News Release

July 8, 2009

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Howell Lewis Bowen


John Egan



Effort to Solve the Mystery of Meriwether Lewis’ Death Is Launched

Federal permission for exhumation urged

WASHINGTON--If federal permission is granted, exhumation of the remains of famed explorer Meriwether Lewis could be finished in one day and the scientific study of his remains could be completed in a week, a noted expert in forensic anthropology said Wednesday, July 8, at the National Press Club.

Dr. Hugh Berryman, director of the Forensic Institute for Research and Education at Middle Tennessee State University and a research professor with the university’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology, leads the scientific team that will oversee the exhumation and scientific study of Lewis’ remains. Dr. Berryman joined two of Lewis’ descendants—Howell Lewis Bowen of Charlottesville, Va., and Thomas C. McSwain Jr. of Shepherdstown, W.Va.—and Kirsten Nathanson, a partner at Washington, D.C.-based law firm Crowell & Moring LLP, at the National Press Club to publicly launch the “Solve the Mystery” exhumation campaign.

Since the mid-1990s, the National Park Service has repeatedly blocked efforts by the Lewis family to have the explorer’s remains exhumed to determine, once and for all, whether he was murdered or committed suicide. Lewis is buried near Hohenwald, Tenn., along Natchez Trace Parkway; the National Park Service controls the gravesite.

“If we are allowed to proceed with an exhumation, we may discover that we can’t conclude anything because of the poor condition of the bones. Or, hopefully, the bones may be in good enough shape that we can determine whether the gunshot ‘trauma’ to the bones is consistent with murder or suicide,” Dr. Berryman said. “Given the fact that the monument and an added layer of soil have helped protect Governor Lewis’ body, the bones may be well-preserved.”

Lewis was governor of the Louisiana Territory at the time of his death. In 1804-06, he was co-leader of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

“The human skeleton is extremely good at telling its own history. It’s almost like you could sit down with Meriwether Lewis and ask him what happened the morning of October 11, 1809,” Dr. Berryman said. “However, we won’t be able to conduct that forensics interview unless we exhume his body.”

Nathanson, whose law firm has been working on the Lewis case since 1996, said that with a new president in the White House, a new Park Service director to be named soon and the 200th anniversary of Lewis’ death coming up in October, it was time to go public with the exhumation fight.

“As it stands now, we are awaiting preparation of an environmental assessment under the National Environmental Policy Act, known as NEPA. This written assessment will determine whether the exhumation would significantly affect the environment and is a required step in the permit review process,” Nathanson said.

As part of the NEPA process, the Park Service will seek public comments about the proposed exhumation. By the end of the year, the Park Service could decide whether it will grant a permit for the exhumation. The permit would have to comply with a federal law known as the Archaeological Resources Protection Act.

“At this juncture in the family’s quest to have their wishes fulfilled, the family’s private interests intersect with the public interests,” Nathanson said. “We call on Americans to voice their opinions about the proposed exhumation. We welcome public input about a public figure buried on public land. A free and open society demands such dialogue, and the family invites it.”

Bowen, a great-great-great-great nephew of Lewis, said his famous relative would be given a proper Christian burial following the exhumation—something the explorer was denied. His remains are to be returned to the Tennessee gravesite after a scientific examination at Middle Tennessee State by Dr. Berryman and his team.

“Close to 200 of Uncle Meriwether’s descendants have said they want the National Park Service to clear 13 years’ worth of bureaucratic hurdles and allow the exhumation. It doesn’t matter whether he was murdered or committed suicide. We simply want to know the truth,” Bowen said.

McSwain, another great-great-great-great nephew of Lewis, said part of the family’s desire is to set the historical record straight about the cause of the explorer’s death on Oct. 11, 1809.

“The family’s goal in this effort is not to prove one theory or another. Our goal is not self-promotion or glory. Our goal is to solve the 200-year-old mystery surrounding the death of Uncle Meriwether,” McSwain said. “Plenty of historians and authors have hypothesized about what caused his death. But nothing can be proven unless Uncle Meriwether’s remains are exhumed.”


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