Fateful Journey    Primary Sources

Early Life

Meriwether Lewis was born to a Virginia planter family on August 18, 1774 near Charlottesville in Albemarle County.  From birth, Lewis’ life was deeply connected to the affairs of the emerging American republic.  His family was both a neighbor and relation to future American president Thomas Jefferson.  Lewis’ father, William Lewis, fought for American independence in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.  But the elder Lewis’ premature death, which occurred when Meriwether was only 5 years-old, cut short the boy’s upbringing in Virginia.  Jefferson became his mentor.    His mother, Lucy, remarried another military man, John Marks, who then moved the family to a plantation in Georgia.  Following John Mark’s death in 1792, Lucy brought the family back to Virginia.

Lewis appears to have received his early education from private tutors rather than from schools.  He received lessons in math, science, and Latin.  But with such strong family ties to the military, it is not surprising that Lewis joined the Virginia militia at the age of 20.  Military life agreed with the young Lewis.  The following year he joined the U.S. Army and served under his future expedition partner Lieutenant William Clark.  Eventually reaching the rank of captain, Lewis served on the Ohio and Tennessee frontiers including a stint at Fort Pickering near present-day Memphis.   

Meriwether Lewis Grave and Monument in Hohenwald, Tennessee.

Discovery Expedition of St. Charles Paying Honor During the 2009 Commemoration of Lewis' Death

President’s Secretary
Following Thomas Jefferson’s election as the United States third president, Lewis accepted an appointment to serve as Jefferson’s private secretary in Washington.  Lewis’ military experiences made him well-suited for the position.  One of his duties was to keep Jefferson informed of the U.S. military’s views of the administration’s policies.  Not long after Lewis came to Washington, Jefferson advanced towards acquiring the western territories of the North American continent.  He recognized that the future of the young republic depended on it having unrestricted access to trade routes, and he feared interference from the British, French, and Spanish who still held influence in the west.  Sponsoring an American expedition to the west that would negotiate trade alliances with Native Americans and map a water route that linked the east and west coasts was part of Jefferson’s strategy.  Jefferson selected Lewis to lead the expedition.  Shortly before the expedition departed,  the acquisition of western territories from France became a reality (called the Louisiana Purchase).

Lewis threw himself wholeheartedly into the adventure.  While the primary goal of the expedition was pragmatic, it was conceived in the spirit of “Enlightenment” that dominated eighteenth and early nineteenth century American thought.  Thus the president instructed Lewis to collect data on the climate, animals, flora, trees, and Native Americans that he encountered on the journey.  Lewis was a soldier, not a trained scientist.  He compensated by taking crash courses on the natural sciences from America’s leading experts of the time.  He studied medicine with Benjamin Rush and botany with Benjamin Smith Barton.  His old army friend William Clark accepted Lewis’ invitation to be his expedition partner.

Lewis and Clark Expedition
Lewis left Washington on July 5, 1803 traveling west on a 55-foot keelboat destined for the Pacific Ocean.  William Clark joined him on the Ohio River at Clarksville, Indiana, and other men were recruited along the way reaching a peak crew of 45.  After wintering in St. Louis, the expedition navigated up the Missouri River from St. Louis in spring 1804 and reached the villages of the Mandan Native American tribe in present-day North Dakota.  It soon became evident that without help from Native Americans, the expedition stood little chance for success.  The tribes provided military protection, food, and valuable assistance with navigation.  It was with the Mandan that Lewis and Clark met and enlisted a French Canadian named Touissant Charbonneau as an interpreter and his Native American wife Sacagawea.  Charbonneau, Sacagawea, their infant son, 33 men, and a dog departed the Mandan and continued west in spring 1805.

The wide plains, abundant game, and dramatic weather of present-day Montana occupied many of Lewis’ journal entries.  He hoped that the Missouri River would eventually lead to the Columbia River, thus carrying his party to the Pacific Ocean.  But instead the vast ranges of the Rocky Mountains unexpectedly blocked his intended route.  On two occasions Native American women intervened with fate possibly rescuing the expedition from defeat.  With the party exhausted and ill from the harsh conditions of the mountains, Sacagawea led the expedition to her native tribe, the Shoshone, which provided the party with horses that greatly improved their ability to travel over the rough terrain.  The expedition also almost ended after an encounter with the Nez Perce Indians.  Recognizing the party’s poor condition, the Nez Perce considered killing them and taking their guns and trade goods.  But a woman elder of the tribe protested the plan citing good treatment that she had received from whites in the past.  As a result, the Nez Perce allowed the expedition to continue without harassment. 

Eventually the expedition reached the Columbia River and made it to the Pacific Ocean in the present-day state of Washington by November 1805.  There they spent a grueling winter at Fort Clatsop not making their way back east until March 1806.  For Native Americans who had inhabited these areas for thousands of years, the Lewis and Clark expedition was merely a brief passing of whites through their lands.  But for Americans in the east, the information collected by Lewis was the nation’s first glimpse into the previously unknown west.  Lewis recorded information, such as tribal beliefs and political structures, on some fifty Native American tribes.  He also documented over 170 new plant and animal species and charted previously unmapped river routes.  He returned to Washington on December 28, 1806 an American hero.

