“Governor Lewis had, from early life, been subject to hypochondriac affections. It was a constitutional disposition in all the nearer branches of the family of his name, and was more immediately inherited by him from his father. While he lived with me in Washington, I observed at times sensible depressions of mind; but, knowing their constitutional source, I estimated their course by what I had seen in the family. During his western expedition the constant exercise which that required of all the faculties of body and mind suspended these distressing affections; but, after his establishment at St. Louis in sedentary occupations, they returned upon him with redoubled vigour, and began seriously to alarm his friends.”
– Thomas Jefferson on Merriweather Lewis.
The Journey of “the Corps of Discovery”
This was the comment made by President Thomas Jefferson on Merriweather Louis upon being told of his death by suicide on today’s date, October 11 in 1809. Merriweather Louis and Captain William Clark and the journey of their band of explorers – the Corps of Discovery (“Lewis and Clark”) through the newly
purchased Louisiana Territory had lasted more than four years. It had been undertaken and commanded by Lewis at the request of his friend and mentor President Thomas Jefferson. It had been a fond hope of Jefferson that the Corps would discover and map a water route across the North American continent that went all the way to the Pacific ocean. No such route had been found, but the journey had been a huge success anyway. The expedition charted a trail through areas about which nothing had previously been known. And detailed reports of the plant and animal life, the topography, as well as the Native American population found along the way had provided the information-hungry Jefferson with wonders beyond anything he had ever previously imagined.
Lewis Is Unable to Face Life After the Journey
But as Jefferson observed, Lewis had a personal disposition that had always been prone to periods of depression. As long as his command of the exploration of the American northwest had been the task in front of him, he had been able to keep his mental darkness at bay. But the personal qualities of leadership and self-discipline that served Lewis so well during his exploration were inadequate to the trials he faced on his return. Jefferson appointed Lewis as the Governor of the Northwest Territory. The politics of territorial administration were a job for which Lewis was singularly unsuited. The mounds of paperwork, and the political intrigue left him bewildered and depressed. He had committed to penning a multi-volume published version of his notes from the journey. It was a mammoth undertaking which he never even began.
The Depression of Lewis Worsens
By the autumn of 1809, Jefferson had left the presidency, and under his successor James Madison some in the U.S. Congress and elsewhere began to raise serious questions about the financial records that Lewis had kept during the journey, and during his term as Governor. It was during an eastward journey from St. Louis to Washington to answer such questions that his woes finally overwhelmed him. He had stopped to rest at a tavern (reproduction pictured below) on the Natchez Trace in Tennessee. The tavern’s proprietor, Mrs. Grinder noticed his curious
behavior. She had offered to make a bed for him, but Lewis chose to sleep on the floor instead. Then he spent the night pacing the floor of his room talking to himself “like a lawyer” Mrs. Grinder reported. Then two pistol shots rang out. Lewis had tried to shoot himself in the head, but succeeded only in grazing his skull. A second shot through his abdomen had left his seriously wounded but still alive. Servants who later entered the room found Lewis engaged in trying to finish himself off with a razor. He finally died shortly after sunrise that morning. Some historians have suggested Lewis might have been murdered by Mr.Grinder, or by bandits. But most believe that his manic-depressive tendencies simply overtook him at last.
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