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Mystery Still Surrounds Death of Explorer Meriwether Lewis

Explorer Meriwether Lewis
Explorer Meriwether Lewis

American explorer Meriwether Lewis is best known for his efforts in the early 1800s to chart the Louisiana Purchase territory.  His expedition with William Clark paved the way for the westward expansion of the United States. After the journey, President Thomas Jefferson appointed Lewis as Governor of the Louisiana Territory. While on a trip from St. Louis to Washington D.C. in 1809, Lewis died under circumstances that, to this day some 200 years later, remain a mystery.

What is known about the last hours in the relatively short life of explorer Meriwether Lewis is that on the night of October 10, 1809, it ended at Grinders Stand along a trail known as the Natchez Trace, in what is now the state of Tennessee.

What is not known, definitively, is how he died.

"There is a great debate about whether or not Governor Lewis committed suicide, or there are theories he was murdered," said Cameron Sholly, the National Park Service [NPS] Superintendent of the Natchez Trace Parkway, which is home to the final resting place of Meriwether Lewis. "Most historians believe that he died from his own hands - suicide," he said.

"Our family believed he was murdered," said Keith Vanstone is a descendent of Meriwether Lewis. He and other family members are trying to solve the mystery surrounding the famed explorer's death. "Bits and pieces put together make up a story.  So if we could learn just a little bit more, then we'll have a better understanding of him and his times."

There was no eyewitness to Lewis' death, no real evidence gathered at the scene. His friends, including Thomas Jefferson and William Clark, did not doubt it was suicide, given Lewis's reported fragile state of mind at the time. But tales of political intrigue, a murder-for-hire, or robbery, began to circulate many years after his death.

"The Natchez Trace was one of the most dangerous areas in the country at the time, and Lewis was dressed as a man who had means. He was carrying about $200 with him, and that money was never recovered," said Tony Turnbow, Chairman of the Lewis County Museum. He believes the only way to solve the mystery is to exhume his remains. "That may be the only way we find out. All the accounts are conflicting."

When a monument commission opened Lewis's grave in 1847, their inspection of his remains led them to believe an assassin caused his death.

Despite advances in forensic technology some 160 years later, the National Park Service, which is responsible for Lewis's grave as a National Historic Site, has denied current exhumation requests. Sholly says the NPS is concerned about the precedent it would create, as well as the physical risk to his remains, and those of 107 others buried near him.

"This isn't a typical gravesite. Captain Lewis is under a foot and a half of reinforced concrete, three feet of crushed gravel, more fill, more concrete. Most importantly, we don't know exactly where his remains are in relationship to the monument. So no one can guarantee that Captain Lewis' remains would not be destroyed through an exhumation process," Sholly said.

For Lewis's descendents, opening the grave is also an opportunity for closure. "He never was given a proper Christian burial, and even a proper burial at that. So to identify the remains, and then re-inter them with the proper burial is also an objective," Vanstone said.

Though Lewis's death remains unsolved, Sholly says it does not change the way the NPS, and history, views one of the important figures of early American history. "The way he died does not affect his incredible contributions to the country," he said.

The $4-million improvement project at the site where he died is scheduled for completion by next year.

Once completed, Sholly says the visitor's center and historic displays will focus more on the accomplishments in life, not the controversy surrounding the death, of one of the most celebrated explorers in U.S. history.

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