There is a strong possibility that Meriwether Lewis was addicted to drugs at the time of his death. Lewis’s biographer Stephen Ambrose noted that Lewis was depressed, drinking heavily, and was taking opium pills and laudanum (a traditional preparation in which opium made from poppies is dissolved in alcohol) to help him sleep and to relieve the symptoms of a flareup of malaria, which would have included fever, chills, headaches, and nausea.
Though the true extent of Lewis’s drug problems cannot be known with certainty, we chose to make drug addiction part of Lewis’s character in To the Ends of the Earth. This is not to imply that Lewis’s drug use was recreational or hedonistic. Opium was one of the only pain-killers available in the early 19th century. Like any good doctors, Lewis and Clark had carried the drug in their medicine kit on the Expedition and administered it to the men and Sacagawea on several occasions to relieve pain. Thomas Jefferson planted white opium poppies at Monticello for medicinal purposes. (Incidentally, opium poppies grew in the historic Monticello garden until the early 1990’s, when they were yanked out on orders of the Drug Enforcement Administration after a drug bust at the University of Virginia.)
When Lewis became ill in St. Louis in 1809, he would naturally have turned to opium, and would not have had any trouble obtaining it. Narcotic addiction was very poorly understood at the time, and did not become a societal problem until many years later. Control of opiates was nonexistent, and in fact did not really take hold until a full century after Lewis’s death. Through much of the 19th century, laudanum was readily available and cheaper than gin or beer.
So what would Lewis have experienced as a user of opium? Apparently the drug’s effects varied considerably from user to user. Certainly he would have achieved temporary relief from the pain and digestive upset of malaria. Probably at first, he would have also experienced some increased energy and serenity of mind as the drug helped to lift his depression, and a few weeks of use would not have impaired Lewis’s personality or judgment.
Depending on the dosage he took and his state of mind, he may have felt euphoric or experienced dreamlike hallucinations or visions (“divine enjoyment,” as Thomas de Quincey wrote in his classic 1822 account, Confessions of an English Opium Eater), but this experience is far from universal with the use of opium. For many users, any relief they get from the drug is followed by nausea and depression as the drug’s effects wear off.
The real danger of opium use comes from the addiction. For once a dependency on laudanum has been formed, the pleasant effects of the drug are replaced by a feeling of nothingness without it and a craving for more of the substance. Higher doses are required to achieve the same relief as before. If the addict decides to quit the habit, he exposes himself to a hellish and painful ordeal that combines the symptoms of drug and alcohol withdrawal. Later users of opiates such as morphine and heroin would recognize the symptoms of going “cold turkey”: agitation, anxiety, flu-like aches and pains, runny eyes and nose, alternately sweating and shivering, and severe digestive upset. Like many other users of the “plant of joy,” Lewis may have found that the cure was worse than the disease.