Meriwether Lewis is considered one of the world's greatest explorers.  The planning and execution of a mission to take thirty-three men to the Pacific Ocean and to bring them back safely is considered an achievement of military leadership.

President Thomas Jefferson handsomely rewarded Lewis for the expedition’s success.  He received $4,000 in cash and 1600 acres of land.  By February 1807, the president appointed Lewis governor of the Louisiana Territory with an annual salary of $2000.  The money and fame that the expedition brought Lewis should have sustained a happy livelihood, but this turned out not to be the case.  Lewis’ efforts to publish his expedition journals moved forward slowly, a situation that irked Jefferson, and other members of the expedition actually managed to pre-empt Lewis with their own accounts. The expedition discovered that there was no direct water routef from the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean that could be exploited for military and commercial purposes.  Traders and settlers found easier routes west that followed a more southern course, thus lessening the importance of the Lewis and Clark route.  Lewis’ attempts to establish trade relations with Native Americans produced some initial achievements as tribal chiefs accepted Lewis' invitation to travel to Washington and to talk with President Jefferson.   The most lasting impact of Lewis' contact with the Native Americans may have been that it reduced the influence of British traders and military interests from the Canadian territory, which may have helped secure American predominance in the Louisiana Territory at a time when the young nation was to weak to fend off a serious British threat from the north.

Perhaps Lewis’ biggest headache was his position as governor of the Louisiana Territory.  The territory was vast and he was responsible for construction of roads, creation of courts, administration of land sales, and establishment of trade policies with Native Americans.  President Jefferson gave Lewis additional new duties in the east immediately after appointing him governor, including attending the  treason trial of former Vice-President Aaron Burr.  Lewis stayed in the east an entire year before assuming his position in St. Louis.  In the interim, governance in the territory severely deteriorated.  The previous governor, General James Wilkinson, had accepted bribes in return for favoritism in land deals and was accused of treasonous relations with the Spanish, leaving the stigma of corruption in the territory even after his departure.  The  territorial secretary, Frederick Bates, appears to have despised Lewis and undermined his authority throughout Lewis’ brief term as governor. 

Once Lewis finally arrived in St. Louis, he also had to deal with the new presidential administration of James Madison, which was less than supportive.  The administration refused to reimburse Lewis for expenses he incurred in St. Louis, leaving him with numerous debts.  While evidence suggests that Lewis was gaining control of the situation by the summer of 1809, the final straw came when the new Secretary of War, William Eustis, denied funds for Lewis’ plan to return a Mandan chief to his home village in present-day North Dakota (the chief and his family had been languishing in St. Louis for two years after being brought to Washington to meet Jefferson following the expedition).  Lewis decided to make a trip to Washington to personally appeal his case to Eustis and continue work on publishing his expedition journals. He wrote to the Secretary that the government would not make an Aaron Burr out of him and that while his enemies might impoverish him, they would never separate him from his love for his country.  In essence he went to Washington to defend his reputation.  The disputed requisition was paid two years after Lewis' death.

Fateful Journey
Lewis never made it to Washington.  During the journey, he died from gunshot wounds while lodging at Grinders Stand on the Natchez Trace in present-day Lewis County.  While the details of his journey from St. Louis to Grinder's Stand are generally accepted, how he met his end at this small log cabin in rural Tennessee remains in dispute. 

Generally Accepted Timeline of Meriwether Lewis’ Journey from St. Louis to Grinders Stand in 1809:
•  August 18:  Lewis sends a letter to Secretary of War William Eustis vehemently protesting the Secretary’s denial of funds to return the Mandan chief to his home.  (read an excerpt from the letter)
•  September 4:  Lewis and free mulatto servant John Pernier (sometimes described as a “Creole”) depart St. Louis with expedition journal papers.  The plan is to travel by keelboat down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, then take a boat in the gulf to Washington, DC. 
•  September 11:  Possibly suffering from malaria, Lewis docks at New Madrid for a couple of days to recuperate from the stifling heat of the riverboat.  Writes and registers his last will and testament.
•  September 15:  Arrives at Fort Pickering, near present-day Memphis.  Again in poor health, he is carried by stretcher to the quarters of the fort’s commanding officer Captain Gilbert C. Russell.  (read account by Russell)
•  September 16:  Lewis writes a letter to President James Madison from Fort Pickering informing him that he has abandoned his plan to travel by boat and will go to Washington via a land route that runs through Tennessee.  He cites the heat of river travel and fear that journal papers could be captured by British as principle reasons for change. (read Lewis’ letter to President Madison)
•  September 22:  Lewis writes a letter to his army friend Amos Stoddard from Fort Pickering informing him of his revised travel plans.  (read Lewis’ letter to Stoddard)
•  September 27:  Captain Russell lends Lewis two horses, a saddle, and a check for $100.  Lewis signs promissory note to Russell totaling $379.58.
•  September 29:  Lewis leaves Fort Pickering for the Chickasaw Agency near present-day Houston, Mississippi.  Chickasaw Indian agent James Neelly, his slave, an interpreter, several Chickasaw men, and Pernier accompany Lewis.
•  October 3:  Party arrives at Chickasaw Agency.  Lewis falls ill again. 
•  October 6:  Party, minus the interpreter and some Chickasaw men, depart the Chickasaw Agency for Nashville following the Natchez Trace. 
•  October 10 (morning):  South of present-day Collinwood, Tennessee, party awakes to find two of its packhorses gone.    Neelly stays behindwith some of the Chickaswaw men to find the horses while Lewis, Pernier, and Neelly’s slave continue the journey.
•  October 10 (evening):  Without Neelly, party arrives at Grinders Stand.  Lewis decides to lodge there for the night.  With her husband Robert Grinder absent, Pricilla Grinder and her children are also at the Stand.
•  October 11 (early morning):  Lewis dies from gunshot wounds to the head and abdomen.  He is buried not far from Grinder's Stand on the Trace.

