“Of courage undaunted, possessing a firmness and perseverance of purpose which nothing but impossibilities could divert from its direction, careful as a father of those committed to his charge, yet steady in the maintenance of order and discipline, intimate with the Indian character, customs, and principles; habituated to the hunting life, guarded by exact observation of the vegetables and animals of his own country against losing time in the description of objects already possessed; honest, disinterested, liberal, of sound understanding, and a fidelity to truth so scrupulous that whatever he should report would be as certain as if seen by ourselves – with all these qualifications as if selected and implanted by nature in one body for this express purpose, I could have no hesitation in confiding the enterprise to him.” — Thomas Jefferson, writing of Meriwether Lewis
Two hundred and five years ago, on the evening of this day, famed young explorer Meriwether Lewis was traveling to Washington DC via the notoriously dangerous Natchez Trace, and made the fateful decision to stop at an old inn called Grinder’s Stand in Tennessee. His journey as well as his life ended there, in the early hours of the next morning.
The circumstances of his death are surrounded with mystery to this day, though most historians believe it was suicide. If Lewis did take his own life, he made a tragic mess of it, shooting himself twice yet surviving, reportedly pleading for help, until the next morning. That a renowned frontier marksman would err so egregiously with a gun at close range, twice in a row, was among many suspicious details that gave rise to the widespread, though generally less accepted, theory that he was murdered.
Despite the questions that persist about his untimely fate, however, there is no lack of consensus about the importance of his work. Likewise, the details of his biography offer abundant documentation of his bold spirit amid the perils, difficulties and setbacks he encountered in his relatively short life. His story is one of history’s endless stream of reminders that men and women of past generations accomplished astounding progress with very few of the comforts we consider necessary today.
Recently I re-visited the site where Lewis met his death. I was traveling alone down the beautiful Natchez Trace Parkway, which runs directly between Jeff’s home town and the north Alabama county where many of my relatives live. It’s an enjoyable journey, one I have always loved and have driven alone many times.
But it was a bit eerie to be the only human at the melancholy site (the tiny visitor’s center is open only on weekends, and I was there on a Thursday). Walking the grounds, it wasn’t hard to understand how the fanciful legends sprang up, hinting that the ghost of Lewis still haunts the area. As with many historic parks, especially the remote ones, the atmosphere is thick with unseen or imagined remnants of the past. It was with some relief that I spotted a woman walking two large dogs; apparently she had pulled over from the parkway for quick break.
Perhaps I had heard it before and only noticed it because of my somber experience at the Lewis memorial, but on this recent trip, numerous relatives cautioned me not to drive the Trace after dark. Apparently it’s still regarded as a dangerous place (at least for a woman traveling alone), if only because of the isolation that constitutes much of its allure. I had noticed on the way down that my cell phone had no connection anywhere en route, and the 72 miles of the Trace I drove featured no populated rest stops or emergency services. I moved my return trip to an earlier hour to get back to Jeff’s family before dark.
After hearing so many caveats, I felt bold and maybe a bit foolish for venturing down the Trace so many times by myself, with never a thought (until now) about how safe it might be. I can’t claim undaunted courage; more like ignorant naïveté. Still, it seemed appropriate to share some small portion of the trepidation that must have attended the travels of our country’s earliest inhabitants, whether indigenous or immigrant. Their courage and perseverance are worth remembrance.
One year ago today: