HOHENWALD, Tenn.—The possibility that famed explorer Meriwether Lewis committed suicide has been the source of considerable speculation since his death in October 1809. Some historians and scholars insist Lewis was mentally ill and shot himself to death. Others, however, firmly believe that he was murdered.
Whatever the case, collateral descendants of Lewis just want to know the truth.
“If it turns out Meriwether Lewis committed suicide, his relatives will not be ashamed. On the contrary, we will remain extremely proud of his legacy as one of America’s greatest trailblazers. We honor, love and respect our ancestor,” collateral descendant Howell Lewis Bowen of Charlottesville, Va., said. “The family is not trying to disprove that he killed himself. We merely want to know, once and for all, whether he died by his hand or someone else’s.”
Thomas C. McSwain Jr. of Shepherdstown, W.Va., another collateral descendant, said: “Sadly, suicide is the 11th most common cause of death among Americans. More than 33,000 people in the United States die by suicide every year. White men are most at risk for suicide in our country, and firearms account for half of all suicides. If the suicide theory is proven true, Meriwether Lewis would have fallen into both of those categories.”
For more than 10 years, collateral descendants of Lewis have been asking the federal government for help in figuring out whether it was suicide or murder that caused his death. Yet federal officials have failed to grant the family the permit they need to perform an exhumation and scientific study of Lewis’ remains, and to give him a proper Christian burial.
Bowen noted that the federal government will not pick up the tab for the exhumation, scientific study and reburial. Rather, private funds will cover those expenses. “Not one penny of federal tax money will be spent on this,” Bowen said.
Lewis died Oct. 11, 1809, at Grinder’s Stand, a cabin along Natchez Trace. Lewis was co-leader of the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1804-06 and was governor of the Louisiana Territory in 1807-09. The expedition covered roughly 8,000 miles and paved the way for expansion into the American West.
The Meriwether Lewis burial site, near Hohenwald, Tenn., features the Lewis grave and monument, along with a pioneer cemetery, a campground, picnic tables, exhibits and trails. The site is about 70 miles southwest of Nashville.
During a ceremony on Oct. 7, 2009, marking the 200th anniversary of his death, a bronze bust of Lewis will be dedicated to the Natchez Trace Parkway for a planned visitor center. The Meriwether Lewis Chapter of the Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation will host the event, called “Courage Undaunted—The Final Journey.”