Suicide? Murder? What Secrets Lie in that Grave on the Natchez Trace?

The Meriwether Lewis Monument features a broken column symbolizing the tragic end of the famous explorer’s life at age 35. Photo by Brent and MariLynn via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s time that Americans know the truth about the death of heroic explorer Meriwether Lewis.” (Solve the Mystery)

As cold cases go, this one is plenty frigid. It was on October 11, 1809, that famed explorer Meriwether Lewis, then Governor of the Louisiana Territory, died of gunshot wounds while overnighting at Grinder’s Stand, an inn along the old Natchez Trail near Hohenwald, Tennessee. The circumstances of Governor Lewis’ death were plenty strange, but it was decided that he probably committed suicide. Many historians and others who have studied the evidence are skeptical of this conclusion. Meriwether Lewis, they say, could have been slain. This tragic incident, one of the more interesting of “history’s mysteries,” very well might be a case of murder gone unproven and unpunished.

Can we ever know for sure? Perhaps not, but one group of people in particular would like to see the case reopened. To put a finer point on it, the governor’s descendants would like to see his grave reopened.

This is a lot easier said than done. The grave in question is not on private property. It is on Natchez Trace Parkway land that has been administered by the National Park Service for nearly half a century.

Since the mid-1990s, the modern day descendants of Meriwether Lewis – members of some 150 American households -- have been trying to get the Park Service to authorize the exhumation of Governor Lewis’ remains. (The family refers to the great man as “Governor Lewis,” the official title he bore at the time of his death.) They want a thorough forensic examination to determine if new light can be shed on the cause of Governor Lewis’ death.

They also want to see that his remains get a Christian burial. Unbelievable as it may seem, Governor Lewis’ body was initially buried – hastily, and without formal ceremony -- near the inn’s stable in a grave that was marked only by a heap of wooden fence rails. It was subsequently abandoned until the Tennessee legislature allocated money for a monument erected in 1848 (see accompanying photo and the Postscript below).

On the east side of the monument, which was designated a national monument in 1925, is an inscription that reads:

"His courage was undaunted; his firmness and perseverance yielded to nothing but impossibilities; a rigid disciplinarian yet tender as a father of those committed to his charge; honest, disinterested, liberal, with a sound understanding and a scrupulous fidelity to truth."

The legal battle to get Lewis’ remains exhumed has been going on for more than a dozen years now, and it has taken some strange twists and turns. In June 1996, a coroner’s jury in Lewis County, Tennessee -- a county that was named in honor Meriwether Lewis back in 1843 -- concluded that a forensic examination of the remains was warranted. Six months later, the Tennessee District Attorney General sought a state court order to authorize exhumation. Six months after that, and a full year after the coroner’s jury verdict, the National Park Service finally received a permit application for exhumation of the remains.

In January 1998, the Park Service denied the request, citing the agency’s mandate to protect and preserve the historic resources in its care. A few months later a federal district court affirmed that no exhumation could proceed without the express written permission of the National Park Service.

That might very well have put the matter to rest, but Lewis’ descendants are a determined bunch. They pressed on with their campaign for another ten years and more, gaining some valuable publicity for their cause and moving it from the courts into the political arena.

After being legally rebuffed, the Lewis descendants decided to employ a tactic so old that it probably originated mere moments after the first bureaucracy came into being. If you can’t get what you want from an agency head, see if you can get it from his boss, or maybe even his boss’s boss. Go around him.

This tactic is not illegal, nor is it even unethical. It’s just politics, and it’s as American as lemon meringue pie. **

On January 11, 2008, Lyle Laverty, then-Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Fish and Wildlife and Parks (and thus the overseer of the National Park Service), stated that the proposed exhumation of the Lewis remains is “appropriate and in the public interest.” Another year went by. The Lewis descendants then submitted a second exhumation permit application to the Park Service in January of this year, and in late February they learned that this second application would also be denied.

In March the Lewis descendants asked Interior Secretary Ken Salazar – that would be the NPS Acting Director’s boss’s boss -- to intervene on their behalf and “clear bureaucratic hurdles that are blocking the exhumation process.”

Where this will all lead still remains to be seen. Meanwhile, if you’d like to learn more details about Meriwether Lewis’ mysterious death and the long-running campaign to have his remains exhumed, examined, and reburied, visit the Solve the Mystery website.

Postscript: If Meriwether Lewis’ remains do get exhumed as his descendants have requested, it won’t be the first time they’ve been dug up. In 1848, nearly 40 years after the Lewis’ death, a Tennessee legislative committee ordered an examination of the upper part of the skeleton. Officials wanted to make sure that the remains were accurately identified and that the Meriwether Lewis Monument was placed at the correct grave site.

** Please don’t take us to task for using this comparison. Unlike apple pie, a European import, lemon meringue pie was actually invented here in America.

Comments

Kira Gale
Thanks for your story! I urge readers to get a copy of our new book, The Death of Meriwether Lewis: A Historic Crime Scene Investigation by James E. Starrs and myself. It contains 20 documents, the entire historical record concerning the death of Lewis, the transcript of the Coroner's Inquest held in Lewis County, TN in 1996, and my narrative, "The Case for Murder."

I agree with the family of Meriwether Lewis, he deserves a Christian burial and the Park should allow his remains to be exhumed to be examined. The decision should be left to the descendants of Meriwether Lewis.
I have been praying fervently for one year that the family would continue pushing for a Christian burial. I was excited to see the website asking for people to write letters to allow him to be exhumed. It would also settle the dispute of whether he was murdered or commited suicide. I , for one , think that he was murdered.
I will continue praying that the family gets their wish . He deserves to be treated better than this , people !
IT's up to the family and what they say , goes !

A well-done article.
But the author is not identified - not even the picture. Please do so.
It is high time this 'primary source' was exhumed so that by DNA we can know if it is actually Meriwether Lewis there,
and if it is, to hopefully be able to trace the course of the bullets to see if they could or could not be self inflicted.
How anyone can say suicide - or murder - at this point is a mystery in itself.
How could such a master shot miss his own brains or heart?
Why would he ask Priscilla Grinder to "heal my wounds" if he wanted to die, when he could have reloaded with all the powder & shot she said was in his cabin - & finished the job?
(Jefferson having his own problems)- I've not seen any written words of that period saying he was either depressed or a drunk - only negative interpretations of his every word. Others made similar remarks at the time without being so accused.
His death remains a mystery - until some real, primary source can be found to prove one way or the other.