Was it suicide or murder?

Reenactment of Meriwether Lewis entering Grinder's Stand
During the  2009 Commemoration of Lewis' death.

No one directly witnessed the mortal wounding of Meriwether Lewis, but statements by Priscilla Grinder and James Neelly implicated suicide.  Others who had seen Lewis during his last journey to Washington commented on his deteriorating physical and mental health, lending support to the suicide theory.  Thus this explanation for his death was accepted by contemporaries such as Thomas Jefferson and William Clark.  The suicide theory was not accepted by the Lewis family or by locals.  In 1848 when the state of Tennessee appointed a commission to build a memorial over Lewis’ grave site.   The commission, which included a prominent Nashville physician, opened Lewis' grave and examined his body to make certain that they had located the correct grave.  After examining Lewis' body and talking with eyewitnesses to Lewis' burial, the Commission make part of its official state report that although suicide had been the official conclusion at the time of Lewis' death, it was more probable that Lewis died at the hands of an assassin.   Others suggest that the evidence implicating suicide is second and third hand, and from people who may have benefited from covering up Lewis’ murder, so that other explanations should be pursued.  Examine the following five scenarios that have been put forth to explain Lewis’ death.  Which makes most sense to you?

 Lewis Monument

Scenario One:  Lewis committed suicide  
Alone in a cabin  near one occupied by Priscilla Grinder, and with Pernier and Neelly’s slave lodging in a stable, Lewis paced the floor talking to himself.  He could have been suffering a recurrence of the symptoms of malaria that had plagued him throughout the journey.  Or as some have suggested, the trials of the previous year combined with alcohol consumed to lessen the symptoms of the disease may have finally driven him into a state of depression.  In the early morning hours of October 11, he fired a pistol into his body trying to end his life.  When this shot failed, he fired another.  With gunshot wounds to his head and abdomen, he staggered outside the cabin searching for water and help from Mrs. Grinder.  Paralyzed by fear with her husband absent, Mrs. Grinder chose to stay in her cabin and only witnessed Lewis through the cracks of the walls.  Finally at dawn, Mrs. Grinder sent one of her children to fetch Pernier and Neelly’s slave from the stable.  They found Lewis lying in his cabin mortally wounded.  He expired soon afterward.

Sources for suicide theory:
James Neelly to Thomas Jefferson, Nashville, Tennessee, 18 October 1809
Account of Priscilla Grinder as recorded by Alexander Wilson, 28 May 1811

Why murder theorists question these accounts
•  No one witnessed the act
•  The Neelly account to President Jefferson does not attribute the concluson of suicide to Priscilla Grinder 

•   Captain Russell's first letter leaves out details about Lewis’ suicide attempts while boating on the Mississippi River.  A later Russell letter describing Lewis' letter has been shown not to be in Russell's handwriting.
•  Why would Captain Russell loan Lewis horses and cash if he believes him to be mentally unstable?
•  The depression, alcoholism, and financial problems experienced by Lewis  were not as bad as suicide proponents make them out to be.  If Lewis had suffered from alcoholism, his enemies in St. Louis would have used that fact against him in their efforts to undermine him; however, there is no mention of any abuse of alcohol by Lewis either on the expedition or during his time in St. Louis.
•  Lewis’ writing of his will in New Madrid during the journey not uncommon for a person taking such a trek in the wilderness; thus does not implicate suicide.
•  The letter that Lewis wrote to Madison during the journey was upbeat and similar to other letters written during Lewis’ lifetime;  it does not sound like Lewis is contemplating suicide.
• The letter that Lewis wrote to Stoddard does not sound like a man considering suicide.
•  Thomas Jefferson would have never appointed Lewis to the position as governor if he believed him to be mentally unstable.
•  It is physically and medically impossible for a man to shoot himself twice and still stagger such a distance for water as the Neelly letter claimed.
•  Lewis' body was robbed.  The money Lewis’ was carrying during the journey was never recovered.

- If Lewis had been shot at close range, gunpowder would have been visible on the clothing.  No accounts mention the presence of gunpowder.

