Lewis descendants suffer setback in ongoing bid to exhume body

Meriwether Lewis

The National Park Service has reversed a previous decision allowing Meriwether Lewis’ body to be exhumed in an attempt to determining how he died.

The decision, backed by Department of the Interior officials, cites policies prohibiting disturbing graves that are not “threatened by destruction.”

Family members had hoped their decade-long effort to have Lewis’ remains studied was going to come to fruition. They hoped to determine whether he committed suicide, as the official account states, or was murdered, as many historians have come to suspect.

“We’re terribly disappointed,” said Howell Lewis Bowen, an Albemarle County resident and direct descendent. “We’ve worked with the park service through three administrations — Clinton and Bush and now Obama — and we thought we were finally getting somewhere.”

The park service has consistently opposed the proposal. The bid to exhume was approved by a Department of the Interior official in January 2008 during the second term of President George W. Bush, noting that the family is united behind the exhumation and that the examination could shed light on historic issues.

The proposal had been denied during the Clinton and first-term Bush administrations.

A letter from the park service in June 2009 affirmed the service’s intention of cooperating in a study on the effects of exhuming the body. The study was required prior to final approval.

That cooperation ended in April when Department of the Interior officials decided to re-review the exhumation proposal after a reported Congressional query into the plan.

“I have reviewed the prior approval and in consultation with the National Park Service and the office of the solicitor, have determined that no compelling arguments exist that are sufficient to overturn [park service] management policies,” wrote Thomas L. Strickland, assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks. “The information proposed to be gained (determination of cause of death) does not add to the commemoration of Governor Lewis’ accomplishments. While a dispute over the circumstances of his death might be a matter of some public interest, it is not necessarily a sufficient reason to ignore [park service] policy.”

Park service officials declined to say who in Congress contacted the Department of the Interior about the proposal.

Historians are of two opinions regarding Lewis’ death. Testimony at an official inquest at the time had conflicting stories. He is believed by some to have shot himself at least twice in an attempt to commit suicide, once in the back of the head and once in the side.

Other accounts indicated three gunshots, including one to the forehead. Still other accounts say he also cut himself with a razor besides being shot, but all accounts indicate he lived for 12 to 24 hours, remaining conscious for most of that time, before he died.

Others believe the nature of the gunshots and the fact the Lewis was an accomplished marksman indicate that he was murdered. They point fingers at a possible plot run by political enemies of Lewis, who was then serving as governor of the Louisiana Territory under President Thomas Jefferson.

Park officials say exhuming Lewis’ remains could damage other graves in the cemetery. They said there are 109 other graves, including some that have yet to be located.

“The exhumation of any human remains is a serious act and should be performed in circumstances where the benefits clearly outweigh the impacts,” said William Reynolds, of the park service. “It’s not clear that the exhumation would result in a clear understanding of his death and the could result in harm to other graves during the process.”

Bowen said the request is not to restore Lewis’ reputation.

He noted that Lewis is not famous for his demise but for his part in exploring the American continent as part of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

“The results don’t change his place in history and it doesn’t really matter to us whether the committed suicide or not,” Bowen said. “We just want to know what happened. If he committed suicide, that’s fine, let him rest. If he didn’t, if he was murdered, that opens up a whole new area of scholarship. He is an important part of American history and there is technology available that may be able to determine how he died. The only opposition to it seems to come from the National Park Service.”

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