Part 2: Lewis's Last Journey

Page 2 of 6

On July 8, 1809, six weeks before he received the bombshell letter from the War Department that precipitated his final journey to the national capital, Lewis wrote to an unknown friend that the Madison administration's rejection of his vouchers was causing him great distress. "[T]his occurrence has given me infinite concern," he wrote, "as the fate of other bills drawn for similar purposes to a considerable amount cannot be mistaken; this rejection cannot fail to impress the public mind unfavourably with rispect to me, nor is this consideration more painfull than the censure which must arise in the mind of the executive from my having drawn for public monies without authority, a third and not less imbarrassing circumstance attending the transaction is that my private funds are entirely incompetent to meet those bills if protested."11

Lewis met with the Governor's Council in St. Louis for the last time on August 30.

Lewis left St. Louis on September 4, 1809. The Missouri Gazette wrote that the governor "set off in good health for New Orleans on his way to the Federal City."12 John Bakeless has said, "[T]he emphasis of the statement [by the Gazette] faintly suggests official propaganda."13 Lewis's original intention was to take passage on a flatboat or keelboat all the way down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. From there he planned to take passage on a ship through the Gulf of Mexico, around the southern tip of Florida, and then up the East Coast to the Chesapeake, where he would find additional water conveyance either up the James River to Charlottesville (likely) or up the Potomac River to the federal capital.

Lewis's baggage consisted of: a pair of red slippers; five vests; two pairs of pantaloons; one pair of black silk breeches; two cotton shirts; one flannel shirt; two pairs of cotton stockings; three pairs of silk stockings; a broadcloth coat; a silver tumbler; a tomahawk; a pistol case; a silver watch; several bundles of maps; "Two small bundles containing silk for dresses—for Mr. Clark"14; three knives; a sword; a "pike blade" with a broken shaft (probably his espontoon); a sea otter skin; a supply of medicines; all of his official papers, including "One small bundle of Letters & Vouchers—of consequence"15; and all the papers relating to his transcontinental journey, including the expedition's journals.

One of the three men to whom Lewis had entrusted his private affairs during his absence, his friend William C. Carr, wrote a letter to his brother on August 25, 1809: "Our Governor left us a few days since with his private affairs altogether deranged. He is a good man, but a very imprudent one—I apprehend he will not return."16 Things were that bad.

Lewis arrived in New Madrid on September 11, 1809, approximately 250 miles downstream from St. Louis. He sent his free black servant Pernier ashore to collect food for supper and to obtain a competent legal witness. In New Madrid Lewis wrote his will. He left his estate, after all debts had been paid, to his mother Lucy Marks. Sometime before he reached New Madrid, Lewis decided to leave the Mississippi River and venture overland to Virginia. The reasons usually alleged for this change of plans are that Lewis was warned that fever was raging in the lower Mississippi River, or he feared that his papers, which included the journals and other documents relating to the expedition, might fall into the hands of the British, who were patrolling the Gulf of Mexico and boarding American vessels.

There may have been a third reason; Lewis was always most confident when he was in control of his own motion. In the course of the expedition, he frequently left the flotilla to walk on the shores of the Missouri River. When his own body was engaged in forward progress, he was invariably more optimistic, more productive, and more likely to write in his journal. Idleness and passivity were apparently destructive to his mental health. During the long delay at Camp Chopunnish on the return journey, on the Pacific side of the Rocky Mountains, Lewis wrote (on May 17, 1806) of "that icy barier which seperates me from my friends and Country, from all which makes life esteemable.—patience, patience."17 On June 14, 1806, he wrote, "[W]e have now been detained near five weeks in consequence of the snows; a serious loss of time at this delightfull season for traveling. . . . every body seems anxious to be in motion. . . . "18

In September 1809, it must have been difficult for Governor Lewis, who once had led an expeditionary force 7,689 miles to the Pacific Ocean and back again, now to be reduced to the status of a mere passenger on a vessel making its way slowly down the Mississippi River. Danisi and Jackson write, "For Meriwether Lewis a lazy drift nodding in the warm sun should have been a welcome rest. Actually the tortuous pace prolonged his tension. In a fog of daily boredom and increasing pain Lewis tried to contain his growing sense of urgency, but the slow trip gave him too much time to churn matters over and over."19 David Lavender has said, "Lewis had too much time in which to brood, drink—and twice attempt to take his life."20 Lewis was a naturally restless and impatient man. He may have decided, after a week of frustrating passivity, that he would rather travel overland to Washington, DC, than continue as a mere passenger on other people's vessels. He was a man, as Jefferson put it, "habituated to the hunting life,"21 used to command, and impatient of all restraints.

In short, Lewis may have decided to leave the river because he had a sense that he would be better off, physically and mentally, on land, setting his own pace and directing his own movements.

At New Madrid, Lewis also wrote a letter to William Clark. That letter has been lost. From Clark's characterizations of it after the death of Lewis, it seems to have struck Clark, after the fact, as a kind of suicide note, or a letter of such personal anguish that it essentially corroborated Lewis's suicide. It probably also provided an explanation of the steps needed to complete Lewis's book project, should Lewis perish on the journey to Philadelphia. In other words, the letter to Clark was written in the same mood that inspired Lewis to write his last will and testament at New Madrid. Clark may have lost the letter, along with a number of others he mentioned to his brother Jonathan in his letter of October 28, 1809.22 It may also have been suppressed.23