-  Lewis was an expert marksman who would not have failed in an attempt to take his life quickly with one shot.

- Trauma to the brain prevents someone shot in the head from speaking.  Mrs. Grinder claimed that  she talked to Lewis after he was shot and that he Lewis told her he had tried to take his own life.

- A later account given by Mrs. Grinder published in the 1840's contracticts her earlier statements.  In the third account, three men follow Lewis to her house and Lewis pulls his pistols and challenges them to a duel.  She hears voices in Lewis' cabin before shots are fired and later learns that they could not have been the voices of the servants.  She finds gunpowder scattered around the floor of the Governor's cabin, although his servant has not given him any gunpowder.  Lewis' body is missing from his room.  Lewis' servant appears later wearing the Governor's clothing.

-A later letter by Russell casts doubt on Neelly's reliability.  Russell states that if he rather than Neelly had traveled with Lewis, Lewis would be alive.

-Neelly's whereabouts are unexplained for several days after Lewis' death.

-Perrnier takes his own life in May, 1810, apparently after accusations are made that he killed Lewis.

Scenario Two:  Robert Grinder killed Lewis
With Neelly still searching for the lost packhorses and Pernier and Neelly’s slave sleeping in the stable, Robert Grinder, Priscilla’s husband, murdered Lewis for his money.  Priscilla’s version of events as told to Neelly and Wilson were a cover-up.  Robert Grinder was implicated in the murder and tried by local officials.  However he was released due to a lack of evidence or for fear that he could use his relationship with the Chickasaw to encourage an attack.  Grinder subsequently acquired prime land in Hickman County, supposedly from the money he stole from Lewis.

Why suicide theorists question this account:

-  There is no official record of Grinder's arrest or trial.  A record of the coroner's inquest would not have been  filed in the county records in 1809.  There is a local legend of a coroner's inquest and of the foreman Samuel Whiteside, keeping a journal of his own notes.  Those notes disappeared around 1900.

-  The Hickman County property was not deeded to Robert Grinder until 1814- five years after Lewis' death.

-  Although Grinder was listed on the account of insolvents in Williamson County, Tennessee in 1809, he apparently could afford to own one or two slaves.  The price of the slaves equalled or exceeded the $250  he paid for the farm. 

Scenario Three:  John Pernier killed Lewis
Lewis’ dire financial situation prevented him from paying Pernier wages for up to a year.  Pernier murdered Lewis at Grinders Stand taking his money and clothes.  After the murder, Pernier traveled east to deposit Lewis’ personal effects, including the expedition journals.  He met with Thomas Jefferson and sought $240 that was stilled owed him by Lewis.  Pernier killed himself the following year with an overdose of laudanum, possibly over nagging guilt from the murder.   Pernier met with Lewis' mother Lucy to describe the circumstances around Lewis' death; however, Lucy believed that Pernier killed Lewis.

Scenario Four:  Natchez Trace bandits killed Lewis
While Lewis was at Grinders Stand, a group of unknown men arrived by horseback.  Lewis drew his pistols and ordered them to leave.  These mysterious men left, but returned later that night, murdered Lewis, and stole his money.

Scenario Five:  Agents for General James Wilkinson killed Lewis
The previous governor of the Louisiana Territory, General James Wilkinson, took bribes from the Spanish government and was implicated in Aaron Burr’s conspiracy to break away the Natchez Trace territories from the United States.  President Jefferson tried Burr for treason and Lewis stood as Jefferson’s representative during the trial.  Burr and Wilkinson escaped prosecution, but Wilkinson feared that the new governor, Lewis, could have new evidence against him.  Orders for Wilkinson's arrest were issued October 9, 1809.  Wilkinson would have known about them for weeks.  Wilkinson took Lewis prisoner at Fort Pickering, claiming that he was too ill to travel on his own.  He rejected Captain Russell’s request to accompany Lewis and instead sent his own agent James Neelly with him.  Wilkinson’s assassins killed Lewis at Grinders Stand.  Neelly was part of this conspiracy and that explains why he said he stayed behind to search for the missing pack horses rather than accompany Lewis to Grinders Stand.

Sources used to Support Murder Theories:
Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 26 November 1809, Monticello

Priscilla Grinder account as recorded by “a teacher in the Cherokee Nation,”1839, first published in the North Arkansas, a paper published in Batesville, AR.  Published in the Dispatch in New York in 1845.

Account of Polly Spencer (alleged servant to the Grinders) as told by Mrs. Christina Anthony and recorded by W. W. Southgate, 1883

Account told by F. Cooper Frierson and recorded by John Trotwood Moore, 1924

Report by Harriet Talbot reflecting Lewis family tradition of murder theory, Nashville Banner, February 22, 1925

Accounts collected by the Historical Records Survey of the Works Progress Administration, 1934

• Guice, John D. W.  By His Own Hand?:  The Mysterious Death of Meriwether Lewis.  University of Oklahoma Press, 2006.
• Fisher, Vardis.  Suicide or Murder?:  The Strange Death of Governor Meriwether Lewis.  1962
• Fresonke, Kris and Mark Spence eds.  Lewis and Clark:  Legacies, Memories, and New Perspectives.  University of California Press, 2004.
• Fritz, Harry William.  The Lewis and Clark Expedition.  Greenwood Press, 2004.
• Morris, Larry E.  The Fate of the Corps:  What Became of the Lewis and Clark Explorers After the Expedition.  Yale University Press, 2004.
• Josephy Jr., Alvin M. ed.  Lewis and Clark Through Indian Eyes.  Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.

