"What a falling Off was There"1
The Last Journey of Meriwether Lewis
Chapter VI from The Character of Meriwether Lewis: Explorer in the Wilderness
by Clay S. Jenkinson
My goals in this chapter are three. They are almost certainly delusional. First, I want to write the clearest account ever published of the last days of Meriwether Lewis, to assemble the facts as far as we can reconstruct them, to provide all readers with a complete, accurate, and reliable account of the events of September 4-October 11, 1809, and their aftermath.
Second, I want to write about the death of Lewis in a way that everyone will regard as fair ― the murder theorists (hereafter murderists) and the suicide theorists (hereafter suicidists) and everyone in between. My hope is that even those who disagree with my conclusions will respect my narrative and my analysis.
Third, I want to make the case for suicide as carefully and as humbly as I possibly can, not as a lawyer marshals evidence on behalf of the conclusion he wishes you to reach, but as a dispassionate humanities scholar who has been led to the conclusion of suicide by the evidence of the case. In other words, I have no ax to grind, no bias that I am aware of, and my mind is open, so far as I can tell. If new evidence would make it seem more rational to conclude that Lewis was murdered, I would cheerfully follow those findings to their logical conclusion.
Here's what we know. Lewis was appointed governor of Louisiana Territory on February 28, 1807. He did not arrive in St. Louis to take up his duties until May 8, 1808. He was in residence in St. Louis for a year and a half―actually, one year, five months, and twenty-seven days. By the summer of 1809, his world was beginning to fall apart. He was by now in an open breach with his lieutenant, Territorial Secretary Frederick Bates. In fact, their struggle brought them to the first stage of an affair of honor that might have led to a duel, if William Clark had not carefully stalled the process and ratcheted things down until Lewis was under greater self-control. The War Department in faraway Washington, DC, had begun to refuse to honor some of Governor Lewis's vouchers, a few of them for very large sums of money, and the tone of correspondence from functionaries in the War Department to Lewis had become reproachful. The word had gotten around the territorial capital that Lewis's official finances were being challenged at the highest levels of the United States government. This had the effect, as Lewis ruefully acknowledged, of causing his personal creditors to crowd in on him for payment. His personal solvency was in a perilous state. Rumors had begun to circulate to the effect that Governor Lewis would be recalled or at least not re-appointed, that the new Madison administration had lost confidence in him.
That was the public face of things. Lewis's private world was also in disarray. Not for lack of determined trying, he had found it impossible to find a wife. Immediately after the expedition's return, his friend William Clark had effortlessly courted and married Julia Hancock of Fincastle, Virginia, whose only fault was being the daughter of a Federalist. With comic lugubriousness, Lewis had come to think of himself as a "musty, fusty, rusty old bachelor."2
Lewis and Clark biographer John Bakeless, who is a murderist, summarizes the state of Lewis's life at this juncture perfectly; excellently. "He was certainly ill. He had had difficulties with Bates, a singularly irritating individual. His personal finances were in a bad way. He had been drinking heavily. His reappointment was in doubt. His accounts were disputed by Washington auditors."3 To be perfectly fair, we have no way of knowing for sure that Lewis was drinking heavily.
In August 1809 Governor Lewis decided to make the long journey to Washington, DC, to defend his territorial actions and expenditures in a face-to-face meeting with the bureaucrats of the Madison administration. He also intended to visit his mother Lucy Marks and his patron and friend Thomas Jefferson in Albemarle County, Virginia, then venture to Philadelphia to move his book closer to publication. Attempts have recently been made to suggest that Lewis was not mentally disturbed at the time he left St. Louis in early September 1809. Lewis's most recent biographers, Thomas Danisi and John Jackson, have provided extensive details of his professional activities in the spring and summer of 1809 in an effort to prove he was both busy and undeniably in possession of his rational faculties.4 Vardis Fisher summarizes the same burst of administrative activity and concludes: "All this – his handwriting during these last days in St. Louis, his clear and orderly record of his debts, and his investing three friends with the power of attorney, to sell his property during his absence, if creditors should demand it–all this certainly does not look like the behavior of a man in a paroxysm."5 Danisi and Jackson write, "Taking the time to tidy up a difference of opinion with his former mentor [Jefferson] showed that Meriwether was in complete command of his faculties." With his packet of reports and vouchers, Lewis was going east to "convince those chair-bound bureaucrats that a frontier government required immediate decisions. Louisiana could not be directed at long distance over an imperfect system of communication."6 Danisi and Jackson go so far as to say, "[T]he governor of Louisiana had lost confidence in the present administration."7 This, in my opinion, is precisely the reverse of the truth.
