Modern history



On October 28, Clark got the news of Lewis’s suicide, from the Frankfort, Kentucky, Argus of Western America. He was in Shelbyville, on his way to Washington. George Shannon was with him. Clark wrote his brother Jonathan:

I fear this report has too much truth. . . . my reason for thinking it possible is found on the letter I received from him at your house. . . .

I fear O’ I fear the weight of his mind has overcome him, what will be the Consequence?1

Two days later, Clark wrote again, to report he had

herd of the Certainty of the death of Govr. Lewis which givs us much uneasiness. . . .

I wish much to get the letter I receved of Govr. Lewis from New Madrid, which you Saw it will be of great Service to me prey send it. . . . I wish I had Some Conversation with you.2

Lewis’s letter to Clark—written around September 11, the day Lewis wrote his will—has never been found.

Jefferson got the news at Monticello in November, via either the newspapers or Neelly’s letter to him. Neelly said he had arrived at Grinder’s Inn on the morning of October 11, after Lewis’s death, and had buried him as “decently as I could.”I He gave a brief account of the suicide and asked instructions on what to do with Lewis’s trunks.3 A week or so later, Pernier visited Jefferson and gave him an eyewitness account of Lewis’s last day on earth.

Jefferson’s first known written comment on Lewis’s death is in a letter to Dr. William Dickson, of Nashville, dated April 20, 1810. Dickson had sent on a miniature of Lewis and Lewis’s watch chain, which had somehow come into his possession. In acknowledging their receipt, Jefferson said he was sending the items to Lewis’s mother. “The deplorable accident which has placed her in the deepest affliction,” he wrote, “is a great loss to the world also; as no pen can ever give us so faithful & lively an account of the countries & nations which he saw, as his own would have done, under the guidance of impressions made by the objects themselves.”4

Eight days later, Jefferson wrote Captain Russell, his first known comment on the cause of the suicide. He said Lewis “was much afflicted & habitually so with hypocondria. This was probably increased by the habit into which he had fallen & the painfull reflections that would necessarily produce in a mind like his.”5

Some three years later, in a short biography of Lewis, Jefferson went into more detail:

Governor Lewis had from early life been subject to hypocondriac affections. It was a constitutional disposition in all the nearer branches of the family of his name, & 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 exertion which that required of all the faculties of body & mind, suspended these distressing affections; but after his establishment at St. Louis in sedentary occupations they returned upon him with redoubled vigor, and began seriously to alarm his friends. . . .

At about 3 o’clock in the night [of October 10–11] he did the deed which plunged his friends into affliction and deprived his country of one of her most valued citizens.6

There is a considerable literature on the possibility that Lewis did not commit suicide but was murdered. The first to put forth that claim in any detail was Vardis Fisher.7 Dr. Chuinard has more recently made the same assertion.8 The literature is not convincing; the detailed refutation by Paul Russell Cutright is.9

A suggestion has been made that Lewis’s mental problems stemmed not from hypochondria, as Jefferson would have it, or a manic-depressive syndrome, but from the effects of an advanced case of syphilis.10 It is more intriguing and speculative than convincing.

What is convincing is the initial reaction of the two men who knew Lewis best and loved him most. William Clark and Thomas Jefferson immediately concluded that the story of Lewis’s suicide was entirely believable, Clark on the basis of his intimate knowledge of Lewis’s mental state and more explicitly on the never-found Lewis letter of mid-September. Neither Jefferson nor Clark ever doubted that Lewis killed himself.

Those who still hold out for murder need to deal with a “dog that did not bark” aspect of the case. Had William Clark entertained the slightest suspicion that his friend had been murdered, can anyone doubt that he would have gone to Tennessee immediately to find and hang the murderer? Or, if Jefferson had such suspicions, that he would have insisted the government launch an investigation?

