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Through a retelling of Lewis's life, from his resourceful youth to the brilliance of his leadership and accomplishments as a man, Patricia Tyson Stroud shows that Jefferson's unsubstantiated claim of his protégé's suicide is the long-held bitter root at the heart of the Meriwether Lewis story.

The Life and Death of Meriwether Lewis

Patricia Tyson Stroud

2018 | 392 pages | Cloth $39.95
Biography / American History
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Table of Contents

Author's Note

Chapter 1. An Unexpected Proposal
Chapter 2. Early Life
Chapter 3. The Threat of War
Chapter 4. Jefferson's Choice
Chapter 5. Cocaptain
Chapter 6. Doctrine of Discovery
Chapter 7. Under Way
Chapter 8. The Teton Sioux
Chapter 9. Fort Mandan
Chapter 10. A "Darling" Project
Chapter 11. Across the Rockies to the Pacific
Chapter 12. The Return
Chapter 13. Unspeakable Joy
Chapter 14. Philadelphia Interlude
Chapter 15. A Classic Cast of Characters
Chapter 16. Land of Opportunity
Chapter 17. Honor Questioned
Chapter 18. Defamed
Chapter 19. Jefferson's Letter

A Selection of Plants Collected by Meriwether Lewis

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


A beautiful rose-colored flower with a nauseously distasteful root, the appropriately named bitterroot adorns the Rocky Mountains in late spring and early summer. The plant gives its name to the Bitterroot Mountains, that portion of the Rockies that was most difficult for the Lewis and Clark expedition to cross, both on the way west and the way back, and takes its Latin designation, Lewisia rediviva, from one of the leaders of that expedition, and the man who first brought this new genus to the attention of Western science. But who was this Meriwether Lewis?

He was a particularly interesting man: honorable, courageous, and intelligent, with an inquiring mind and a subtle sense of humor, sometimes playful with family and close friends. Often introspective, he could be strongly moved by events and express himself eloquently in writing about his emotional reactions. He had a remarkable grasp of natural science and especially botany—despite being largely self-taught—and inspired faith, respect, love, and yes, occasional dislike on the part of those who knew him. He was, admittedly, self-conscious, a bit arrogant, inflexible, and at times unwilling to control a hot temper, which rendered him vulnerable to presumed insult. His response to certain situations could be overly dramatic, but he was honest and true to the principles he believed in, and deeply loyal to those he loved and admired. He died young, but his accomplishments in his short life were impressive, and his resolve in the face of physical hardship and intellectual and emotional challenges was great.

And yet, how many times over the years I have been writing this biography have I met with the response, "Meriwether Lewis—wasn't he the one who committed suicide?"

That 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.


As the eldest son of an elite Virginia family, Meriwether Lewis had inherited Locust Hill, a large plantation, at his majority. Destined to live a life of ease and privilege as a well-off slave-owning gentleman enjoying the attributes of his aristocratic position, he chose instead to become a soldier and leave the management of Locust Hill to his capable mother. The rugged peripatetic army life appealed to his love of adventure, and the camaraderie and patriotism he found in serving his country were part of the draw. But even more enticing were the experience of wilderness landscapes and the discovery of unfamiliar wildlife.

In early 1801, Jefferson, newly elected president of the United States, selected Lewis, whom he had known since the latter's childhood, to be his private secretary. Two years later, he appointed Lewis to lead an expedition under the auspices of the U.S. Army to explore the land beyond the Mississippi River stretching to the Pacific Ocean. Lewis accepted with alacrity, and after having assembled large quantities of equipment and supplies, he chose William Clark, once his superior officer, to share his command. With their individually picked contingent, the captains set out from a village just above St. Louis on 21 May 1804.

In his documentary Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery (1997), Ken Burns seems to accept Jefferson's 1814 words about depression from the very beginning. Lewis's voice in the film is sad and weak in contrast to Clark's, which is deep and strong. The narrator mentions early on that one of the captains is "troubled," and later that he is "dark and gloomy." So, in the film, Jefferson's assessment of Lewis's tendency toward depression, first set out in the abbreviated biography eight years after the successful return of the expedition, shapes the viewer's sense that there was a psychological problem of long standing. Yet, throughout their travels, as reflected in the journals of both Lewis and Clark and several of the sergeants, there is no mention, not even a creditable hint, of such an affliction.

