Icarus Has Fallen

The Mysterious Death of Meriwether Lewis

Icarus Has Fallen

On the morning of October 11, 1809, the famed explorer and frontiersman, Meriwether Lewis, was found dead in a small log cabin inn. Immediately, the death was labeled a suicide, based on the account of the innkeeper’s wife. But now, newly discovered historical evidence has emerged, showing signs of foul play. A murder to conceal the deeds of one of the most treasonous figures in American history.

Born in Virginia during the summer of 1774, Meriwether Lewis was one born to be a self-made man. With no formal education until his early teens, he grew up with the whatever the natural world had to offer; learning how to gather wild herms to craft medicines and trade with the Cherokees in their own native language. Upon graduating from Liberty Hall (now Washington & Lee University) in 1793, he served his country with valor and distinction during the course of the Whiskey Rebellion and the Northwest Indian War; rising through the ranks to become a US Army captain in 1801. It was also in this period when Meriwether Lewis became a Freemason in 1796. However, it would be through his exploration of the newly bought Louisiana Territory, between 1804 and 1806, (alongside his famed partner, William Clark) where he would reach national stardom; comparable to that of Neil Armstrong first stepping foot on the Moon in 1969. Following the end of his western journey, President Thomas Jefferson appointed Lewis to serve as the governor of the territory he helped explore. Though, in the matter of only a few short years was Lewis on the verge of losing everything. His political job in Saint Louis had become tiring and tedious, he failed in every one of his romantic ventures, and was accumulating extreme amounts of debt. It was because of these problems, that Lewis sought the help of alcohol and opium; which later grew into dangerous addictions. He only figured that by selling his journals, maps, and other materials from his journey out west to Jefferson, he could potentially settle his debts and get back on his feet.

Recruitment at Fort Massac, 1803, by Michael Haynes

Departing from Saint Louis with an entourage of two servants and an Indian Agent for the Chickasaw Nation (Major James Neelly) September 4, 1809, Lewis’ original plan was to travel down the Mississippi River by flatboat, until they reached New Orleans. From there, they would embark on a sailing vessel along the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic coast, with their final destination being Washington DC. However, upon arrival in modern day Memphis, Tennesee, Lewis changed his mind. Rather than continue down the river to New Orleans, the group would now continue the trek by land; traveling down a frontier road called the Natchez Trace. A place that was infamous for criminals and highwaymen robbing and killing travelers and merchants, to the point that the trail was nicknamed “The Devil’s Backbone”. Yet, even though Lewis’ band would be hitting the road with valuable cargo, they were by no means traveling unarmed. Along with his items he planned to sell to Jefferson, Lewis also brought along a brace of pistols, a rifle, a tomahawk, a dagger, a silver watch, and his Masonic apron. As part of this change of plans, the entourage had stopped at Fort Pickering, on September 15, to replenish supplies. While there, the fort’s commanding officer, Captain Gilbert Russell, reported that Lewis’ health was in a state of mental derangement (so much so, that the entire party was ordered to detained until Lewis fully recuperated on September 29). By the 10th of October, the group had been traveling along the trace for 11 days. When a severe storm began pouring down on them, Lewis and the others had little choice but to stop at a log-cabin inn for the night; owned and operated by one Robert Grinder (in what is now Hohenwald, Tennessee) . The next morning, Lewis was found dead in his room. The innkeeper's wife, Priscilla Grinder, stated that he had shot himself, and succumbed to his wounds. Quickly, the body was buried by his entourage on the innkeeper’s property (appropriately named Grinder’s Stand), and upon the group’s arrival in Washington DC, gave Jefferson the items Lewis intended to sell, his remaining personal effects, as well as a letter, written by James Neelly, which explained what happened to their leader.

Grinder's Stand, by Michael Haynes

Over 210 years later, the circumstances and evidence pointing to suicide have been put under heavy scrutiny. The first of which, being the account of the only real “witness” to the incident. Priscila Grinder. She claimed that during the time of the incident, Robert Grinder, was not at the inn. Upon the group’s arrival, she put Lewis into a room, while the rest of the entourage had been placed to sleep in the barn, outside. During the night, she was awakened to the sound of two gunshots. She then entered the other room, to find Lewis dead. His body contained two gunshot wounds, in the head and stomach; leading her to believe that he had committed suicide. This account was later described in the letter that James Neelly delivered to Thomas Jefferson.