Lewis’s half-brother, John Marks, did an inventory of Lewis’s debts and assets. He had private debts amounting to $4,196.12 and protested drafts totaling $6,956.62. His credits and estate were worth $5,700. He had a further credit of $754.50 for Indian presents and gunpowder sold by Chouteau after he returned from successfully getting Big White back to the Mandan nation. It turned out that the presents and the gunpowder, which had been the cause of such distress to Lewis when the Madison administration refused to honor the draft used to pay for them, were not needed.11

Clark visited Washington in December 1809. He recorded in the journal he kept that on December 18 he “Went to see the Secretary of War [Eustis], had a long talk abt. Govr. Lewis, [he] pointed out his intentions & views for the protests. Declaired the Govr had not lost the Confidence of the Government.”12 The statement was two months and seven days too late.

“I do not know what I Shall do about the publication of the Book,” Clark wrote Jonathan.13

Clark was ignorant of what had been done to get a manuscript ready for the printer. In a memorandum he wrote to himself in late 1809, before going to Philadelphia to see what could be done about publication, he put down questions he needed to ask:

Enquire what has been done by G[overnor] L[ewis] with Calculations—engraving Printing Botany.

If a man can be got to go to St. Louis with me to write the journal & price.

The price of engraving animals Ind[ian]s & Maps Paper & other expences.

Get some one to write the scientific part & natural history—Botany, Mineralogy & Zoology.

Praries—muddiness of the Miissouri.

Natural Phenomena—23 vocabularies & plates & engraving.14

Obviously, Clark had discussed none of this with Lewis, who had already taken care of and paid for some of the arrangements Clark thought he needed to make. Amazingly, Lewis had never talked to Clark about publication, except to promise one more time that when he got to Philadelphia he would complete the task.

This is the great mystery of Lewis’s life. There is only speculation on what kept him from preparing the journals for the publisher, but no one can know the cause for certain, any more than anyone can know for certain the cause of his suicide.

On learning of Lewis’s suicide, the publishers, C. and A. Conrad of Philadelphia, told Jefferson that they had a contract to produce the journals and asked what they should do now. “Govr. Lewis never furnished us with a line of the M.S.,” they told Jefferson, “nor indeed could we ever hear any thing from him respecting it tho frequent applications to that effect were made to him.”15

Jefferson replied that the journals were coming to Monticello, and so was Clark; that they would consult; that Clark would come on to Philadelphia to see what could be done.

When Clark arrived at Monticello, there was apparently some talk about Jefferson’s taking over the journals and doing the editing to prepare them for the printer. There was no man alive who had a greater interest in the subject, or one who had better qualifications for the job. But he was sixty-five years old and desired to spend his remaining years at Monticello as a gentleman farmer. In January 1810, Lewis’s cousin William Meriwether wrote Clark, “Mr Jefferson would not undertake the work.”16

Clark took the journals to Philadelphia, where he called on the men who had helped Lewis prepare for the expedition and those whom Lewis had hired to do drawings and calculations. Charles Willson Peale was one of them. On February 3, 1810, Peale wrote his brother: “I would rather Clark had undertaken to have wrote the whole himself and then have put it into the hands of some person of talents to brush it up, but I found that the General was too diffident of his abilities.”17

After some false starts, Clark persuaded Nicholas Biddle to undertake the work. Biddle was only twenty-six years old, but he was a prodigy. He had been granted admission to the University of Pennsylvania at the age of ten. After three years, he had completed the requirements, but the university, citing his extreme youth, denied him a diploma. He went to Princeton, from which he graduated in 1801 at the age of fifteen. After graduation, he studied law and wrote essays. He married one of the richest women in the country, so he had no money problems and lots of time.

Biddle was the perfect choice. He threw himself into the work and did it magnificently. George Shannon helped him, as did Clark, and finally a young man named Paul Allen did some copyediting (for five hundred dollars; Biddle took nothing for himself for more than two years of full-time labor).

Nothing ever came easy for those star-crossed journals, however. Biddle had persuaded Dr. Barton to do the scientific volume, but Barton’s health failed and he could not complete the job. And just when Biddle was ready to turn the narrative volume over to the printer, the War of 1812 began. Worse, the firm of C. and A. Conrad collapsed.

As Biddle expressed his fear, “the work will lose some of its interest by so much delay.” It took him more than a year to find a publisher (Bradford and Inskeep of Philadelphia).

