From 2003 to 2006 the United States celebrated the Lewis and Clark Expedition with a Bicentennial Commemoration. That event ended in September 2006, but the story of Lewis and Clark is far from over.
Few people realize the contributions Lewis and Clark made in the settlement of our nation after leading the expedition across the North American continent from 1803 to 1806. President Thomas Jefferson appointed Capts. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to positions in government that placed them in leadership roles for our young country as it moved into the 19th century.
Lewis was appointed governor of the vast territory the nation acquired through the Louisiana Purchase, an area spreading north and west of Louisiana. In addition to the administrative duties of governing the territory, Lewis faced continuous political infighting within the factions and special interest groups populating the territory. He also suffered financial hardships when he was refused reimbursement for an assistant’s printing of the first laws in the territory; the cost was almost a year’s salary as governor. The U.S. War Department also questioned some of his expedition expenses.
While traveling to Washington to meet with the president and the War Department, Lewis died from two gunshot wounds at an inn along the Natchez Trace in Tennessee on Oct. 10, 1809.
A debate has raged for two centuries over whether Lewis committed suicide, as was first reported, or whether an assassin killed him, as a Tennessee state commission determined in 1843. Historians who believe Lewis killed himself suggest that fever from malaria or another illness he suffered on the expedition caused him to lose his senses and take his own life, or that the pressures of his new office and financial ruin overcame him. Those who believe Lewis was murdered suspect he was killed by the primary federal territorial agent Gen. James Wilkinson, who was then in charge of the West Tennessee territory. Whatever the cause of Lewis’ death, he was not afforded treatment as a national hero in his final days nor soon after his death.
Meriwether Lewis was hastily buried near present-day Hohenwald, Tenn., without a funeral; his grave marked only by rough fence rails. Only one contemporary friend was recorded to have visited his grave site to mourn him—some 18 months after Lewis’ death. Other than appointing his successor, the federal government did not acknowledge Lewis’ death until 1925 when a group of Tennesseans encouraged President Calvin Coolidge to designate the grave under the control of the National Park Service.
On Oct. 7, 2009, Lewis was finally honored with a national memorial service to commemorate his life and the bicentennial of his death at the Meriwether Lewis grave and monument in Hohenwald, Tenn. The Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation hosted the commemoration through its Tennessee Meriwether Lewis chapter.
Member James Rosenberger is from Verona, Wis.
Lewis and Clark Foundation
The Lewis and Clark Trail Heritage Foundation, headquartered in Great Falls, Mont., was established in 1969 and has 36 local chapters. It partners with the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Forest Service in caring for the Lewis & Clark National Historic Trail. The Foundation also supports scholarship, education, and research on the expedition, and is known as the “Keepers of the Story and Stewards of the Trail.” Additional information can be found at lewisandclark.org.