The Columbia Country and the Dissolution of Meriwether Lewis: Speculation and Interpretation

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FEW ASPECTS OF THE LEWIS AND CLARK EXPEDITION elicit as much debate and discussion as the circumstances surrounding the death of Meriwether Lewis in October 1809, a little more than three years after the conclusion of his voyage to the Pacific. While the discussion has raged with some passion over whether Lewis was murdered or committed suicide, most scholars have concluded that the troubled explorer killed himself. Both Thomas Jefferson and William Clark, who knew Lewis better than anyone did, never said or did anything that would lead to a conclusion that their friend and colleague had met with foul play. Both men would have been in a position to track down a murderer or commission an investigation into a crime. Neither did. Still, it is unlikely that there will ever be conclusive proof on the matter unless Lewis's remains are exhumed--something the National Park Service, which oversees Lewis's grave on the Natchez Trace, has refused to do. Inevitably, the subject will be shaped by speculation and informed interpretation. (1)

Presuming that Lewis did commit suicide, then, the question turns to a quest for intimations of Lewis's mortality. A recent study by humanities scholar Clay Jenkinson is a formidable example of this new search for an understanding of Lewis's character, particularly in how the expedition to the Pacific may have played a role in his decision to shoot himself in a cabin at Grinder's Stand when he was only thirty-five years old. The reasons for Lewis's death also form one of the principal subtexts of Stephen Ambrose's wildly popular Undaunted Courage. In Ambrose's estimation, Lewis was "a good man in a crisis," an able frontiersman, intellectually curious about the natural world, and a capable commander of men. At the same time, however, Lewis had a "short temper" and could be impetuous. He also developed a "swelled head as a result of the adulation he had received," took drugs, and drank a lot of alcohol. (2)

The success of Undaunted Courage has made Lewis's death a somewhat fashionable topic in our own time, but speculations about his psychological condition go back to the fall of 1809. One of the earliest press reports on the explorer's demise noted that Lewis was rumored to have incurred expenses for which no appropriations had been made. The U.S. government had rejected a voucher he had proffered for reimbursement, a loss that, when added to similar objections to expenses Lewis had obligated, threatened to bankrupt him. Still, the anonymous correspondent wrote, "We can hardly suppose" that Lewis's financial travail "alone, could have produced such deplorable consequences" that he would kill himself. Today, postmodernist studies of Lewis and Clark, which deconstruct the various literary texts associated with the expedition, have begun to create an interpretive theory substantiating "the notion of exploration as an interior voyage"--that is, exploration as a discovery of self as much as a discovery of nature. (3) In this essay, I am suggesting that the first cracks in Lewis's psyche occurred in the Pacific Northwest.

From his first few days west of the Continental Divide in the summer of 1805 until he re-crossed the Bitterroot Mountains in June 1806, Meriwether Lewis was confounded by the country drained by the Great River of the West. On August 12, 1805, Lewis and a handful of men descended Lemhi Pass "to a handsome bold running Creek of cold Clear water. [H]ere I first tasted the water of the great Columbia river." His exhilaration was short lived. The next day, he learned "unwelcome information" from Shoshone Chief Cameahwait about the difficulty of following the Columbian headwaters "to the great lake where the white men lived." Lewis inscribed in his journal for August 14 that the Shoshonean account of lands and rivers to the west "fell far short of my expectation or wishes." This sentiment could well serve as the epigraph for the western third of the trail traversed by President Jefferson's Expedition for Northwestern Discovery. …