“Sir, it is with extreme pain that I have to inform you of the death of His Excellency Meriwether Lewis, Governor of upper Louisiana who died on the morning of the 11th Instant and I am sorry to say by Suicide...One day's journey after crossing the Tennessee River & where we encamped we lost two of our horses. I remained behind to hunt them & the Governor proceeded on, with a promise to wait for me at the first houses he came to that was inhabited by white people; he reached the house of a Mr. Grinder about sunset, the man of the house being from home, and no person there but a woman who discovering the governor to be deranged gave him up the house & slept herself in one near it. His servant and mine slept in the stable loft some distance from the other houses. The woman reports that about three o’clock she heard two gunshots in the Governor's Room: the servants being awakened by her, came in too late to save him. He had shot himself in the head with one pistol & a little below the breast...I came up some time after, & had him as decently buried as I could in that place.

James Neelly. U.S. agent to the Chickasaw Nation.” (James, Gale 234).

This is when suspicion arises, in regards to Mrs. Grinder’s account. Not only did she not witness the shooting, but she immediately rushes to the conclusion of suicide. In the court of law, her testimony would be deemed inadmissible and thrown out, because it is, by definition, hearsay evidence. Furthermore, this is only one of three different versions of her account that she gives over the years following the incident. The second version of the account was given in 1810, to a man by the name of Alexander Wilson.

“Governor Lewis, she said, came hither about sunset, alone, and inquired if he could stay for the night; and, alighting, brought the saddle into the house...she heard the report of a pistol, and something fall heavily on the floor, and the words—"O Lord!” Immediately afterwards she heard another pistol, and in a few minutes she heard him at her door calling out "O madam! Give me some water, and heal my wounds."...He uncovered his side, and showed them where the bullet had entered; a piece of the forehead had blown off, and had exposed the brains, without having bled much...He expired in about two hours, or just as the sun rose above the trees.

Alexander Wilson.” (James, Gale 251).

The third account, which differs even further than the previous two, was given in 1845, in a newspaper article after Robert Grinder had died.

“The writer gave the following narrative of the incidents attending the death of Capt. Lewis, as he received them from Mrs. Grinder, the landlady of the house where he died in so savage a manner...Mr. Lewis called at her house and asked for lodgings. Mr. Grinder not being at home, she hesitated to take him in...About dark two or three other men rode up and called for lodging. Mr. Lewis immediately drew a brace of pistols, stepped towards them and challenged them to fight a duel. They not liking this salutation, rode on to the next house, five miles...Two or three hours before day, Mrs. G. was alarmed by the report of a pistol, and quickly after two other reports, in the room where the travellers were. At the report of the third, she heard someone fall and exclaim, "O Lord! Congress relieve me!" In a few minutes she heard some person at the door of the room where she lay. She inquired,, "Who is there?" Mr. Lewis spoke and said, "Dear Madam, be so good as to give me a little water." Being afraid to open the door, she did not give him any. Presently she heard him fall, and soon after, looking through a crack in the wall, she saw him scrambling across the road on his hands and knees...Upon Lewis’ expiration, Mrs. G. found several balls and a considerable quantity of powder scattered over the floor of the room occupied by Lewis; also a canister with several pounds in it.

DISPATCH. NewYork, February 1, 1845. Published on the first of every month by B. H. Day and J. G. Wilson.” (James, Gale 260).

With the contradictions in her account, the following question arises. Is this a murder of some sort? A coroner’s inquest to the incident, which was conducted in 1996, discovered more evidence towards a possible homicide. Such as a hand-written letter from Captain Gilbert Russell, at Fort Pickering, and James Nelly’s letter to Thomas Jefferson.

“The fact is which you may yet be ignorant of that his untimely death may be attributed solely to the free use of liquor which he acknowledged very candidly to me after he recovered & expressed a firm determination to never drink any more spirits or use snuff again both of which I deprived him of for several days & confined him to claret & a little white wine. But after leaving this place by some means or other his resolution left him & this agent.

Cpt. Gilbert Russell.” (James, Gale 254).