In 1814, the book appeared, titled The History of the Expedition Under the Commands of Captains Lewis and Clark. It was a narrative and paraphrase of the journals, completely true to the original, retaining some of the more delightful phrases, but with the spelling corrected. Biddle did relatively little with the flora and fauna.

Bradford and Inskeep printed 1,417 copies and priced them at six dollars. They sold slowly—there were already editions of Gass’s journal in print, and many counterfeits. Biddle wanted the publisher to pay royalties to Clark, but he never received a penny.

For the next ninety years, Biddle’s edition was the only printed account based on the journals. As a result, Lewis and Clark got no credit for most of their discoveries. Plants, rivers, animals, birds that they had described and named were newly discovered by naturalists, and the names that these men gave them were the ones that stuck.

In 1893, the naturalist Elliott Coues published a reprint of the Biddle narrative. He added footnotes on many subjects, including material on birds, animals, and plants, and especially geography.

In 1904, on the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the expedition, Reuben Gold Thwaites of the Wisconsin State Historical Society published (Dodd, Meade) the complete journals, in eight volumes, including never-before-seen journals from two of the enlisted men. His editorial work was outstanding. Often reprinted, “Thwaites,” as the work is known among Lewis and Clark fans, is an American classic.

In 1962, Donald Jackson edited the Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (University of Illinois Press, expanded to two volumes in 1978). Together with Jackson’s notes, it is a work of scholarship almost unequaled anywhere, and certainly never surpassed.

In the 1980s, Gary Moulton edited an eight-volume set of the captains’ journals for the University of Nebraska Press. He added much new material, including Lewis’s journal of his trip down the Ohio in 1803 (previously published by Milo Quaife in 1916) and innumerable fascinating footnotes, with a special emphasis on botany and other scientific subjects.

Moulton’s edition is the definitive work for our time. But he himself points out (as did Jackson before him) that nothing is ever truly definitive in history. There are always new documents coming to light.

Biddle, Thwaites, Jackson, and Moulton together make the rock on which all Lewis and Clark scholarship stands.

Biddle’s name appears nowhere in his narrative, apparently because he insisted on complete anonymity. On the title page, where his name should have appeared, it reads: “Prepared for the press by Paul Allen, Esquire.”

Allen can be forgiven, for it was he who induced Jefferson to write a memoir-biography of Lewis. He wrote Jefferson, “I wish very much to enliven the dulness of the Narrative by someing more popular splendid & attractive.” (Elliott Coues commented that Allen’s letter “exhibited an achievement in impudence that deserves to become historical.”) Jefferson wrote a five-thousand-word “letter” on Lewis’s life in 1813; the first biography of Lewis, it was written with Jefferson’s usual care for accuracy and detail.18

Jefferson never allowed his disappointment over his inability to send the scientific parts of the journals to his fellow members of the Enlightenment, both at home and abroad, or his heartbreak over Lewis’s suicide, to sour him on his protégé. The expedition had not fulfilled his hopes in many ways, most of all in not discovering an all-water route to the Pacific, but he did not allow that disappointment to affect his judgment of Lewis.

At the time Jefferson wrote his memoir of Lewis, the Louisiana Purchase did not look like such a great bargain. The Indians were up in arms, the St. Louis Missouri River Fur Company and John Jacob Astor had failed to establish permanent posts in the West, the ultimate fate of the great northwestern empire was still to be determined, and the distances involved appeared to preclude any significant economic activity in Louisiana. Federalists such as John Quincy Adams continued to ridicule the Purchase.

Nevertheless, Jefferson knew what he had achieved. Dumas Malone says it perfectly: “Jefferson’s vision extended farther and comprehended more than that of anybody else in public life, and, thinking of himself as working for posterity, he was more concerned that things should be well started than that they be quickly finished. . . . In few things that he did as President was he more in character than as a patron of exploration, and he could well afford to leave his performance in that role to the judgment of posterity. One may doubt if any successor of his ever approached it.”19

Lewis cut his life off at the midpoint. He never reached an age of maturity. Still, enough is known to allow some generalizations.

