Bureaucracy Ruins Meriwether Lewis

Bureaucracy Ruins Meriwether Lewis

This is Part 2 of the biography of Meriwether Lewis. I wrote enough about Frederick Bates that I considered putting his name in the title.

However, Bates played a significant role in the development of the American West and therefore will eventually receive his own Founder of the Day.

If you have not read the first article on Meriwether Lewis I suggest you do now.

In this piece, we discuss the mysterious circumstances surrounding Lewis’ death.


As thanks for his efforts with the Corps of Discovery, Meriwether Lewis was awarded a substantial amount of acreage by the Jefferson Administration.

Furthermore, Lewis was chosen as the Governor of Upper Louisiana.

Stationed in St. Louis, Meriwether oversaw a huge tract of land containing most of the Louisiana Purchase’s territory. He was responsible for all facets of government, including mapping roads and giving out licenses.

Unfortunately, Lewis made some enemies (as Governors are want to do). One of these men was Frederick Bates.

Frederick Bates

Frederick Bates was one of Lewis’ secretaries and he envied Meriwether’s position.

To further his own agenda, Bates began writing to Jefferson regarding Lewis’ abilities as a Governor. Unfortunately, Jefferson began to listen.

Truthfully, Meriwether was a capable administrator.

Unfortunately, Lewis funded several missions to treat with the Native Americans out of his own pocket and requested to have this money refunded by the War Department. This was a common practice at the time, however, Bates managed to convince several people in Washington that Lewis was using these reimbursements for personal gain.

His money was denied.

Lewis was forced to liquidate many of his assets (including the land given to him for leading the Corps of Discovery) in order to pay off his creditors.


Meriwether Lewis decided to return to Washington in an effort to explain his situation. He would never arrive in the Capital.

Lewis began sailing down the Mississippi River, intending to take a ship from Louisiana to Washington. However, he disembarked soon after, deciding instead to travel by land.

Meriwether stopped for a night at an inn. He was seen talking to himself, then retired to his rented cabin.

At 1 am gunshots were heard. Meriwether Lewis was dead. He was only 35.

Suicide or Murder?

To this day, the cause of Lewis’ death is debated. It was initially assumed (by Clark and Jefferson, among others) that this was a suicide. Lewis was overwhelmed with his sudden debt and the dissolution of his friendship with Jefferson.

Years later, however, researchers began to theorize that he may have been murdered. After all, he was shot twice, once in the head and once in the stomach. Seems like a pretty sloppy suicide.

Additionally, money he had borrowed for the trip was missing.

There were also several conflicting accounts from people on site and no autopsy was done for almost fifty years.

Today, the general consensus is Meriwether Lewis’ death was a suicide but the truth is something we will simply never know.

What do you think? Was Lewis murdered or did he kill himself? Now that you have the basic facts, let me know what your gut tells you in the comments.

To learn about another Founder who died under mysterious circumstances read our article on Enoch Poor. And for a Founder you tried to kill himself but failed, click on John Rutledge.

To read the most in-depth, thorough study of Lewis’ death, pick up a copy of ‘Uncovering the Truth’ through our Amazon affiliate link below.

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