After conducting a handwriting analysis, the coroner's inquest discovered that the entire letter sent by Captain Russell was a forgery. Making the statements in regards to Lewis’ suicidal tendencies, completely invalid. Another document pointing towards a possible homicide (found by an attorney and Lewis historian, Tony Turnbow) is a writ of habeas corpus issued out to Major Neelly, ordering him to appear in court in Franklin, Tennessee, (approximately 55 miles away from Grinder’s Stand) at the very same time, that Lewis died; October 11, 1809. thus, labeling his entire letter to Jefferson, untruthful; a making the theory of Lewis being murdered, extremely plausible. Yet, more questions arise from these revelations. Who would’ve had the motive to kill Lewis? Who would’ve had the means to commit the crime? Who would’ve had the opportunity to seal his fate? What would the culprit(s) stand to gain from his passing? The answers may be hiding in plain sight.

Fort Clatsop facsimile as depicted in 1919

At the time of the incident, Lewis had intended to sell his journals and frontier maps to Thomas Jefferson, along with documents of great political and military importance. After all, the Lewis & Clark expedition was more than just a scientific journey to explore and record findings within the newly purchased Louisiana Territory. This was a top secret military program tasked to map out this vast tract of land, highlight strategically valuable areas, locate villages of indigenous tribespeople, establish trading alliances with as many as they could, and find a water route to the Pacific Ocean (similar to a modern day military reconnaissance mission); which required traveling into the heavily disputed area known as the Oregon Territory (for which Spain was claiming as theirs at the time and were heavily critical of the selling of the Louisiana Territory from Napoleonic France to the United States). While traveling in both areas, Lewis, Clark, and their motley crew of 50 soldiers and volunteers (including the famous Shoshone woman, Sacagawea) began constructing American forts; including Fort Mandan and Fort Clatsop. These settlements would help begin lucrative fur trading between the United States and the numerous native nations in these regions, which acted as an intimidating threat to the sovereignty of Spain. In fact, on two instances during their voyage, Lewis and Clark were being actively hunted down by contingents of Spanish soldiers, only to never catch them. Which only begs the question as to how Spanish authorities knew about a top secret U.S. military expedition into the Louisiana and Oregon Territories. Enter the first suspect. James Wilkinson.

General James Wilkinson, painted by John Wesley Jarvis (1780-1840) circa 1820-1825

James Wilkinson was a career soldier who built himself up from a Pennsylvania militia captain to a US Army Major General throughout the course of the American Revolution, the Northwest Indian War, the Quasi-War with France, and the War of 1812. At the same time, Wilkinson was also heavily involved in political efforts. He served as the very first governor of the Louisiana Territory and later as the U.S. Envoy to Mexico until his death in 1825. Yet, despite his lifelong career, Wilkinson was noted by several superiors in the military and in politics as a rather scandalous, controversial, and despicable character. For Wilkinson was secretly a participant of the unsuccessful Aaron Burr Conspiracy to militarily claim the Louisiana Territory as their own country (renaming it the “District of Burr”). It was also discovered (long after his death) that alongside his loyalty to Aaron Burr, Wilkinson was acting as a spy for the Spanish Crown, under the codename, Agent 13; against the very nation he helped create and defend in wartime. Long after Wilkinson’s passing, in 1854, would his treasonous activities be uncovered in a publication of his general correspondence by Louisiana historian Charles Gayarré. Within his correspondence included writings between Wilkinson (stationed near New Orleans with) and Spanish General Nemesio Salcedo, which detailed the Lewis & Clark expedition, their movements, their numbers, and their objectives. All of which resulted in General Salcedo deploying troops into the Louisiana Territory with the intent to eliminate the Corps of Discovery, and destroy all of their materials.

Following Wilkinson’s arrest, trial, and acquittal, alongside Burr, in 1807, his tainted reputation cost him his title as territorial governor, and was handed over to (guess who) Meriwether Lewis; the man who he strived so hard to see put down by his Spanish contacts. So when Lewis set out to Washington DC along the Natchez Trace, with known military and government documentation, along with the fact that James Neelly, was appointed by Wilkinson to accompany Lewis, the belief that General Wilkinson had a proper motive to kill Lewis certainly begins to surface. Especially when one of the possible reasons why Lewis would want to drastically change methods of transportation upon arrival at Fort Pickering, would be that (hypothetically) if he were to continue down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, he would have to travel past Fort Adams. A U.S. Army post about 20 miles south of Natchez. This fort was General Wlkinson’s headquarters. Almost as if Lewis knew that to continue the trek down river, would be a disaster waiting to happen.