He was a good man in a crisis. If I was ever in a desperate situation—caught in a grass fire on the prairie, or sinking in a small boat in a big ocean, or the like—then I would want Meriwether Lewis for my leader. I am as one with Private Windsor, who, when about to slip off the bluff over the Marias River, barely managing to hold on, badly frightened, called out, “God, God, Captain, what shall I do?” I too would instinctively trust Lewis to know what to do.

He knew the wilderness as well as any American alive during his day, including Daniel Boone and William Clark, and was only surpassed later by John Colter and a few other of the most famous Mountain Men. His intense curiosity about everything new he saw around him was infectious. Certainly he would be anyone’s first choice for a companion on an extended camping trip. Imagine sitting around the campfire while he talked about what he had seen that day.

He had a short temper and too often acted on it. His proclivity for beating Indians who displeased him, his readiness to burn their villages or even “extrapate” them, recalls to mind Jefferson’s point that it would be a prodigy indeed who could grow up as a slave master and keep his humanity. Lewis could not keep his “boisterous passions” in check.

He was a man of high energy and was at times impetuous, but this was tempered by his great self-discipline. He could drive himself to the point of exhaustion, then take an hour to write about the events of the day, and another to make his celestial observations.

His talents and skills ran wider than they did deep. He knew how to do many things, from designing and building a boat to all the necessary wilderness skills. He knew a little about many of the various parts of the natural sciences. He could describe an animal, classify a plant, name the stars, manage the sextant and other instruments, dream of empire. But at none of these things was he an expert, or uniquely gifted.

Where he was unique, truly gifted, and truly great was as an explorer, where all his talents were necessary. The most important was his ability as a leader of men. He was born to leadership, and reared for it, studied it in his army career, then exercised it on the expedition.

How he led is no mystery. His techniques were time-honored. He knew his men. He saw to it that they had dry socks, enough food, sufficient clothing. He pushed them to but never beyond the breaking point. He got out of them more than they knew they had to give. His concern for them was that of a father for his son. He was the head of a family.

He could lose his temper with them, and berate them in front of their fellow soldiers. He could be even sterner: he had a few of them take fifty lashes well laid on. But in the judgment of the enlisted men, he was fair.

He didn’t make many mistakes. His orders were clear, concise, and correct. Perhaps the finest tribute to his leadership abilities came at the time of the Marias decision. All the men thought the Marias was the river to follow, but they said to Lewis and Clark “very cheerfully that they were ready to follow us any wher we thought proper to direct.”

He shared the work. He cooked for his men, and poled a canoe. He was hunter and fisherman. From crossing the Lolo Trail to running the rapids of the Columbia, he never ordered the men to do what he wouldn’t do. When it was appropriate, he shared the decision-making. All of it with Clark, of course, but much of it with the men too, as in deciding where to spend the winter of 1805–6.

These are some of the qualities that make for a good company commander. Lewis had them in abundance, plus some special touches that made him a much-loved commander. He had a sense, a feel, for how his family was doing. He knew exactly when to take a break, when to issue a gill, when to push for more, when to encourage, when to inspire, when to tell a joke, when to be tough.

He knew how to keep a distance between himself and the men, and just how big it should be. He knew his profession and was proud of it and one of the very best at it.

But if he was a near-perfect army officer, Lewis was a lousy politician. He was entirely unsuited to the job. Jefferson’s appointment of Lewis to the governorship was a frightful misjudgment. Jefferson should have found him a post in Washington or Philadelphia and given him some War Department clerks to help with the publication process.

As governor, Lewis proved incapable of resisting the temptations of high office, incapable of managing different factions, incapable of compromise. Secretary Bates made some observations that need to be considered, even while discounting the source. Lewis had been in the army too long, just as Bates charged, and was too accustomed to military ways to be a successful governor. Lewis did have a swelled head as a result of the adulation he had received. Lewis did lose his temper too often, also just as Bates said. He would never have been a successful politician.