Primary Sources that may be used with Meriwether Lewis Text

Lewis to William Eustis, 18 August 1809, St. Louis (excerpt)
“I find it impossible at this moment, to explain by letter . . . the impressions which I fear, from the tenor of your letter, the Government entertain with respect to me, and shall therefore go on by the way of New Orleans to the City of Washington with all dispatch . . . Those protested Bills . . . have effectually sunk my Credit; brought in all my private debts, amounting to about $4,000, which has compelled me, in order to do justice to my Creditors, to deposit with them the landed property which I had purchased in this Country, as Security. . . . Be assured Sir, that my Country can never make ‘A Burr’ of me—She may reduce me to Poverty; but she can never sever my Attachment from her.”

Statement of Gilbert C. Russell, 26 November 1811
Governor Lewis left St. Louis late in August, or early in September 1809, intending to go by the route of the Mississippi and the Ocean, to the City of Washington, taking with him all the papers relative to his expedition to the Pacific Ocean, for the purpose of preparing and putting them to the press, and to have some drafts paid which had been drawn by him on the Government and protested.  On the morning of the 15th of September, the Boat in which he was a passenger landed him at Fort Pickering in a state of mental derangement, which appeared to have been produced as much by indisposition as other causes.  The subscriber being then the Commanding Officer of the Fort on discovering his situation, and learning from the Crew that he had made two attempts to Kill himself, in one of which he had nearly succeeded, resolved at once to take possession of him and his papers, and detain them there until he recovered, or some friend might arrive in whose hands he could depart in Safety.

In this condition he continued without any material change for about five days, during which time the most proper and efficacious means that could be devised to restore him was administered, and on the sixth or Seventh day all symptoms of derangement disappeared and he was completely in his senses and thus continued for ten or twelve days.  On the 29th of the same month he left Bluffs, with the Chickasaw agent the interpreter and some of the Chiefs, intending then to proceed the usual route thro’ the Indian Country, Tennessee and Virginia to his place of destination, with his papers well secured and packed on horses.  . . .

Lewis to James Madison, 16 September, 1809, Chickasaw Bluffs (Fort Pickering)

Dear Sir,
    I arrived here yesterday [crossed out] very much exhausted from the heat of the climate, but having taken medicine feel much better this morning.  My apprehension from the heat of the lower country and my fear of the original papers relative to my voyage to the Pacific ocean falling into the hands of the British induced me to change my route and proceed by land through the state to Tennessee to the City of Washington.  I bring with me duplicates of my vouchers for public expenditures etc. which when fully explained, or rather the general view of the circumstances and which they were made I flatter myself they will receive both sanction and approbation and sanction [sic].
    Provided my health permits no time shall be lost in reaching Washington.  My anxiety to pursue and to fulfill the duties incident to the internal arrangements incident to the government of Louisiana has prevented my writing you [illegible] more frequently.  Enclosed I herewith transmit you a copy of the laws of the territory of Louisiana.—I have the honour to be with the most sincere esteem your Obt. And very humble Servt.
Meriwether Lewis

Lewis to Major Amos Stoddard, 22 September, 1809, Chickasaw Bluffs (Fort Pickering)

Dear Major,
I must acknowledge myself remiss in not writing you in answer to several friendly epistles which I have received from you since my return from the Pacific Ocean.  Continued occupation in the immediate discharge of the duties of a public station will I trust in some measure plead my apology.
I am now on my way to the City of Washington and had contemplated taking Fort Adams and Orleans in my rout, but my indisposition has induced me to change my rout and shall now pass through Tennessee and Virginia.  The protest of some bills which I have lately drawn on public account form the principal inducement for my going forward at this moment.  An explanation is all that is necessary I am sensible to put all matters right.  In the mean time the protest of a draught however just, has drawn down upon me at one moment all my private debts which have excessively embarrassed me.  I hope you will therefore pardon me for asking you to remit as soon as is convenient the sum of $200. which you have informed me you hold for me.—I calculated on having the pleasure to see you at Fort Adams as I passed, but am informed by Capt. Russell the commanding Officer of this place that you are stationed on the West side of the Mississippi.  You will direct to me at the City of Washington until the last of December after which I expect I shall be on my return to St. Louis
You sincere friend and Obt. Servt.
Meriwether Lewis

