Who Killed Meriwether Lewis?

When I heard a few weeks ago that a new biography of Meriwether Lewis has been published by the University of Pennsylvania Press, I immediately ordered it. It’s called Bitterroot: The Life and Death of Meriwether Lewis, and the author is a woman named Patricia Stroud, whom I had never heard of until now.

In a sense the title gives it away, the life and death of Meriwether Lewis. A biography of Churchill does not call itself the life and death of Winston Churchill, any more than a biography of Abigail Adams calls itself the life and death of the second first lady. Everyone who knows anything about Meriwether Lewis beyond that he was one half of the famous exploring duo knows that he died a violent death at the age of 35, just three years after the completion of the most successful exploration mission in American history. His death—by a gunshot wound to the head and another to the abdomen—is a mystery. Most serious historians have long since concluded that Lewis committed suicide on the Natchez Trace 72 miles from Nashville, Tennessee, at a grungy frontier version of an Airbnb; but some—and they are tenacious—believe that Lewis was murdered.

You cannot pick up this new biography by Patricia Stroud without realizing from the title alone that she is going to spend a good deal of her attention trying to sort out this fascinating but perhaps ultimately unanswerable mystery. Here’s what every student of the life of Lewis wants to know. If he committed suicide on October 11, 1809, why did he kill himself? I know this will sound odd, maybe even perverse, but I have spent a fairly significant proportion of my adult life trying to answer that question. I wrote a whole book—my big book—about it, The Character of Meriwether Lewis: Explorer in the Wilderness. If Lewis was murdered—as the passionate murderists insist with a kind of violence of temper that is frankly a little weird—the question then becomes, who murdered him and why?

I’ll attend to that part of Stroud’s book, but let me first say a few words about her biography in general. Whenever I read a book about something I know a lot about, I start by turning to passages that deal with things I know as well as my own birthday or the color of the sky. How the author handles those subjects will usually tell me something about his or her larger credibility. So I read Stroud’s account of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, the great journey from St. Charles, Missouri, to the Pacific Coast and back again, May 14, 1804 to September 23, 1806. I know that story pretty well. Her account of the adventure is competent. It is clear, however, that the journey interests her less than Lewis’s life before and after the expedition. Which of course begs a question: how did it come to pass that the great journey—one of the most fascinating, gripping, and monumental stories in the history of America—is now the ho hum part of studies of Lewis & Clark (including my own, I’m a little ashamed to say).

It soon became clear to me that Ms. Stroud has never spent time on the Lewis and Clark Trail. It is possible she has never been to the state of Montana, because once Lewis and Clark leave Fort Mandan (here in North Dakota, approximately thirty-five miles from the New Enlightenment Radio Network barn), both her geography and her timeline become muddled. She has it snowing at the Great Falls around the Fourth of July (I’m sorry to say that can happen, but didn’t in this case), and the whole region between the Great Falls and the source of the Missouri River west of Dillon, Montana, is garbled in her account. That would seem to me unforgivable.

Particularly galling to me was Stroud’s account of Lewis’s discovery of what he took to be the source of “the mighty and heretofore deemed endless Missouri River.” Stroud projects her own bland attitude onto our hero. She writes, “they came across a spring that Lewis thought was the source of the Missouri River.” That’s it. This is like saying Columbus bumped into a continent that turned out to have some importance in history or that Neil Armstrong stepped off a ladder onto a minor satellite of his home planet. Stroud plays down one of the handful of supreme moments in the history of exploration, one of the supreme moments of Meriwether Lewis’s life, as if he were stopping by a water fountain in a country court house.

“It was quite a historic day,” Stroud writes. “On the other side of the mountain he found a creek of cold running water and announced to his journal, ‘here I first tasted the water of the great Columbia river.’ Not quite,” she writes. “It was actually Horseshoe Creek, whose waters flowing into the Lemhi, the Salmon, and the Snake Rivers do eventually reach the Columbia.” But she entirely misses Lewis’s point. He did not think he had found the Columbia per se. He immediately and rightly knew that he had crossed the continental divide and was now drinking from waters of some minor capillary creek that would eventually discharge its waters into the great Pacific Ocean. In other words, on August 12, 1805, Lewis was able to walk in just a few steps from the Atlantic to the Pacific watershed. I’ve stood on Continental Divides many times. Anyone with an intact sense of wonder automatically thrills to such a moment.