As a man, he was full of contradictions. He had been a curious, active boy; a hard-drinking, hard-riding army officer; an intensely partisan secretary to the president; an eager explorer; a scientific scholar who paid close attention to detail; a Philadelphia playboy (yet a man who lost Letitia Breckenridge to Robert Gamble, a rich layabout Virginia aristocrat—a life Lewis might have chosen); an overeager governor and speculator in land; a drug taker and an alcoholic.

But he was a great company commander, the greatest of all American explorers, and in the top rank of world explorers.

Lewis’s determination to “advance the information of the succeeding generation,” the vow he had made on his thirty-first birthday, on the Lemhi Pass in 1805, he fulfilled. Not so completely as he would have liked, in the form of the published journals. But his 1805 report from Fort Mandan, along with Clark’s map, were printed and widely distributed and had a major impact.

His successful voyage was an inspiration in itself. As for information, he had filled in the main outlines of the previously blank map of the northwestern part of the current United States.

He may have regarded the expedition as a failure by the time he died. No trade empire had been established, or appeared possible anytime in his generation. The Indians controlled the Missouri River and were at war with one another. British traders still encroached on American territory. Lewis’s glowing reports on the soil and climate in present Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, and Nebraska had not set off a land rush; there was still plenty of land to be had in Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio. The State Department was making no effort to claim sovereignty north of the forty-ninth parallel. The government was pressing no claim to the Oregon country. These things would come, but only with the steamship and the railroad. Until they did, the Louisiana Purchase—save for New Orleans—was exactly what Lewis called it in his Indian-policy paper, a “barren waste.”

Had Lewis lived, he would have seen steamships and railroads.II

Lewis’s suicide has hurt his reputation. Had Cruzatte’s bullet killed him, he would be honored today far more than he is; perhaps there would be a river named for him. But through most of the nineteenth century, he was relatively ignored and in some danger of being forgotten. In 1889–91, Henry Adams could write a multivolume history of the Jefferson administration and scarcely mention Meriwether Lewis or William Clark (whose reputation at that time rested far more on his accomplishments in St. Louis as superintendent of Indian affairs than on the expedition).

The publication of the Thwaites edition of the journals at the end of the century began a revival. It has continued, and the reputations of the captains have soared. Today, there are statues to Meriwether Lewis and William Clark; some towns, some counties, many high schools, and numerous streets are named for them. There is a Lewis and Clark College.

On July 28, 1805, when he named the Jefferson River, Lewis wrote in his journal that he had done so “in honor [of] that illustrious personage Thomas Jefferson President of the United States [and] the author of our enterprize.” In that spirit, it is fitting that Jefferson should get the last word.

In his 1813 letter, Jefferson wrote a one-sentence description of Lewis that is as fine a tribute to a subordinate as any president of the United States has ever written. It is impossible to imagine higher praise from a better source:

“Of courage undaunted, possessing a firmness & perseverance of purpose which nothing but impossibilities could divert from it’s direction, careful as a father of those committed to his charge, yet steady in the maintenance of order & discipline, intimate with the Indian character, customs & principles, habituated to the hunting life, guarded by exact observation of the vegetables & animals of his own country, against losing time in the description of objects already possessed, honest, disinterested, liberal, of sound understanding and a fidelity to truth so scrupulous that whatever he should report would be as certain as if seen by ourselves, with all these qualifications as if selected and implanted by nature in one body, for this express purpose, I could have no hesitation in confiding the enterprize to him.”20

I. Lewis is buried today at the site of Grinder’s Inn, along the Natchez Trace. Alexander Wilson saw to preparing a proper plot and putting a fence around it. A broken shaft, authorized by the Tennessee Legislature in 1849 as symbolic of “the violent and untimely end of a bright and glorious career,” marks the spot.

II. There is a poignant item in the Missouri Gazette of August 31, 1808, a report on “an interesting curiosity,” the steamboat, which could proceed upriver “without oars or sails, propelled through the element by invisible agency, at a rate of four miles an hour.” It was able to go from New York to Albany, a distance of 160 miles, in thirty-two hours, carrying more than a hundred passengers and great quantities of goods. Lewis must have read it.

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