WASHINGTON - Most historians agree famed explorer Meriwether Lewis killed himself in October 1809, but his descendents are not so sure.
Nearly 200 years after his death, they want to exhume Lewis's body to find if he was instead murdered.
Three years after ending his famous expedition across the United States with William Clark, Lewis died a mysterious death from gunshot wounds to the head and chest. He was the appointed governor of the Louisiana Territory and was traveling to Washington to defend himself from complaints about his public expenditures.
Lewis was staying at an inn along Natchez Trace near Hohenwald, Tenn., when the innkeeper's wife heard two gunshots. Lewis succumbed to his injuries early the next morning and was buried nearby, on what is now federal land under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service.
No witnesses to the shooting came forward, and most historians believe Lewis killed himself, based on reports of his behavior. One member of his traveling party reported that Lewis had been drinking heavily and had made two previous attempts on his own life.
Lewis's great-great-great-great nephew Howell Lewis Bowen of Charlottesville, Va., said Wednesday there is a lot of circumstantial evidence that points to Lewis having been murdered.
He said it would have been "almost impossible for him to have shot himself the way he supposedly did. ... It's the kind of thing you can argue about forever on both sides."
Although the explorer had no children, descendents of his siblings have been trying to get his body exhumed since 1996, after meeting forensic science and law professor James Starrs of George Washington University Law School. They believe that a forensic study of the body could provide evidence to solve the mystery.
Because of its policy stating that people buried in national parks cannot be exhumed, the National Park Service refused all requests for exhumation permits until January 2008, spokesman William Reynolds said. At that point, the case came to the attention of Assistant Secretary of the Interior Lyle Laverty, who waived the policy. Those hoping to exhume Lewis's body are now working with the Park Service to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act, Reynolds said. That involves getting input from local officials and the public.
Retired Air Force Col. Thomas C. McSwain Jr. of Shepherdstown, W.Va., also a great-great-great-great nephew of Lewis, said at a news conference that the goal of the descendents is not to prove a particular theory but to uncover the truth.
"We just want history to be history and not fiction," he said.
Bowen said the family also wants to give Lewis the Christian burial he did not receive at the time of his death, adding that they hope to pay the estimated $25,000 cost of exhumation through private donations.
Hugh E. Berryman, a forensic anthropologist and professor at Middle Tennessee State University, will lead the scientific study of Lewis's remains. Berryman said bone preservation varies, and he will not know the condition of Lewis's bones until they are exhumed.
"We may discover that we cannot conclude anything," he said. "I hope this is not the case."
If an exhumation takes place, Berryman will assemble a team at MTSU to examine possible bone trauma. The direction of bullet holes through the bones will give them more information about whether Lewis's death was homicide or suicide.
"It's almost as though you're conducting an interview with Meriwether Lewis," Berryman said.