The death of Meriwether Lewis

When Kaitlyn took her life 4-11-13, not only was I devastated by her death and the fact that she took her own life, but I was also bewildered by the fact that this brilliant daughter of mine, who was successful at anything she pursued in her whole short 23 years, was a seemingly well-adjusted and happy person, right in the middle of a successful medical education, could kill herself.

I’ve done much research and have also become fascinated with the fact that there have been many, many great, successful, intelligent people that were well accomplished that have taken their own lives. Here is the story of one.

I love history of all kinds, American history, Native American history, Civil War and World War II history, ancient history and you get the picture. One story that I have seen many documentaries and read about is the story of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and the story of Meriwether Lewis in particular.

Back in 1803 the U.S. Congress had purchased the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon. If you don’t remember, the Louisiana Territory was not the size of what the state of Louisiana is today, it was a huge area of land that stretched from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains. This purchase doubled the size of the U.S. Thomas Jefferson was our president when this purchase was made.

This area was very much unknown to the people of the U.S. and it was very important to President Jefferson for it to be explored.

Meriwether Lewis was at the time, the president’s private secretary. M. Lewis was a captain in the U.S. army. He was well acquainted with Indian cultures and peoples. He had also lived in the wilderness frontier. Both President Jefferson and Captain Lewis were very interested in exploring the newly purchased land and President Jefferson wanted Lewis to command an expedition to the Pacific Ocean. President Jefferson arranged for Lewis to be taught in the areas of geography, natural history, medicine, botany, and astronomy before the expedition. Lewis appointed a co-leader for the expedition an officer, William Clark.

President Jefferson wanted them to take several men, and explore the Missouri river and surrounding area in search of a passage across the U.S. to the ocean for commerce. They were to make observations of latitude and longitude, make copies and notes of everything they saw and experienced. They were to find out all of the names of the Indian nations they encountered and their numbers and all about the nations. They were to record the type of soil and vegetation, types of animals, type of climate, types of birds, reptiles and insects of all the areas they passed through.

President Jefferson trusted Clark very much and once said of him, “Captain Lewis is brave, prudent, habituated to the woods and familiar with Indian manners and character.” He also said of Clark, “No season or circumstance could obstruct his purpose. He possesses a passion for dazzling pursuits, has enterprise, boldness, and discretion, his courage is undaunted and has firmness and perseverance of purpose which nothing but impossibilities could divert form its direction.”

They set out on the expedition the summer of 1804 with their men and all the supplies they would need for the 2 year exploration, which was a great deal of supplies. They also took many items for exchange to the Indians they encountered, medicines for any illnesses and injuries that the men may acquire.

The men had the knowledge and ability to build boats, cross rivers and plains, survive in the mountains, barter for goods and defend themselves. Both Lewis and Clark would also bring instruments for writing everything they would see and do, which is what President Jefferson directed. He wanted to know about this unexplored land.

The expedition was called the Corps of Discovery. I won’t go into all of what they did during this two year ordeal except to say that they discovered much, saw all kinds of lands and Indians, encountered danger, saw new types of animals and plants that had never been seen before. They collected samples of most of what they could to take back with them and drew many pictures. Somehow they were able to ship samples back to the president, (though how they did this in the wilderness, I don’t know).

They made it all the way to the Pacific Ocean and back in 1806. The Northwest Passage that linked the Atlantic with the Pacific Ocean was not found, nor did it exist but the expedition was otherwise a great success and much was discovered about our newly acquired territory. President Jefferson said, “Never did a similar event excite more joy in the U.S.” Lewis was 32 years old at the end of the expedition.

After the expedition Lewis was made governor of the Louisiana Territories. In 1809 Lewis set off for Washington and Philadelphia to straighten out some financial affairs (he had had troubles with creditors and some other troubles). A week after leaving St. Louis he drew up a will. The crew on Lewis’ boat stated that Lewis had been drinking heavily and attempted to kill himself twice. By the time he arrived at the fort he was said to be “mentally deranged.” He was kept under constant surveillance for several days. During many days his condition would improve and he would act normally, then only to decline again.