James Neelly to Thomas Jefferson, 18 October 1809, Nashville

It is with extreme pain that I have to inform you of the death of His Excellency, Meriwether Lewis, Governor of upper Louisiana who died on the morning of the 11th Instant and I am sorry to say by suicide.
I arrived at the Chickasaw Bluffs on or about the 18th of September, where I found the Governor (who had reached there two days before me from St. Louis) in very bad health.  It appears that his first intention was to go around by water to the City of Washington; but his thinking a war with England probable, and that his valuable papers might be in danger of falling into the hands of the British, he was thereby induced to Change his route, and to come through the Chickasaw nation by land; I furnished him with a horse to pack his trunks and ect. On, and a man to attend to them; having recovered his health in some degree at the Chickasaw Bluffs, we set out together and on our arrival at the Chickasaw nation I discovered that he appeared at times deranged in mind, we rested there two days and came on. One days Journey after crossing Tennessee River and where we encamped we lost two of our horses, I remained behind to hunt them and the Governor proceeded on, with a promise to wait for me at the first houses he came to that was inhabited by white people; he reached the house of a Mr. Grinder about sunset.  The man of the house being from home, and no person there but a woman who discovering the governor to be deranged gave him up the house and slept herself in one near it.  His servant and mine slept in the stable loft some distance from the other houses, the woman reports that about three o’clock she heard two pistols fire off in the Governors Room.  The servants being awakened by her, came in but too late to save him.  He had shot himself in the head with one pistol and a little below the Breast with the other.  When his servant came in he says; I have done the business my good  servant give me some water.  He gave him water, he survived but a short time, I came up some time after, and had him as decently buried as I could in that place.  If there is anything wished by his friends to be done to his grave I will attend to their Instructions.
I have got in my possession his two trunks of papers (amongst which is said to be his travels to the Pacific Ocean) and probably some vouchers for expenditures of Public money for a Bill which he said had been protested by the Secy Of War, and of which act to his death, he repeatedly complained.  I have also in my care his Rifle, Silver watch, Brace of Pistols, dirk and tomahawk; one of the Governors horses was lost in the wilderness which I will endeavor to regain, the other I have sent on by his servant who expressed a desire to go to the governors mothers and to Monticello:  I have furnished him with fifteen Dollars to Defray his expenses to Charlottesville; some days previous to the Governors death he requested of me in case any accident happened to him, to send his trunks with the papers therein to the President, but I think it very probable he meant to you.  I wish to be informed what arrangements may be considered best in sending on his trunks etc.  I have the honor to be with Great respect Yr. Ob. Sert.
James Neelly
U.S. agent to the Chickasaw nation

Account of Priscilla Grinder as recorded by Alexander Wilson, 28 May 1811

Governor Lewis, she said, came there about sunset, alone, and inquired if he could stay for the night; and, alighting, brought his saddle into the house.  He was dressed in a loose gown, white, striped with blue.  On being asked if he came alone, he replied that there were two servants behind, who would soon be up.  He called for some spirits, and drank a very little.  When the servants arrived, one of whom was a negro, he inquired for his powder, saying he was sure he had some powder in a canister.  The servant gave no distinct reply, and Lewis, in the mean while, walked backwards and forwards before the door, talking to himself.  Sometimes, she said, he would seem as if he were walking up to her; and would suddenly wheel round, and walk back as fast as he could.  Supper being ready he sat down, but had not eat but a few mouthfuls, when he started up, speaking to himself in a violent manner.  At these times, she says, she observed his face to flush as if it had come on him in a fit.  He lighted his pipe, and drawing a chair to the door sat down, saying to Mrs. Grinder, in a kind tone of voice, ‘Madam this is a very pleasant evening.’  He smoked for some time, but quitted his seat and traversed the yard as before.  He again sat down to his pipe, seemed again composed, and casting his eyes wishfully towards the west, observed what a sweet evening it was.  Mrs. Grinder was preparing a bed for him; but he said he would sleep on the floor, and desired the servant to bring the bear skins and buffalo robe, which were immediately spread out for him; and it being now dusk the woman went off to the kitchen, and the two men to the barn, which stands about two hundred yards off.  The kitchen is only a few paces from the room where Lewis was, and the woman being considerable alarmed by the behavior of her guest could not sleep, but listened to his walking backwards and forwards, she thinks, for several hours, and talking aloud, as she said, ‘like a lawyer.’  She then heard the report of a pistol, and something fall heavily on the floor, and the words ‘O Lord!’  Immediately afterwards she heard another pistol, and in a few minutes she heard him at her door calling out ‘O madam!  Give me some water, and heal my wounds.’  The logs being open, and unplastered, she saw him stagger back and fall against a stump that stands between the kitchen and the room.  He crawled for some distance, raised himself by the side of a tree, where he sat about a minute.  He once more got to the room; afterwards he came to the kitchen door, but did not speak; she then heard him scraping the bucket with a gourd for water; but it appears that this cooling element was denied the dying man!  As soon as day broke and not before, the terror of the woman having permitted him to remain for two hours in this most deplorable situation, she sent two of her children to the barn, her husband not being home, to bring the servants; and on going in they found him lying on the bed; he uncovered his side and showed them where the bullet had entered; a piece of the forehead was blown off, and had exposed the brains, without having bled much.  He begged they would take his rifle and blow out his brains, and he would give them all the money he had in his trunk.  He often said, ‘I am no coward; but I am so strong, so hard to die.’  He begg’d the servant not to be afraid of him, for that he would not hurt him.  He expired in about two hours, or just as the sun rose above the trees.  He lies buried close by the common path, with a few loose rails thrown over his grave.  I gave Grinder money to put a post fence around it, to shelter it from the hogs, and from the wolves; and he gave me his written promise he would do it.  I left this place in a very melancholy mood, which was not much allayed by the prospect of the gloomy and savage wilderness which I was just entering alone.

Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 26 November 1809, Monticello

“. . . Pernier says that Gov. Lewis owes him 240 D. for his wages.  He has received money from Neelly to bring him on here, and I furnish him to Washington, where he will arrive penniless, and will ask for some money to be placed to the Governor’s account. . . .” 

1839 Pricilla Grinder account as recorded by “a teacher in the Cherokee Nation,” first published in the North Arkansas in Batesville, AR.  Published in the Dispatch in New York in 1845.
She said that Mr. Lewis was on his way to the city of Washington, accompanied by a Mr. Pyrna [sic] and a servant belonging to a Mr. Neely.  One evening a little before sundown, Mr. Lewis called at her house and asked for lodgings.  Mr. Grinder not being at home, she hesitated to take him in.  Mr. Lewis informed her that two other men would be along presently, who also wished to spend the night at her house, and as they were all civil men, he did not think there would be an impropriety in her hiving them accommodations for the night.  Mr. Lewis dismounted, fastened his horse, took a seat by the side of the house, and appeared quite sociable.

In a few minutes Mr. Pyrna [sic] and the servant rode up, and seeing Mr. Lewis they also dismounted and put up their horses.  About dark two or three other men rode up and called for lodging.  Mr. Lewis immediately drew a brace of pistols, stepped towards them and challenged them to fight a duel.  They not liking this salutation, rode on to the next house, five miles.  This alarmed Mrs. Grinder.  Supper, however, was ready in a few minutes.  Mr. Lewis ate but little.  He would stop eating, and sit as if in a deep study, and several times exclaimed, ‘If they do prove anything on me they will have to do it by letter.’  Supper being over, and Mrs. Grinder seeing that Lewis was mentally deranged, requested Mr. Pyrna [sic] to get his pistols from him.  Mr. P. replied, ‘He has no ammunition, and if he does any mischief it will be to himself, and not to you or anybody else.’  In a short time all retired to bed, the travelers in one room, as Mrs. G. thought, and she and her children in another.

Two or three hours before day Mrs. G. was alarmed by the report of a pistol, and quickly after two other reports, in the room where the travelers were.  At the report of the third, she heard someone fall and exclaim, ‘O Lord!  Congress, relieve me.’  In a few minutes she heard some person at the door of the room where she lay.  She inquired, ‘Who is there?’  Mr. Lewis spoke and said, ‘Dear madam, be so good as to give me a little water.’  Being afraid to open the door she did not give him any.  Presently she heard him fall, and soon after, looking through a crack in the wall, she saw him scrambling across the road on his hands and knees.

After daylight Mr. Pyrna [sic] and the servant made their appearance, and it appeared they had not slept in the house, but in the stable.  Mr. P. had on the clothes Mr. L. wore when they came to Mrs. Grinder’s the evening before, and Mr. L’s gold watch in his pocket.  Mrs. G. asked him what he was doing with Mr. L’s clothes on; Mr. P. replied, ‘He gave them to me.’  Mr. P and the servant then searched for Mr. L., found him and brought him to the house, and though he had on a full suit of clothes, they were old and tattered, and not the same as he had on the evening before, and though Mr. P. had said that Lewis had no ammunition, Mrs. G. found several balls and a considerable quantity of powder scattered over the floor of the room occupied by Lewis; also a canister with several pounds in it.

When Mr. L. was brought to the house, [illegible] his shirt bosom and said to Mrs. G.:  ‘Dear madam, look at my wounds.’  She asked him what made him do so?  He replied, ‘If I had not done it somebody else would.’  He frequently asked for water, which was given to him.  He was asked if he would have a doctor sent for, he said not.  A messenger, however, went for one but did not get him.  He attempted to cut his throat, but was prevented.  Some of the neighbors were called in.  He frequently cried out, ‘Oh how hard it is to die, I am so strong.’  He, however, soon expired.  Major Neely was sent for, and he and Mr. P. buried him and took possession of his effects.  Mrs. G. heard that Pyrna [sic] went to see Mr. Lewis’ mother, and that she accused him of murdering her son; and he finally cut his own throat, and thus put an end to his existence

I make no comment on the above; it is all wrapt [sic] up in mystery.  I have heard that Capt. Clarke, the worthy colleague of their tour, was highly honored and handsomely rewarded by the government, while Lewis was neglected, and that this had an effect to produce alienation of mind.  If this be true, are there not some living who are acquainted with the fact?