James Neelly, himself, is also believed to be a suspect. Due to the facts that he was specifically appointed by Wilkinson to watch Lewis along his journey to Washington D.C. (both on the Mississippi River and the Natchez Trace), he had abandoned Lewis, in order to appear in court in Franklin, Tennessee, and that his letter to Jefferson was proven to be a lie. One is lead to believe that Neelly had the opportunity to seal Lewis’s fate. Deserting Lewis on the night that Lewis had died.

Leaving only one with the means to physically kill him, being Robert Grinder. The owner of the inn Lewis and his entourage were staying at. Originally, Robert Grinder was arrested and charged for murder in 1810. But the charges were ultimately dropped due to a lack of evidence to achieve a proper conviction. But surprisingly it was at this time, when Robert’s wife had created the second version of her account, along with having received a rather large amount of money from an unknown source. Possibly from General Wilkinson, as a way of thanking him for killing his nemesis. 

However, as the world has technologically evolved from the days of the 19th Century, modern scientific methods of forensics can perhaps re-open this cold case of American antiquity. Meriwether Lewis’ masonic apron has resurfaced and currently is held in the hands of the Grand Lodge of Ancient Free and Accepted Masons in Helena, Montana. Such an apron was one of Lewis’ personal effects he had on him at the time of his fateful travels along the Natchez Trace, and shows, as clear as day, to have been stained with human blood. On two separate occasions for televised programs (History Channel’s America Unearthed & Science Channel’s Unexplained and Unexplored) DNA testing was conducted on the apron to analyze the blood, and both programs concluded that the blood on the apron is that of two different males. This newly discovered evidence further elaborates on the invalidity of the accounts of Lewis’ death as described by James Neely and by Priscilla Grinder, and points the cause of death one step closer to the realm of murder.

Lewis' Masonic apron, (circa 1800)

However, there is much more to be done before the books can be closed on this case with a conclusion of murder. Just because there are positive identifications of human blood of two males on Lewis’ Masonic apron proves virtually nothing. From here, there must be further testing, in order to identify who’s blood it is, finding a means of establishing this apron at the time and place where Lewis had died, and deducing if the blood of one of these two samples is that of the alleged killer of Lewis; as well as if the identification of this alleged assassin fits in this conspiracy theory involving the treacherous General Wilkinson.

Yet, regardless of who killed Lewis or wanted to kill Lewis, There is a contextualization which emerges from the evidence which disproves the suicide story. A contextualization, which explains that by proving that the death of Meriwether Lewis was a murder in order to silence the treachery of a top general within the highest of places in both government and military, a rewriting of history proceeds. By exposing the potential suspects, the name of Meriwether Lewis will be cleansed from over 210 years worth of career tainting, by a false act of suicide; and that the younger generations of Americans will learn from our efforts and sacrifices, how one of the greatest explorers and frontiersmen in history, was killed because he desired to expose an inconvenient and uncomfortable truth, for the good of his nation.

Meriwether Lewis Monument, which marks the burial place of Meriwether Lewis, along the Natchez Trace Parkway.

Works Cited

  • Starrs, E. James and Gale, Kira, The Death of Meriwether Lewis. A Historic Crime Scene Investigation. Omaha: River Junction Press, 2009. Print.
  • Taylor, Troy, prairieghosts.com. Version 1. 2004. Web. October 20, 2015.
  • Tucker, Abigail, Smithsonian.com. October 8, 2009. Web. October 20, 2015.
  • Moore, Kathryn, historynewsnetwork.org. March 18, 2004. Web. October 20, 2015.
  • Hays, Tony, criminalelement.com. Version 5. April 4, 2013. Web. October 20, 2015.
  • “Secret Presidential Codes.” Brad Meltzer’s Decoded. History Channel. December 9, 2010. Television.
  • “Killing Meriwether Lewis” Unexplained and Unexplored. Science Channel. December 1, 2019. Television.
  • “The Lewis and Clark Conspiracy” Lost Secrets. Travel Channel. December 8, 2020. Television.
  • “Motive for Murder” America Unearthed. History Channel. February 15, 2013. Television.

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Jacob Herr
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