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. Official news of the purchase, which removed many of the political hazards (British and Spanish) of traveling through foreign-held country, had arrived shortly before Lewis set out to explore this vast land of 828,000 square miles, which doubled the size of the United States. However, governorship of the Louisiana Territory was a very different kind of responsibility from leading an expedition. 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."

Stephen E. Ambrose, in Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West (1996), agrees with Moulton and Cutright that Lewis "was doing a lot of heavy drinking." Ambrose attributes Lewis's depression to his being "unlucky in love" and observes that "he was turned down because he drank too much and made a spectacle of himself." He also suggests that Lewis missed "the adulation he had become accustomed to receiving" after the expedition and contends that on his journey east in addition to alcohol he was "using snuff frequently, taking his pills, talking wildly, telling lies." When Ambrose says that Lewis finally resolved "never to drink any more spirits or use snuff again," he concludes that Lewis "was also ashamed of himself." Although at the end of the book Ambrose quotes Jefferson's words about Lewis's "undaunted courage," by having used Jefferson's preceding statements about Lewis's depressed personality, he anchors his diminishment of Lewis's reputation in alcoholism and suicide.

In the handsome companion volume to the 2004-6 Bicentennial Exhibition of the Lewis and Clark expedition, Carolyn Gilman repeats the unverified stories of Russell and Neelly once again. She writes that Lewis, "called to account for his expenses," was "already deeply depressed, alcoholic, and addicted to laudanum," and that "alone and delusional at an isolated inn in Tennessee he ended his own life."

In his essay The Character of Meriwether Lewis: "Completely Metamorphosed" in the American West (2000), Clay Straus Jenkinson, a principal commentator for the Ken Burns film, sets out to analyze numerous of Lewis's entries in his expedition journal in order to demonstrate all the negative qualities of the man, qualities that led directly, in his opinion, to Lewis's suicide. He gives as an example Lewis's anger at Manuel Lisa and François Marie Benoit, the St. Louis suppliers of the expedition, who he felt had cheated him. Writing to Clark, Lewis fumes: "Damn Manuel and triply damn Mr. B. They give me more vexation and trouble than their lives are worth. I have dealt very plainly with these gentlemen. In short, I have come to an open rupture with them. I think them both scoundrels." "What can be said of this excursion into petulance?" Jenkinson asks. "It is sadly clear that it was Lewis himself who came to manifest tendencies—paranoia, pettiness, impatience, pride, self-pity—that led him to cut his own throat." And here more hearsay creeps in as fact. The keeper of the inn where Lewis stayed mentioned only gunshots. That Lewis died by cutting his own throat was a sensational embellishment in a newspaper account. Jenkinson's other comments throughout his book are as deeply skewed or are simply wrong in my opinion.

The film produced by the National Geographic, called Lewis and Clark: Great Journey West (2003), offers a more positive portrayal of Lewis as a hero, yet even here, at the end, the narrator intones that after being named governor of the Louisiana Territory Lewis "fell into a deep depression and is believed to have taken his own life." The statement takes us back to Jefferson yet again. Thomas C. Danisi, author of two popular books on Lewis, puts forth the fanciful theory that, crazed by malaria, Lewis committed suicide by accident: "Lewis had a certain antipathy toward his head and liver/spleen and wanted to wound it by shooting it, as if the shooting would cure it. . . . My conclusion, as a historian is that Lewis did not mean to kill himself in his malarial attack. Rather, he, by his actions, meant only to treat his absolute pain." This said of a man who had endured freezing weather, exhaustion, starvation, food poisoning, and a serious gunshot wound, in addition to many previous attacks of malaria that were routine for him.

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.

When Jefferson responded to the request for a short posthumous biography of Lewis, the man who Lewis had looked up to with near reverence inexplicably failed him. Jefferson accepted rumors of Lewis's dissipation and resulting suicide without question or investigation. The puzzling negative statements the ex-president made, for reasons of his own, about his onetime protégé, are difficult to fathom but have colored virtually every account since.

Bitterroot. Lewisia rediviva. Lewis's story is for me at once a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions and a story that finds its reflection in the image of the beautiful rose-colored flower that bears his name and the bitter root that feeds it. 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.

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