Account of Polly Spencer (alleged servant to the Grinders) as told by Mrs. Christina Anthony and recorded by W. W. Southgate, 1883

“Mrs. Christina Anthony is 70 years old (and living in Lewis county, Tenn.) was acquainted with Polly Spencer a Servant at the House Grinders Tavern.  Grinder who was part Indian was charged with the killing of Meriwether Lewis.  Polly Spencer was there at the time of the killing at night washing dishes while his waiting boy was in the stable caring for the horses.  She heard the first pistol shot went in and found him dead.  He had just arrived and retired.  Grinder was missing the next day and was arrested on Cane creek, brot [sic] back tried and got clear.  It is thought he suicided [sic].”

Account told by F. Cooper Frierson and recorded by John Trotwood Moore, 1924

“After talking to you I came home and talked to some of my friends and here is what I found out, with what I knew before.  When I was in my teens I became very much interested in hearing Mr. Scott Mayes talk of Meriwether Lewis and his murder as he called it and talked of it as murder.  He said that they tried to connect the Grinders with it but never could get evidence to convict or arrest.  Some thought that his servants were guilty.  Messrs. Bruce and Alfred Cooper, both old men, Mr. B 86 years old.  They told me that Mr. Robt O Smith, who was mail rider on the Natchez Trace found his remains lying near the road, as he was passing on his route early in the morning and told it.  The Coopers also told be me that when they were boys, that one of their playmates and friends who lived close told a Mr. Whitesides that the jury were cowards and were afraid to bring a verdict of murder, which they all knew they should have done.  I could not imagine what they were afraid of!  But someone said that the murderers had Indian Blood in their Veins, and they were afraid they would meet a similar fate. . . .” 

Lewis County Accounts collected by the Historical Records Survey of the Works Progress Administration, 1934

“Silas Stockard who said his father had held county offices, clerk, registrar, and circuit judge; had to pass G’s Inn every morning when he went to work, often stopping for a cup of coffee.  Silas ‘knew nothing of significance concerning Lewis’ death but his father believed that he was murdered by Grinder."

“Mrs. Nancy H Higgins, who was 86 in 1934.  She said her father was one of those who opened the grave and her father noted particularly a bullet hole in the forehead of the skeleton.  Mrs. Higgins said it was a belief of her father that Lewis was murdered . . . .”

“Olan Duff Cooper who said he was a grandson of the Cooper who made the nails for the coffin.  We were shown the site on which the blacksmith shop stood where the nails were made. . . . Mr. Cooper said that in his grandfather’s opinion, Lewis had been murdered, but by whom Mr. Cooper did not recall hearing his grandfather say.”

“Mr. Pinkerton a rather prominent lawyer of Centerville . . . about sixty-five years of age . . . twenty –five years ago he was superintendent of schools in Lewis county . . . Mr. Pinkerton is a strong believer in the murder theory . . . believes that Lewis was murdered by Major Neely . . . stated that a few years ago he talked with an old man by the name of Whiteside who claimed to have been a grandson of the man who made the coffin that Lewis was buried in.  According to Mr. Whiteside, his grandfather came to Grinder’s Stand the day after the death of Lewis and that although Lewis had not been buried, Major Neely and the rest of the party had already departed.”

Report by Harriet Talbot reflecting Lewis family tradition of murder theory, Nashville Banner, February 22, 1925

“At first it was thought he committed suicide, but investigation furnished proof that he was assassinated by his French servant, who had stolen his horses and money and disappeared and was never heard of again.  His mother always believed that he was murdered.”

*Much of the text of this essay was  funded by a grant from Humanities Tennessee. 







     There was no memorial service for Lewis when he died - at least there is no record of a funeral or a memorial.  The Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation  commemorated the two-hundredth anniversary of the explorer's death on October 7, 2009 with a memorial that was long overdue.  About twenty five hundred people from across the country gathered at Lewis's grave for the ceremony.  Speakers included Petyon "Bud" Clark, direct descendant of William Clark;  Howell Bowen and Thomas McSwain, collateral descendants of Meriwether Lewis; and Stephenie Ambrose Tubbs, daughter of the "Undaunted Courage" author Stephen Ambrose.  The U.S. Army was represented by the  101st Airborne Infantry band, rifle and drill teams and chaplain.  Governors from twenty-two states sent state flags that were carried to the grave by residents of those states.  Foundation members from across the country brought plants described in Lewis's journals to lay on his grave.  A bronze bust created by noted artist Harry Webber was commissioned for the ceremony and  was accepted by Natchez Trace Parkway Superintendent Cameron Sholly.  The ceremony was a concluding event of the official Lewis and Clark Bicentennial.  Members of the  Living History of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, many of whom had traveled across the country performing reenactments of the Lewis and Clark expedition marched to the grave.  A reenactment of Lewis entering Grinder's Stand was performed by Josh Loftis, a direct descendant of expedition member George Shannon, and by Lisa Talley Barber, a direct descendant of Robert and Priscilla Grinder.

    To view a slideshow of the commemoration created by Jessica Godfrey from photos taken by Jed Dekalb, Chief Photograpaher for the State of Tennessee, visit :


For more inforamtion on the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, visit www.lewisandclark.org