"HOHENWALD, Tenn.—Meriwether Lewis conquered rivers, mountains and bears leading the Lewis and Clark Expedition across 8,000 miles of wilderness from St. Louis to the Pacific Ocean and back.
Two centuries later, relatives of Mr. Lewis are having a tough time moving his remains down 80 miles of paved Tennessee highway from a national park to a forensic lab.
Independence National Historical Park
Meriwether Lewis by Charles Willson Peale
Mr. Lewis's body rests beneath a 20-foot-high stone monument at milepost 385.9 of the Natchez Trace Parkway. A plaque next to the gravesite states that it was here, in 1809, three years after his epic journey, that his life drew "mysteriously to its close."
Many historians believe Mr. Lewis, who was governor of the Louisiana Territory at the time of his death, committed suicide after wrestling with depression, drug addiction or some other malady. Others have speculated that he was murdered.
Letter from Mr. Lewis's relatives appealing the government's decision to deny the exhumation
The U.S. government's response
About 200 descendants have petitioned the federal government to dig Mr. Lewis up, hoping that modern science will exonerate a historical figure whose legacy they believe was tarnished by his ambiguous death.
"He could very well have become presidential material," asserts Howell Bowen, a 75-year-old nephew four generations removed, who grew up and lives in Mr. Lewis's hometown of Ivy, Va. He calls the suicide hypothesis preposterous.
A recent letter from the U.S. Department of the Interior turning down the exhumation request is just the latest in a string of rejections handed down to the Lewis family—all distant relatives of Mr. Lewis's sister Jane, because the explorer didn't marry or have children.
Digging up notable Americans to solve mysteries isn't without precedent. President Zachary Taylor was exhumed in 1991, nearly 150 years after his death, to determine whether he had been poisoned. He wasn't. A soldier at the Tomb of the Unknowns was disinterred and identified through his DNA in 1998. In June, former chess champion Bobby Fischer was exhumed in Iceland in a paternity suit.
But none were dug up on land controlled by the National Park Service, whose policy prohibits exhumations unless burial sites are "threatened with destruction by park development, operational activities or natural forces."
Mike Esterl/The Wall Street Journal
The National Park Service cabin near the burial site of Meriwether Lewis is undergoing facilities upgrades using federal stimulus funds. Approximately $3.5 million has been allocated to upgrade the burial site as a whole.
Lobbying on behalf of the Lewis family is a team of experts, including James Starrs, a professor of law and forensic sciences at George Washington University, who exhumed gunslinger Jesse James, Albert DeSalvo, also known as the "Boston Strangler," and President George Washington's brother, Samuel.
Cameron Sholly, superintendent of Natchez Trace Parkway, says digging up Mr. Lewis could intrude upon the remains of more than 100 pioneers buried close by. The explorer also lies under a foot and a half of concrete, an additional three feet of crushed gravel and "more fill and concrete under that."
Mr. Sholly says there could still be "lots of questions'' about how Mr. Lewis met his end even after a forensic investigation.
In a letter to the Lewis family last month, the Interior Department said that it is spending more than $3.5 million in federal stimulus funds to improve the site. That includes building a parking lot, restrooms and a small bookstore.
Mr. Lewis headed the first official U.S. expedition to the West Coast after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. He was appointed governor of Louisiana Territory after a hero's return, but by 1809 was wrestling with allegations he had misused government funds.
He set out for Washington, D.C., that autumn by way of Natchez Trace, a pioneer trail, armed with two pistols, a dagger and a tomahawk. On Oct. 10, he stopped at Grinder's Stand, a remote inn 70 miles south of Nashville. The next morning he was found by the innkeeper and servants in his room, dying of bullet wounds to his head and chest.
No one claimed to have witnessed the shooting. But Mr. Lewis's guide reported the 35-year-old governor had killed himself—a version that was accepted in the nation's capital.
Some historians question why an expert marksman like Mr. Lewis needed more than one bullet, and believe he was killed. "He was on a very dangerous frontier trail,'' says John Guice, a retired University of Southern Mississippi history professor who backs the family's exhumation efforts.
Melinda Ward, a waitress at Lay's General Café in Hohenwald, said she heard as a child that Mr. Lewis was shot after flirting with a local married woman.
Mr. Lewis's mother, according to family lore, believed he was murdered by a traveling servant. "She supposedly saw through'' the servant after questioning him at her Virginia homestead, says Mr. Bowen, the nephew.
Family members began pushing for exhumation in 1993 after meeting with Mr. Starrs, who argued that bullet trajectories could yield clues. If a bullet entered the back of Mr. Lewis's skull, for instance, suicide would be unlikely. In 1996, a coroner's jury in Tennessee recommended Mr. Lewis be exhumed to collect evidence. But a federal court ruled in 1998 that the National Park Service had the last word.
Mr. Lewis's descendants cited other exhumations on Park Service land, including one in 1985 at Blackburn Cemetery, in another part of Natchez Trace Parkway. Remains also were dug up in Montana in the 1980s at the Park-administered site of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, where George Custer was killed in 1876.
The family had a breakthrough in 2008, when then-Assistant Interior Secretary Lyle Laverty wrote that given "the unique circumstances of the death of Meriwether Lewis,'' and the "overwhelming support'' of descendants, an exhumation was "appropriate and in the public interest.''
But in April, before preparations for the exhumation were complete, the agency reversed its decision, arguing that department policy couldn't be ignored. Following up last month, Assistant Interior Secretary Thomas Strickland instructed the family, "Please consider this a final decision on this matter.''
More than 40 relatives gathered Sept. 18 for an annual picnic at the family cemetery to discuss the latest setback. Over lemon pies, they pledged to plow ahead with their campaign. "He may have committed suicide," Mr. Bowen says. "I doubt it. If he did, we will pack our bags and accept it.''
- Letter from Mr. Lewis's relatives appealing the government's decision to deny the exhumation
- The U.S. government's response