Exasperated though I am, let me move on to the untimely death of Meriwether Lewis, as Patricia Stroud sees it. Here’s her argument in a nutshell. One: Lewis was less depressed and deranged at the end of his life than most historians have argued. He was, for example, writing perfectly lucid letters, including one to President James Madison, just days before his death. Two: Lewis could not have had a drinking problem because his enemy, the lieutenant Governor of the Louisiana Territory, would surely have gossiped about that and included it in his long list of Lewis’s perceived faults if that were true. Actually, that’s quite a good argument. Three: Lewis was a superb gunman. If he had wanted to blow out his brains that night he could not possibly have missed. By the way, this is an argument you hear over and over and over again in the murderist literature. I’m actually uncertain about this. I’ve been in countless airport men’s rooms and I can tell you that men, even great men, routinely miss the urinal that is less than a foot in front of them. If Lewis was drunk, or deranged, or ill with malaria, trying to position a pistol much longer than the kind we think about today, scared, deeply sad, confused, sitting in the dark in a place he had never been before, hovering between what Freud called the Eros and the Thanatos principle, between life-affirmation and life-denial, he might well have missed with the first shot. Fourth: those who wrote about Lewis’s tragic death in the months and years after 1809 spent much of their time backfilling their historical memories with suicide predictors of the 20-20 hindsight sort, either to try to make sense of his suicide or to create a tidy narrative that would put some plausible closure on what to them was a bewildering mystery. There is probably considerable truth in this argument. We are all susceptible to the “we saw it coming” propensity in human narrative.

So who, then, killed Meriwether Lewis in Stroud’s final analysis? She decides, without any significant evidence, that it was General James Wilkinson or his agents. Wilkinson was a schnook, no doubt about that, a traitor and a double agent, corrupt right up to his eyebrows. We now know beyond doubt that he was a paid spy of the Spanish colonial empire all of his life, while at the same time he was the highest ranking officer of the United States Army in the West. We know that Wilkinson encouraged the Spanish colonial authorities to send out what turned out to be four military intercept parties to arrest, or at least turn back, the Lewis and Clark Expedition as it traveled to the Pacific Ocean. So he is an easy mark. Stroud’s argument is that Lewis was going to denounce General Wilkinson when he got to Monticello and Washington, DC, to bring the notorious traitor and larcenist down, and that perhaps he had papers in his trunks that proved Wilkinson’s guilt, including in the notorious Burr conspiracy.

That all might be true, though I doubt it. By 1809 everyone knew that Wilkinson was a bad man and a traitor, even former President Jefferson, so it is unlikely that Wilkinson would have regarded Lewis as a special threat. If Lewis had denounced Wilkinson in official circles in Washington, DC, it would not have been the first or the last time, and Wilkinson was one of the great “survivors” in the history of American chicanery. But it is possible that Wilkinson wanted Lewis dead. Fingering Wilkinson is a bit like blaming Barack Obama for everything that went wrong in the world between 2008 and 2016, or blaming all the ills of the Soviet Union on Joseph Stalin. Easy, vague, and not very convincing.

That’s the problem, my friends. It’s easier to try to poke holes in the suicide theory—after all there were no witnesses and Lewis was a superb marksman—than to create even a minimally plausible case for murder, or to identify possible murderers. Nominees have included highway robbers, the owner of the inn Robert Grinder, Lewis’s free black servant Pernia, his traveling companion James Neely, even secret agents working on behalf of Thomas Jefferson himself.

My friend John Guice of Mississippi—one of the leading murderists—once wrote a long essay (of thirty-two pages) outlining the forty specific problems with the suicide theory. His essay, which was entitled “Why Not Homicide?” summarized all the usual arguments (though he never mentions General James Wilkinson), plus some gems such as: the phase of the moon and the local weather on that fatal night, and the chinking of the cabin in which Lewis slumped after the shooting. Only on the last page of his essay does Mr. Guice turn from his heroic attempt to undermine the suicide story to his own theory of who, then, murdered Meriwether Lewis. And this is what he concludes: I don’t know, someone, maybe a highway robber. OK, well that settles it!

I do not wish to conclude that Patricia Stroud’s Bitterroot is a bad book. There are many things to admire in it, particularly her account of the year before Lewis undertook his great journey and the year after he completed it. I made pages of notes and wrote voluminously, often furiously, in the margins. But she has not solved the mystery, and truly not even advanced our understanding of the last days of this great, though flawed, American hero. And in the course of her 371 pages, she gives our friend Jefferson a good deal of thumping—which, as you know, is one of the easiest and laziest habits of the historiography of our time.