on the Natchez Trace where he died. Statements of both these men, I argue, are suspect. Cutright concludes, however, that 'Lewis died a victim, in our opinion, of his own hand.'

"Alcoholism and suicide are also mentioned by Gary E. Moulton, editor of the multivolume Definitive Journals of Lewis and Clark (2002.). In referring to Lewis's death in his introduction, Moulton accepts that 'financial difficulties, political opposition, and probably alcoholism brought him to despair. In October 1809, on a journey to Washington to straighten out his tangled official accounts, he died of gunshot wounds, by his own hand in a lonely cabin in Tennessee.' ...

"But what if Lewis, suffering from neither depression nor alcoholism, did not commit suicide, but was murdered? A few writers have put forth this hypothesis. William Howard Adams laments that 'while evidence strongly points to murder, Lewis was officially declared a suicide.' In his biography of Lewis, Richard Dillon asks, 'Is it likely that the cause of Lewis's death was self-murder? Not at all. If there is such a person as the anti-suicide type, it was Meriwether Lewis. By temperament, he was a fighter, not a quitter .... Sensitive he was; neurotic he was not.' I too am less than willing to reject the possibil­ity that Lewis died by another's hand. To be sure, there will be no final answer to the subject of murder, but I hope to make a plausible case that Lewis, caught up in the crosscurrents of politics and territorial expansion, was marked by others for death.

"The present book sets out to show Lewis as his contemporaries saw him during his life and to do away with what I see as the layers of misinformation about depression, alcoholism, and suicide that have tarnished his name. I choose to recover the optimism and soundness of character that Lewis exhib­ited throughout his western expedition -- in his dealings with physical hardship and existential threats, with the illness of those under his command as well as of Clark and himself. I look to his compassion for the famine and destitution of many Indian tribes, as evident in his actions and writings and those of others on the journey. Neither in his earlier life nor in reliable contemporary accounts of his service as territorial governor stationed in St. Louis can I find any indication of the pathologically depressive, alcoholic, or suicidal behavior that has been attributed to him. ... By challenging the accounts of depression and alcoholism and by lifting the lingering shadows that have been cast on him by the majority of writers for over two hundred years, I hope to depict the man I think Meriwether truly was: Lewisia rediviva, Lewis returned to life."



Patricia Tyson Stroud


Bitterroot: The Life and Death of Meriwether Lewis


University of Pennsylvania Press


Copyright 2018 University of Pennsylvania Press


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