Sometime before he disembarked at Fort Pickering, at today's Memphis, Tennessee, from the boat that was carrying him down river, Lewis had twice attempted to commit suicide. In an affidavit or deposition recorded two years after Lewis's death, on November 26, 1811, Gilbert Russell, who had been in command of Fort Pickering when Lewis arrived, stated, "[T]he Commanding officer of the Fort on discovering his situation, and learning from the Crew that he had made two attempts to Kill himself, in one of which he had nearly succeeded, resolved at once to take possession of him and his papers, and detain them there untill he recovered, or some friend might arrive in whose hands he could depart in safety."24 Neither Russell nor any other contemporary provided any more precise details of these incidents. No historian has ever ascertained just how Governor Lewis tried to commit suicide during his journey from St. Louis to Fort Pickering. More likely these suicide attempts occurred between New Madrid and Fort Pickering. Russell's statement, "in one of which he had nearly succeeded," is perplexing. It's hard to believe this can refer to a suicide attempt involving pistols. No witness noticed any wounds on Lewis's body before the final night at Grinder's Inn. It is possible that, in a drunken or deranged state, Lewis brandished weapons—guns, his knife, his razor—and announced his intention to kill himself, but was physically subdued until he calmed down, passed out, or fell asleep. It is possible that he attempted to drown himself. For a man of his physical strength, however, that would be easier said than done. Thomas Danisi and John Jackson argue that these "suicide" attempts were responses to a severe bout of ague or malaria. "Unable to bear it any longer," they write, "in a complex state of inescapable pain and intoxication, stepping over the side into the enveloping waters may have seemed the only way to end the torture."25 This is a little melodramatic, but so indeed was Lewis. The phrase, "two attempts to Kill himself," can cover a lot of ground, from the drunken ravings of a self-pitying man to a genuine attempt to take one's own life. Improbable though all this sounds, there is no good reason to doubt Russell's testimony. This is the sort of thing one might exaggerate, but not make up.

At any rate, Lewis arrived at Fort Pickering about two in the afternoon on September 15, with this damaging information hovering about him. Captain Russell immediately realized that the governor was ill and mentally unstable. He placed Lewis under arrest, put the distinguished guest under the care of the surgeon's mate W.C. Smith, and installed Lewis in the captain's own quarters. In his letter to former president Jefferson of January 4, 1810, Russell wrote, "He came here on the 15th September last. . . . His condition rendered it necessary that he should be stoped until he would recover which I done."26

In his November 26, 1811, deposition, Captain Russell wrote, "On the morning of the 15tht of September, the Boat in which he was a passenger landed him at Fort pickering in a state of mental derangement, which appeared to have been produced as much by indisposition as by other causes."27 Russell meant that on September 15, at least, Lewis exhibited signs of mental illness, mental instability, or perhaps delirium principally because he was suffering from a severe physical ailment, probably malaria. Russell wisely placed Lewis under a kind of friendly house arrest, confined him to quarters, restricted Lewis's intake of alcohol, and took care of his distinguished guest until the worst symptoms of the malaria passed and his toxicity (no doubt a combination of alcohol and medicines, including laudanum) diminished. In a letter to Jefferson of January 4, 1810, Captain Russell wrote, "[I]n a short time by proper attention a change was perceptible and in about six days he was perfectly restored in every respect and able to travel."28 Although Russell deplored the subsequent death of Lewis, he rightly told Jefferson, "[A]s it has turned out I shall have the consolation that I discharged those obligations towards him that man is bound to do for his fellows."29

Thomas Danisi and John Jackson have done an important service to Lewis and Clark studies, and particularly our understanding of Lewis, by documenting how seriously he suffered from bouts with malaria in the post-expedition period. Although I believe they wrongly played down Lewis's mental instability and his sense of bitter rage during the weeks (August 18-October 11, 1809) following his receipt of the harsh rebuke from the War Department, Danisi and Jackson have presented the facts of Lewis's sufferings at the hands of malaria so thoroughly that no future Lewis biographer will be able to ignore their findings or regard Lewis's derangement as exclusively psychological in nature. It is certain that Lewis was in significant pain as he descended the Mississippi River in September 1809, and that his physical pain was alone sufficient to reduce his mental clarity.


11. Lewis to an unknown correspondent, July 8, 1809. Quoted in Danisi and Jackson, p. 268.

12. Quoted in Ambrose, Undaunted Courage, p. 470.

13. Bakeless, Partners in Discovery, p. 412.

14. Jackson, Letters, p. 471.

15. Jackson, Letters, p. 470.

16. Quoted in Danisi and Jackson, Meriwether Lewis, p. 279.

17. JLCE, VII:267.

18. JLCE, VIII:24.

19. Danisi and Jackson, Meriwether Lewis, p. 289.

20. Lavender, The Way to the Western Sea p. 384.

21. Jackson, Letters, p. 590.

22. Holmberg, Dear Brother, p. 218. Clark: "I have left all my letters which I receved from defferent persons at your house' or lost them, they are not with my baggage. will you be So good as to examine and enquire for them, and if you get them Send me them to me by John, or John Croghan."

23. Homberg, Dear Brother, p. 221 n: "One wonders if the letter revealed so much of Lewis's troubled mental state that Clark may have even destroyed it to protect his friend."

24. Quoted in Fisher, Suicide or Murder?, p. 82, and Starrs and Gale, The Death of Meriwether Lewis, p. 251.

25. Danisi and Jackson, Meriwether Lewis p. 291.

26. Quoted in Fisher, Suicide or Murder?, pp. 81-82. I have italicized the word condition because the manuscript is nearly illegible.

27. Quoted in Fisher, Suicide or Murder?, p. 82.

28. Quoted in Fisher, Suicide or Murder, p. 82.

29. Quoted in Starrs and Gale, The Death of Meriwether Lewis, p. 244.