What happens to heroes when the cheers of the crowds grow silent and attention fades? Some stay content with the satisfaction of a job well done. Others chase after new adventures. And some are consumed in the aftermath by a jealous few or by their own demons. Such was the tragic fate of Meriwether Lewis, the famed adventurer turned politician.
Meriwether Lewis, now age 34, returned from his mission of exploration with William Clark and the 50 members of the Corps of Discovery in 1806. The Virginia native became instantly famous and was widely revered for the many discoveries of the expedition. Together, Lewis and Clark had discovered new species of plants and animals, discovered important trade routes, established peaceful contact with dozens of tribes, learned about the topography and geography of the region, and established an American claim on the Pacific Ocean as a border. Congress awarded the two 1,600 acres each in deep appreciation for their service.
Lewis and Clark would maintain a close friendship after the expedition. In January 1809, Clark named his first son after him.
Shortly after his return, Jefferson appointed Lewis as governor of the Louisiana Territory. As the legal borders were defined at the time, what is now the State of Louisiana was known as the District of Orleans and would remain so until statehood in 1812. The remainder of the Louisiana Purchase, which included the modern states of Missouri and Arkansas were all brought together as the Louisiana Territory, becoming the Missouri Territory in 1812. Arkansas was separated from Missouri when the Arkansas Territory was created in 1819.
As it was an entirely new territory stretching across the nation from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains, it was up to Lewis to help establish the territory’s first laws. He also began a program of road construction and worked with Native American tribes in the region to maintain peace with the new settlers arriving in the area and establish trade. He also worked to broker peace agreements between long-feuding tribes, often personally financing expeditions to meet with tribal leaders. A sense of calm began to arrive in the territory as peace, law, and public order grew amidst the exploding population of new settlers crossing the Mississippi River.
The most serious danger he faced was from a source he least suspected, Territorial Secretary Frederick Bates, who was spreading false rumors about Lewis’s administration and spending as well as organizing opposition to him. Bates was part of a powerful political family. His brother Edward was later a Missouri congressman and attorney general under President Abraham Lincoln, while his other brother James was the first territorial delegate for the Arkansas Territory and one of the framers of the first Arkansas state constitution. Bates became determined to discredit Lewis and seize the governorship for himself.
Lewis nevertheless remained popular among the people of the territory. He was noted for his even-handed administration of the law and manner of personally settling disputes among settlers.
Amid the growing discord, Bates was able to level a charge that stung Lewis, accusing him of profiting from a peace mission with a local tribe that involved returning their chief. In response, the War Department under President James Madison withheld the funds that had been promised as reimbursement to Lewis. With a delicate financial situation, Lewis could not afford the delay in payment or the threat to withhold it altogether as he teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. Desperate to prove himself and clear his name, Lewis began a trip to Washington, DC, in September 1809.
All of the pressures ultimately broke Lewis. As he prepared his journey, he completed his will and then suddenly changed his entire route to Washington. Shortly after his journey began, he tried to kill himself, but the effort failed. He continued onward, with observers noting he was agitated and morose. In October, a month into his journey, he stopped at a tavern not far from Nashville. Late in the night, he shot himself. He was found still alive, but he died a few hours later.
Jefferson and Clark, who knew Lewis perhaps as well as many man, knew the personal demons that haunted him and his bouts of deep depression. However, his death did not diminish their admiration for Lewis. Jefferson continued to write for many years afterward of Lewis’s great intellect, bravery, and thirst for adventure.
In spite of the tragic circumstances surrounding his death, Lewis’s reputation grew in the generations that followed. Lewis’s memoirs on his famous expedition were published in 1814, with Jefferson writing a glowing introduction about Lewis, his life, and his character. Dozens of cities and counties across the nation were named for him. Schools, colleges, and even species of animals and plants native to the Pacific Northwest were named in his honor.