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Sunday, October 25, 2009

The "Melancholy" of Meriwether Lewis

The study of mental health is, for the most part, a relatively new field of science. For centuries the human race has had little to no understanding of how the mind processes or responds to the various stimuli and experiences of an individual's life. For the most part, the common understanding of mental health throughout history has been to categorize individuals as "lunatics," "insane," or "melancholy." This lack of knowledge regarding the proper diagnosis and treatment of mental health issues often led to tragic tales of individuals locked away in asylums, or of men and women taking their own lives out of desperation.

The early American republic, despite its great advances in government and politics, was still a world of ignorance when it came to medical and mental science. Doctors possessed little to no understanding of the causes or treatments of mental illness. As a result, many early Americans were forced to deal with the various forms of mental illness on their own.

Such was the case for the heroic early American explorer, Meriwether Lewis. As a young man, Lewis was labeled as being, "prone to long bouts of melancholy." In fact, Lewis' good friend, Thomas Jefferson, described him as, "a man of good sense, integrity, bravery and enterprise" but also, "prone at times to sensible depressions of the mind...that seem to persist in the family."

Even during his infamous trek across the American countryside, Lewis seemed troubled by what his subordinates called "deep bouts of melancholy." Though Lewis never mentioned such troubles himself, one can easily see a pattern of highs and lows in his journal. For instance, Lewis would go weeks without writing a single thing down (even though President Jefferson had insisted that he keep a record of every day), while on other occasions he would fill several pages with his ramblings on mundane issues. In addition, William Clark and others noted how Lewis would refuse to get out of bed one day, while being the first to rise and go full throttle on another.

By most standards, it appears that Lewis suffered from Bipolar Disorder. One of the typical features of this disorder is a pattern of extreme highs and extreme lows. The individual will commonly experience a profound period of deep depression, in which they are unable to cope with common daily issues. After a period of time, the individual will experience a complete change in their emotional state, in which the depression is replaced by a state of extreme euphoria. During this period, the individual may feel that they can literally conquer the world. Again, after time, this stage will cycle back to depression.

And while "psycho history" is virtually impossible to document with any degree of certainty, Meriwether Lewis appears to be a textbook case for this disorder. During his "low" times, Lewis was inconsolable, often seeking seclusion from society. During the "high" moments, Lewis was a fireball of energy and ambition. Throughout the trek west, Lewis would commonly attempt to cross several dangerous rapids or stare danger in the face without flinching. At other times, he was virtually impossible to motivate or talk to.

When it came to religion, Lewis' apparent struggles with depression often got the better of him. On a number of occasions, Lewis' friends (including Thomas Jefferson and William Clark) would urge the brave explorer to rely more on the power of God to overcome his "melancholy." Not understanding that Lewis' problems stemmed from a chemical imbalance, those who suggested prayer, fasting, etc. as a cure for Lewis' problems were inadvertently pouring gasoline on a fire. As a result, Lewis was known by those closest to him as agnostic or even profane when it came to his religious beliefs. One can only wonder how Lewis' struggles with depression could have effected his communion with God.

Unfortunately, Lewis's mental illness would eventually get the better of him. On the night of October 11, 1809, while his party stayed the night in the cabin of a Mrs. Grinder, the life of Meriwether Lewis came to an abrupt and tragic end. According to Mrs. Grinder, Lewis appeared to be in a state of profound depression. The depression was severe enough that the men accompanying Lewis that night actually contemplated tying him to the bed for the duration of the night. Mrs. Grinder stated that she witnessed Lewis "pacing around the home...speaking to himself in a violent manner."

Later that evening, while preparing to retire, Mrs. Grinder heard a shot ring out, and Lewis shouting, "O Lord!" Lewis had shot himself in the chest. In the early hours of the morning, Lewis finally succumbed to the self-inflicted wound.

Though the story of Meriwether Lewis ends sadly and abruptly, it serves as a wonderful illustration to historians of the realities of mental illness. By no means are these illnesses exclusively reserved for the modern individual. We would all do well to remember that people of the past, just as they do today, suffered greatly from the afflictions of the mind.


Stephen Ambrose, Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West. New York: Simon & Schuler Inc., 1996.

Frank Bergon, ed., The Journals of Lewis and Clark. New York: Penguin Books, 1989.

Richard Dillon, Meriwether Lewis. New York: Cowart-McCann Inc., 1965.

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