Lewis finally arrived at an Inn alone, but his two servants not long behind him. He was in his room according to the owner of the Inn walking back and forth talking to himself. He was like this most of the night and the Inn keeper (a woman) was frightened. Later on in the night she heard pistol shots. The woman did not send for help due to being scared for 2 hours. When people arrived they found him alive with a bullet wound to the head and to his side, but yet alive. He begged them to take his rifle and kill him and said, “I am no coward; but I am so strong, so hard to die.” Not only this, before he died he somehow got to his razors and began cutting himself. He died soon thereafter, 3 years after returning from the expedition.

President Jefferson said upon hearing of Clark’s suicide, “Governor Lewis had, from early life, been subject to depressive affections.” He also said there were many people in his family that suffered the same condition. He also said, “During his western expedition, and constant exertion which that required of all the faculties of body and mind, suspended these distressing affections; but after his establishment at St. Louis sedentary occupations, they returned upon him with redoubled vigor, and began seriously to alarm his friends. …….”about 3 o’clock in the night he did the deed which plunged his friends into affliction, and deprived his country of one of her most valued citizens. It lost too to the nation the benefit of receiving from his own hand the narrative of his sufferings and successes, in endeavoring to extend for them the boundaries of science, and to present to their knowledge that fast and fertile country, which their sons are destined to fill with arts, with science, with freedom and happiness.”

So here in a nutshell, a very condensed version (considering the magnitude of his accomplishments in his life) of Lewis Meriwether’s life and his suicide. Here was a man who gave to this nation a valuable gift of discovery due to his courage, intelligence and was a very successful person in all pursuits. But all during his life, he suffered bouts of depression which was somewhat relieved with the great business of the expedition. Once his life slowed down, it grew worse and worse, and since any treatment for depression was either not known or was experienced by him, he deteriorated until he no longer wanted to live. This great man. Not only that, since his death until this day there are many that think his death was a murder. That someone must have done this because anyone as great as he “could have not possibly taken his own life.” Many just could not fathom this. How could it be possible? Well, many times before and since great men and women have taken their own life. No matter what the accomplishments and greatness, there are many that, due to untreated or poorly treated depression or other types of mental illness, took their own lives.

This great man, after all he did in his life with the president, in the Army as a Captain, during the expedition, a leader of men, governor of The Louisiana territory, a few years before his death wrote this in his diary. How could this great man have thought so little of himself after all that he accomplished in his life? It was depression. It was depression that killed this man. This is what he wrote a few years before his death:

“This day I completed my thirty first year, and conceived that I had in all human probability now existed about half the period which I am to remain in this Sublunary world. I reflected that I had as yet done but little, very little indeed, to further the happiness of the human race, or to advance the information of the succeeding generation. I viewed with regret the many hours I have spent in indolence, and how soarly feel the want of that information which those hours would have given me had they been judiciously expended, but since they are past and cannot be recalled, I dash from me the gloomy thought, and resolved in future, to redouble my exertions and at least indeavour to promote those two primary objects of human existence, by giving them the aid of that portion of talents which nature and fortune have bestowed on me; or in future, to live for mankind, as I have heretofore lived for myself.”

He was 35 when he took his own life.

Lewis

Louisiana territory

About gatito2

My name is Rhonda. I'm a registered nurse, for the last 20 years, that has not been able to work since the day I learned of my daughter's death by suicide 4-12-13. (She actually died 4-11-13 and her body was not found until the 12th) Me and my husband have been married for 32 years and he's a wonderful man. We grieve in different ways. He works, I write. This is my journey through this horrible land of losing a child..
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5 Responses to The death of Meriwether Lewis

  1. Pingback: A Labor Day Mental Health Monday | A Way With Words

  2. Perhaps he felt very lonely. I read his article on Wikipedia and saw he had no spouse or children. Loneliness is a common cause of suicide. Also I dare to to me that he might have been comparing himself with men with greater success and achievements in life, and that’s why he thought he did very little for his country.

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  3. gatito2 says:

    Possibly lonely. But I would think anyone that explored the wilderness for the US for 2 years and was very successful at it would feel he did a great deal for his country.

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  4. I am very, very sorry to hear about your daughter. As to Meriwether Lewis, the most recent information that has come out points to a murder and not a suicide in his case. The new revelations are impressive. There is an episode of Brad Meltzer’s show that covers the recent findings. Best wishes as you deal with the pain of your recent loss.

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  5. gatito2 says:

    Thank you. I think I watched that episode.

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