It may be worth remembering two things here. First, Lewis engaged in this burst of administrative activity solely because he was about to journey to Washington to face his accusers in the War Department. He was trying on the eve of his departure to bring order to the neglect and disarray that had gotten him into trouble in the first place. Any chance of being exonerated or vindicated in Washington would involve presenting in person the documents and detailed justifications of his actions that he had not taken the time to send to the War Department previously. All of these documents and reports should have been forwarded long since. It was their absence that led Madison administration officials, including the president himself, to question Lewis's competence, ethical probity, and fitness for territorial office. In other words, the unusual burst of activity described by Danisi and Jackson was not a representative sample of Lewis's administrative life in St. Louis. On the contrary, it was an emergency response to a period of significantly less focused activity. Second, Lewis did not accomplish these things alone. His closest friend William Clark worked side by side with him to put his affairs into something like order. Even if Clark didn't actually create the documents in question, it was essential that he was at Lewis's side to calm the governor and keep him focused on the tasks before him. Clark's account of the final day he and Lewis spent together is profoundly sad. To his brother Jonathan, Clark wrote, "I have not Spent Such a Day as yesterday for maney years. ... took my leave of Govr. Lewis who Set out to Philadelphia to write our Book, (but more perticularly to explain Some matter between him and the Govt.[)] Several of his Bills have been protested and his Crediters all flocking in near the time of his Setting out distressed him much, which he expressed to me in Such terms as to Cause a Cempothy which is not yet off–I do not beleve there was ever an honest er man in Louisiana nor one who had pureor motives than Govr. Lewis. if his mind had been at lease I Should have parted Cherefully. ..."8 This is not the portrait of a man who is calmly and routinely attending to business in preparation for a long leave of absence.
Clark's "I have not Spent Such a Day as yesterday for maney years" can only refer to the similar efforts he made in the late 1790s to bring some kind of order to his alcoholic brother George Rogers Clark's equally tangled legal and financial affairs. Clark had been familiar with Lewis's temper, impulsiveness, and penchant for self-drama for fifteen years. He had lived in closest proximity with the mercurial Lewis for three years on the trail from Falls of the Ohio to the Pacific Ocean and back again. For Clark to notice and describe this level of distress in Lewis, "expressed to me in Such terms as to Cause a Cempothy which is not yet off," suggests Lewis was indeed in a paroxysm of rage, bitterness, self-punishment, and self-pity at the time he departed from St. Louis. Clark's reference to Lewis's honesty and the purity of his motives makes clear that Clark was aware that the War Department had accused Lewis of dishonesty and impure motives with respect to the public-private mission to return Mandan leader Sheheke-shote to his home village in today's North Dakota. It would be hard to imagine Clark describing Lewis's state in terms of greater alarm and sorrow. This remarkable passage in a private letter by Lewis's best friend refutes all the lists that could possibly be made of Lewis's professional activity in the late summer of 1809. Danisi and Jackson say, "Although exasperated by the difficulties that the accounting process was creating, he was not hysterical."9 Actually, it sounds like he was. The great Bernard DeVoto wrote, "[I]t is clear that he was in a very nervous state when he left St. Louis."10 Jefferson himself wrote that, "He was in a paroxysm of one of these [sensible depressions of mind] when his affairs rendered it necessary for him to go to Washington."11
1. Shakespeare, Hamlet (1.5.47): "Oh Hamlet, what a falling-off was there." The Oxford English Dictionary defines "falling-off" as "decadence, defection, diminution."
2. Quoted in Jones, Shaping of the West, p. 163.
3. Bakeless, Partners in Discovery, pp. 425-426.
4. Danisi and Jackson, Meriwether Lewis, p. 287.
5. Vardis Fisher, Suicide or Murder? The Strange Death of Governor Meriwether Lewis (Athens, OH, 1993), p. 73.
6. Danisi and Jackson, Meriwether Lewis, p. 287.
7. Danisi and Jackson, Meriwether Lewis, p. 287.
8. Holmberg, Dear Brother, p. 210.
9. Danisi and Jackson, Meriwether Lewis, p. 277.
10. De Voto, The Journals of Lewis and Clark, p. li.
11. De Voto, The Journals of Lewis and Clark, p. li. Jackson, Letters, p. 592.