- Bitterroot: The Life and Death of Meriwether Lewis by Patricia Tyson Stroud
Separating Meriwether Lewis from William Clark is a difficult task. The lives of the two men were intertwined by years of friendship and, of course, the years they spent together in the Corps of Discovery. The two men were later reunited when Lewis was appointed governor of the Louisiana Territory. There, however, their paths ultimately separated. Clark went on to a distinguished but rather mundane existence as an Indian agent and governor of the Missouri Territory. Lewis had his life cut short by his tragic death. Over the years, his reputation has been maligned, and he has been depicted as a dissolute wreck in the months before his death along the Natchez Trace. Whether Lewis's death was a suicide, as has been so often accepted, is challenged within the pages of this book.
In Bitterroot: The Life and Death of Meriwether Lewis, Patricia Tyson Stroud is determined to redeem, or at least to moderate, the reader's understanding of the character of Meriwether Lewis. Stroud clearly believes that depictions of Lewis as a chronic drinker and drug addict at the time of his demise are undocumented and unsatisfying. She contends that in many instances these assertions were the work of contemporaries who had a malicious purpose and an interest in smearing Lewis's image. Over the years, these false accusations have been buttressed by clumsy attempts to psychoanalyze Lewis.
Like any biography, Stroud's work dutifully wends its way through the minutiae of Lewis's life. His lineage, his property holdings, and his close relationship to Thomas Jefferson are all examined. Lewis served as Jefferson's secretary, and Lewis's skills as a naturalist were honed by some of the best scholars available at the American Philosophical Society. But it is a simple task to trace a person's accomplishments. What about Lewis the man? In his early years, Lewis's writings revealed him to be optimistic, enthusiastic, and ambitious. They also showed him to have a short temper and to occasionally act impulsively. But these observations are superficial and lack depth. Lewis's journal entries and letters reveal little about the inner man. Although he was a Virginian, Lewis expressed no views on slavery. Lewis seemed indifferent. His writings also did not portray him as amorous to any degree. Lewis seems impenetrable.
But the real thrust of this work is not just another examination of Lewis's life but rather an examination of his alleged suicide. Prior examiners of the circumstances surrounding the death of Lewis have been, for the most part, understandably circumspect. Even Jefferson betrayed Lewis when speculating on his death years later. And while the accepted explanation remains that Lewis [End Page 674] died by suicide, few can say with certainty that he indeed took his own life. His death remains shrouded in mystery. Stroud explores many of the allegations lodged against Lewis during his fateful trip back to Washington, D.C., and suggests that they are suspect or biased. Although Stroud tries to direct readers away from the theory of suicide, Lewis's untimely death will forever remain unsatisfactorily unsolved.
Overall Stroud has done a fine job of reconstructing the life of Lewis and the circumstances surrounding his death. Her arguments are cogent and plausible. This book is highly recommended for anyone with an interest in the Jeffersonian period or an interest in a fresh approach to the events surrounding the death of one of America's greatest explorers.