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When explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark blazed a trail to the Pacific in 1806, they were hailed as heroes. Three years later, at the age of 35, Lewis was dead. Most historians consider his death a suicide, but some of the explorer's descendants suspect murder. And now they hope to settle the matter.
From member station WVTF, Sandy Hausman reports.
SANDY HAUSMAN: In the peaceful, green hills of central Tennessee, surrounded by old oaks, stands a limestone column 20 feet tall. For some, it's a memorial to Meriwether Lewis, who's buried below. But for others, it's a monument to mystery.
In October 1809, Lewis stopped at an inn near here en route to a meeting with President Thomas Jefferson. The next day, servants found Lewis shot dead, and a companion, James Neely, wrote to Jefferson - his words read in the Ken Burns documentary, "Lewis and Clark."
(Soundbite of documentary, "Lewis and Clark")
Unidentified Man #1: (As character) Sir, it is with extreme pain that I have to inform you of the death of his Excellency Meriwether Lewis, governor of upper Louisiana, who died on the morning of the 11th and, I am sorry to say, by suicide.
HAUSMAN: Jefferson accepted the report of suicide, noting that Lewis was prone to depression. Now, 200 years later, some historians have raised doubts.
Author Kira Gale says the people who erected that monument in Tennessee had to move the body, and they found reason to suspect foul play.
Ms. KIRA GALE (Co-Author, "The Death of Meriwether Lewis: A Historic Crime Scene Investigation"): In 1850, the monument committee made a report to the state of Tennessee, and they said, though it's commonly believed that Meriwether Lewis committed suicide, it seems to be more probable that he died by the hands of an assassin.
HAUSMAN: Lewis had enemies. As governor of the Louisiana Territory, he made decisions about property, mining rights and money, decisions that made some people unhappy. What's more, he was traveling in dangerous territory with a large amount of cash.
Descendants of Meriwether Lewis have also challenged the suicide claim. They've hired a public relations firm, created a Web site, provided DNA and at a news conference today in Washington, they asked the National Park Service to let them dig up his remains.
Howell Lewis Bowen is Meriwether's great-great-great-great-nephew.
Mr. HOWELL LEWIS BOWEN: Our family wants to put an end to the mystery hanging over how Uncle Meriwether died. We deserve an answer, as do all Americans.
HAUSMAN: Even after two centuries, forensic scientists say it might be possible to solve this historic whodunit to determine how Lewis died.
James Starrs is a retired professor of forensic sciences at George Washington University.
Mr. JAMES STARRS (Retired Professor, George Washington University): It's not a question of the number of years; it's a question of the condition of the remains. I did an exhumation of George Washington's brother, and he had been buried in excess of 200 years, and the remains that we located were in perfect condition.
HAUSMAN: If that is also the case for Lewis, and if Starrs found a wound to the back of the skull, for example, historians might be forced to reconsider the suicide claim.
But Patty Choate, president of the Tennessee chapter of the Lewis and Clark Heritage Foundation, questions the need to know. Standing by his grave, she argued no murderer could be brought to justice, and the way he died should not change our feelings for Lewis.
Ms. PATTY CHOATE (President, Tennessee Chapter, Lewis and Clark Heritage Trail Foundation): I think he was a great explorer, probably one of the greatest we've ever had, and nothing's going to change my mind about that one way or the other.
HAUSMAN: The National Park Service has twice refused to let the family dig but is now weighing this latest request to exhume remains so historians, relatives and scientists can try to solve this 200-year-old history mystery.
For NPR News, I'm Sandy Hausman.