Lewis Takes Over

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Pryor returned in mid-October of 1807, and for the next sixteen months Sheheke and Jusseaume, with their wives and children, languished in St. Louis. On July 17 of the following summer, an exasperated Jefferson asked Lewis what he thought should be done to get the chief and his family back home, and appealed to his patriotism. "We consider the good faith, & the reputation of the nation as pledged to accomplish this," he wrote.1 No reply from Lewis. On August 24 he tried again: "I am uneasy, hearing nothing from you about the Mandan chief, nor the measures for restoring him to his country. That is an object which presses on our justice & our honor."2 But Lewis remained unresponsive for nearly six more months.

At last, on February 24, 1809, Lewis consummated a detailed contract between the St. Louis Missouri Fur Company and himself as the territorial governor and representative of the United States Government, to return Sheheke, Jusseaume, and their wives and children, to their homes at the mouth of the Knife River.3

The Articles of Agreement stated that for a flat fee of $7,000 the St. Louis Missouri Fur Company would raise a militia of 125 men, to include at least forty expert American riflemen. The citizen soldiers would of course prefer to bring their own weapons if they had them, but the company would furnish at least fifty rifles, plus ammunition. The company was also authorized to engage up to 300 volunteers from "the most friendly and confidential Indian nations," who would be rewarded with any plunder they could wrest from enemies in any eventual combat. In addition, 105 traders and trappers were to join the force at the Cheyenne River, bringing the total to 550 guns, "a force sufficient not Onely to bid defiance to the Aricares, but to extirpate that abandoned Nation if necessary," said Lewis. Finally, they were to "arrest those who killed any men under Pryor's command in September of 1807, and shoot them."

The armed force would be commanded by Major Pierre Chouteau, a partner of Lewis's in the Missouri Fur Company. After reaching the Mandan towns and fulfilling its mission, Chouteau's militia would become a commercial entity with a two-year trade monopoly along the Missouri River between the Platte River and the Knife.4

Word got around. A man named Rodolphe Tillier, formerly a factor at Belle Fontaine, Missouri, addressed a complaint to President Madison. "Is it proper for the public service," he asked indignantly, "that the U.S. officers as a Governor or a Super Intendant of Indian Affairs & U.S. Factor at St. Louis should take any share in Merchantile and private concerns?"5 Nevertheless, Lewis's plan worked, and after a journey of 101 days, despite some tense moments in getting past the Sioux and Arikaras, Sheheke and his party were delivered safely to their homes on September 24, 1809.

On May 13 Lewis mailed William Eustis, the new secretary of war under President James Madison, a bill for $500 to cover Indian presents for Chouteau's trip. That letter, historian Donald Jackson points out, "represents the beginning of Lewis's financial ruin and the events leading to his death."6

Eustis quickly rejected the claim. Not only had Lewis failed to get prior approval for those items, but he had overstepped his authority at the outset by soliciting volunteers for an expedition that would combine commercial and military objectives, and by appointing Chouteau to command a military unit while he was under appointment to another governmental office. "It is thought," insisted Eustis, "the Government might, without injury to the public interests, have been consulted."7 Basically, Lewis's plan had been consistent with the orders Clark had received from Henry Dearborn two years before, but Jefferson's hip-pocket brand of government would not sell in the strict-constructionist atmosphere of Madison's administration.

Lewis replied to Eustis on August 18: "Yours of the 15th July is now before me, the feelings it excites are truly painful." In a crescendo of pain and paranoia he set out on his last journey on September fourth, wrote his last will and testament on the eleventh, and on the sixteenth, in a bleary drunken haze, scrawled a rambling letter to President Madison from Chickesaw Bluffs, begging to be allowed to show him his financial records and explain his actions.8 "An explaneation is all that is necessary I am sensible to put all matters right," he assured his friend Major Amos Stoddard on the twenty-second.9

On the morning of October 11, 1809, Governor Meriwether Lewis died of self-inflicted gunshot wounds. He was thirty-five.

1. Jackson, Letters, 1:306. Moulton, Journals, 3:175–78, 230–31; 8:311.

2. Jackson, Letters, 2:444–45.

3. Lewis himself had organized the Saint Louis Missouri River Fur Company during the latter part of 1808. The partners included Lewis, his brother Reuben, William Clark, Manuel Lisa, Pierre Chouteau and his father Auguste, and Benjamin Wilkinson, brother of the notorious General James Wilkinson. Stephen E. Ambrose, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 444.

Jackson, Letters, 2:446-50.

5. Ibid., 2:457n.

6. Ibid., 2:746.

7. Ibid., 2:456–57. Another claim that was rejected was for an "assaying furnace" for Chouteau's use, presumably in evaluating deposits of galena, or lead ore, along his route.

8. Ibid., 2:464. Ambrose, Undaunted Courage, 459–65.

9. Ibid., 2:466.