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Murder or suicide? Lewis descendent fights for the truth

By Staff | Jul 10, 2009

Thomas C. McSwain Jr. holds up his great-great-grandfather Meriwether Lewis Anderson’s pocket book. McSwain is a great-great-great-great nephew of Meriwether Lewis, of the Lewis & Clark Expedition that opened the American West.

Shepherdstown’s Thomas C. McSwain Jr. was at the National Press Club in Washington D.C. Wednesday making a case that the federal government should allow the exhumation of his great-great-great-great-uncle Meriwether Lewis.

The leader of the famed Lewis & Clark Expedition suffered a violent death at a wayside inn in Tennessee 200 years ago. McSwain is helping lead the “Solve the Mystery” exhumation campaign along with some 200 other descendants.

“What the family seeks is the truth,” McSwain said last week during an interview with the Chronicle. “Was it suicide or murder?”

The Meriwether Lewis mystery is perhaps one of the nation’s oldest cold cases. In recent weeks, this case has generated coverage from the Sunday Telegraph of London, USA Today, The Tennessean and numerous other national and international media outlets.

The circumstances of Lewis’s death at an inn called Grinder’s Stand on the Natchez Trace have remained in question. He died while en route to Washington D.C. to settle a dispute with the government about expenses associated with the Louisiana Territory, of which he was governor at the time of his death.

Meriwether Lewis

Some historians believe he shot himself, others have pointed to evidence that murder cannot be ruled out. Still another camp has posed the possibility that he was assasinated. There were no eyewitnesses. Lewis’s grave is in Meriwether Lewis Park, a unit of the Natchez Trace Parkway near Hohenwald in Lewis County, Tenn.

“The … family’s desire (is) to find the truth and to further seek approval by the government of the necessary permits to allow the exhumation to take place,” McSwain said of the reason for the 10 a.m. Wednesday news conference held in the Press Club’s Murrow Room.

Since 1996, McSwain and many other descendants of Meriwether Lewis have been seeking federal permission for his remains to be exhumed and scientifically studied to determine, once and for all, whether Meriwether Lewis committed suicide or was murdered. The 200th anniversary of Meriwether Lewis’s death is Oct. 11, 2009.

“We find ourselves in the position … where the whole family is united on this,” McSwain says.

He noted the family is prepared for the possibility that the remains will not point to any new information or that their condition after 200 years will make them very difficult to examine.

“We’re not afraid to seek the truth, wherever it may lead,” McSwain says. “No matter what the outcome, we, the family, believe we ought to go through the process.”

“None of this can happen without permission from the federal government, since Gov. Lewis is buried on land controlled by the National Park Service,” notes the opening page of www.solvethemystery.org. “The government repeatedly has failed to grant that permission. And the truth-seeking campaign of the Lewis family repeatedly has been stalled.”

Dr. Hugh Berryman is principal investigator for the Meriwether Lewis scientific team. He is director of the Forensic Institute for Research and Education and a research professor at Middle Tennessee State University. Kirsten Nathanson, partner at Washington, D.C., law firm Crowell & Moring LLP, also participated in the conference.

McSwain and his wife Jane (Crane) McSwain, a native of Shepherdstown, met at the University of Virginia in the late 1960s. Originally from Staunton, Va., McSwain is a retired United States Air Force colonel, and president of the Locust Hill Graveyard Foundation. Locust Hill, in Ivy, Va., is where many other Lewis family members are buried. The McSwains bought a house near Shepherdstown in 1996 and moved here in 2001.