On this day in 1809, the famous explorer Meriwether Lewis dies under mysterious circumstances in the early hours of the morning after stopping for the night at Grinder’s Tavern along the Natchez Trace in Tennessee.
Three years earlier, Lewis and his co-commander, William Clark, had completed their brilliant exploration of the newly acquired Louisiana Territory and the Pacific Northwest. Justly famous and celebrated throughout the nation as a result, Lewis nonetheless found his return to civilized eastern life difficult. President Thomas Jefferson appointed him as governor of Louisiana Territory, but Lewis soon discovered that the complex politics and power struggles of the territory were earning him more enemies than friends. At the same time, bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., were questioning the legitimacy of some of the purchases Lewis had made for the expedition in 1803, raising the threat of bankruptcy if he were forced to cover these costs personally. Finally, some three years after the end of his journey, Lewis still had failed to complete the work necessary to publish the critically important scientific and geographical information he and Clark had gathered in their journals-much to the disappointment of his close friend and mentor, Thomas Jefferson.
For all these reasons, most recent historians have concluded that Lewis’ death was a suicide brought on by deep depression and the heavy weight of worries he bore. According to the account given by Mrs. Grinder, the mistress of the tavern along the Natchez Trace where Lewis died, during his final hours Lewis began to pace in his room and talk aloud to himself “like a lawyer.” She then heard a pistol shot and Lewis exclaiming, “O Lord!” After a second pistol shot, Lewis staggered from his room and called for help, reportedly saying, “O Madam! Give me some water, and heal my wounds.” Strangely, Mrs. Grinder did nothing to help him; she later said that she was too afraid. The next morning servants went to his room where they reportedly found him “busily engaged in cutting himself from head to foot” with a razor. Fatally wounded in the abdomen, Lewis died shortly after sunrise.
Based largely on Mrs. Grinder’s story, most historians have argued that Lewis tried to kill himself with two pistol shots, and when death did not come quickly enough, tried to finish the job with his razor. However, in a 1962 book, Suicide or Murder? The Strange Death of Governor Meriwether Lewis, the author Vardes Fisher raised questions about the reliability of Mrs. Grinder’s story and suggested that Lewis might have actually been murdered, either by Mrs. Grinder’s husband or bandits. Since then a minority of historians has continued to raise challenges to the suicide thesis. But ultimately, nearly two centuries after the event, we may never be able to discover exactly what happened that night along the Natchez Trace when one of the nation’s greatest heroes died at the tragically young age of 35.