October 11, 2007

October 11 | Meriwether Lewis

August 18, 1774 - October 11, 1809: Age 35

Meriwether Lewis is best known for co-leading the expedition (with William Clark) that did more to open up the American West than any other. On this two-year expedition, begun in 1803 when he was 28 years old, Lewis catalogued hundreds of new plants and animals, made friendly first contact with a number of native groups, and laid the groundwork for the trade economy that ultimately turned the United States into an economic empire. During this arduous journey — the intention was to find a workable route to the West coast — only one of the 11 men who accompanied them died, and that man died of appendicitis. The expedition was so successful that Thomas Jefferson, then President, appointed him Governor of the Louisiana Territory.

Lewis proved to be far less able as a politician and administrator than as an expedition leader. He quarreled with the local authorities and made enemies. He couldn't keep his accounts straight. Washington refused to cover some large expenses he had paid himself, leaving him deeply in debt, and he left for Washington in 1809 to try to straighten things out.

Today the journey from St. Louis to Washington is a 13-hour drive. In 1809 it was actually easier to take a boat down the Mississippi to New Orleans and then board a ship to go through the Gulf of Mexico, around the Florida panhandle, and up the East coast — and this is what Lewis set out to do. On the way downriver, however, he seems to have suffered a mental breakdown and was put ashore at Chickasaw Bluffs (now Memphis) to recover. After a couple of weeks of recuperation, he borrowed some money and set out on an overland trail.

On the night of October 10 he stayed at a home 72 miles from Nashville. There were two log cabins on the property: Lewis stayed in one and the owner in the other, and his servants stayed in a barn some distance away. During the night the owner was alarmed by Lewis' agitated behaviour — he stayed up into the morning hours pacing and mumbling about the unfairness of his situation. Then she heard a gunshot, a thud, and Lewis' voice saying "Oh Lord!" There was another shot, and Lewis stumbled over to her cabin and banged on the door, saying "Oh Madam! Give me some water, and heal my wounds!" She was alone with her children; her husband was away. Already spooked by his strange behaviour, she was too terrified to open the door. After two hours she sent one of her children to fetch his servants.

They found Lewis lying on his bed, shot in the side and in the head. Part of his forehead was shattered and his brain was exposed, but he was alive. He begged them to kill him. His last words were, "I am no coward, but I am so strong. It is so hard to die."

The general consensus in Washington was that he had committed suicide. He had tried to kill himself on two previous occasions, he had made a will during the river journey from St. Louis, and his behaviour during the last week of his life was definitely strange. Yet his wounds as described were not exactly consistent with that notion. Who shoots themself in the side? He had many enemies, and the $100 he had borrowed for the overland journey was never found.

Sources: Forbes, Malcolm, They Went That-a-Way, Simon and Schuster 1988; Wikipedia

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